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DavidBrin describes his idea of Otherness in a little essay entitled "The New Meme" at the end of his short story collection "Otherness." The idea is picked up again in his book, the TransparentSociety.

Otherness and other forms of Zeitgeist

Brin proposes four forms of Zeitgeist to describe cultures. These new labels are not related to communism or capitalism, Christianity or Islam. They don't relate to economy or faith, they relate to how problems are solved.

Machismo is the most prevalent Zeitgeist in parts of the world. It describes a patriarchal culture, where power is of utmost importance. How many friends you have, how dangerous you are. Women have no rights. Violence is a primary problem solving method, vengeance is a respected conflict resolution strategy.

Paranoia is a Zeitgeist which seems to be disappearing. Brin used it to describe xenophobic Russia. In a paranoid culture, foreigners are foes, scheming to undermine your world, just as communism tried to spread world revolution. Suppression and suspicion prevail.

The East is historically a very successful Zeitgeist. It enforces uniformity, respect for elders, discipline and hard work. There is civility and friendliness, respect and thoughtfulness. But on the other hand, there is barely any change. No development. Things are done the way they have always been done, no questions asked.

Otherness is where Brin places all his hopes. It is the Zeitgeist of the neo-Western world. The neo-West does not encompass all the inhabitants of of North America, Europe, Australia and Japan, but it a large part of that population. Otherness is the curiosity for other things, new things, the encouragement of criticism, humour, the embracing of change, suspicion of authority. Problems are solved by discussion, deliberation, experimentation, solutions are tested and withdrawn, new policies emerge.

Hope for the Future

DavidBrin describes many things KarlPopper has already described in his seminal book, the OpenSociety and its enemies: As people embrace criticism, science flourishes, governments are peacefully transformed, people can speak their mind. The world might be loud, confusing, a scary place perhaps, bad news keeps coming in, we feel remorse for PollutionOfTheEnvironment, but in the end, there has never been a more peaceful period, a richer people, a more sharing culture, a more respecting world than the current neo-West.

KarlPopper asks the reader to fight a cynic interpretation of history in his book, All Life is Problem Solving, ISBN 0415174864 (alternate, search). And DavidBrin does just that in his book The TransparentSociety, where he defends openness and transparency against the masks and secrets of modern day cypherpunk ideas. Because we are not living in a tyranny. Because hiding everything will reduce accountability. And that, both KarlPopper and DavidBrin agree, allows us to talk freely, criticise one another, prevent the greatest blunders, and help save the world.

See CulturalDimensions.

http://members.tripod.com/doggo/doggnewmeme.html presents "a quick schematic of Brin's essay" that you may find interesting.

As a student of Asian history, I claim that this notion of "The East" is completely and utterly a European myth. One would be hard-pressed to argue that Asia and Europe have ever differed significantly with respect to patriarchy and machismo, xenophobia and suspicion, civility and respect, or progress and change.

I read some of the texts and their hypotheses are certainly interesting. Mostly they use some creative methodology to point out the obvious: that not all cultures are the same. But this simple cultural fact hardly lends support to vast sociological claims like "There is civility and friendliness" or "There is barely any change. No development..." This last is simply unsupportable, and displays amazing ignorance of relevant comparative history.

As an example, widespread Asian religions/philosophies such as Buddhism and Confucianism have undergone far more dramatic changes than dominant Western religions such as Catholic Christianity and Judaism, which are relatively static by comparison.

Some (though not all) Asians cultures include strong veneration of the past, which creates an illusion of immobility. On closer examination you'll see that each period reinterprets its past, and simply uses history to support its current ideals. The actual ideals are often quite new, but such cultures demand revisionist histories to create the appearance of an unbroken tradition.

Studies have been done on measuring CulturalDimensions, and there certainly are measurable differences. Search google for [Geert Hofstede] for the full juice, and check out the table in the appendix in [this report]

I looked at the report suggested above and I quote the relevant data here. From the Appendix 1, I took the list of countries, sorted by long-term orientation index (LTO):

  1. China
  2. Hong Kong
  3. Taiwan
  4. Japan
  5. South Korea
  6. Brazil
  7. India
  8. Thailand
  9. Singapore
  10. Netherlands
  11. Bangladesh
  12. Sweden
  13. Poland
  14. Germany FR
  15. Australia
  16. New Zealand
  17. USA
  18. Great Britain
  19. Zimbabwe
  20. Canada
  21. Philippines
  22. Nigeria
  23. Pakistan

Indexes from: Hofstede, Geert, Cultures and Organizations: Software of the Mind: Intercultural Cooperation and its Importance for Survival, McGraw? Hill, New York, 1991, ISBN 0-07-029307-4 (alternate, search).

The countries that I would expect at the top of the list according to Brin's theory are indeed there. Let us look at the exceptions only, then: Pakistan ranks very low, while Brazil ranks very high. Compare this to 4 out of 4 Asian countries at the Top 5 of the list. Only 1 out of 3 South Asian countries make the Top 10 (India). 3 out of 4 South East Asian make the Top 10 (Taiwan, Thailand, Singapore). Considering the Asian countries only -- the countries under Chinese cultural influence -- the table seems to support Brin's view.

Note that Brin uses the four descriptions to make the differences stronger. He saw a trend and picked a name. Nowhere does he claim that this actually describes the cultures and countries, not does he claim this to be an accurate description of historical facts. In fact, Brin describes the present situation (around the year 2000). It is not a scientific statement either, even though we are citing statistics to "prove" or "disprove" the choice of naming for one of the four terms. To me, it is just an idea with high expressive power: Categories to lump facts together, for specific purposes. In this particular case, the purpose is to describe how cultures react to foreign ideas. I know that Japan, for example, underwent major changes during the Meji era, building a powerful modern army (including a fleet that was able to stop Russian expansion into the area), and adopting the Prussian/German school system, just to name two examples. These examples do not invalidate the general notion though (correct, the statement is "immunized" as KarlPopper would say -- non-disprovable, and therefore not scientific). Criticism of your superiors continues to be much more difficult in Japan than in Switzerland, for example. This is based on personal correspondence with exactly one person, so take with a grain of salt. -- AlexSchroeder


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