Culture and the Computer Metaphor

As humans, we live inside something we call “culture.” Culture tells us how we can interact with each other, giving the broadest outlines of interaction. Culture includes a lot of what we experience in the world. It includes religion(s), languages, careers, and all the tools we use.

The Matrix
The Matrix was cool because it blurred the line between the mind and computers.
And because it had really good special effects.

Sometimes, when we talk about how the human mind works, we use computers as a metaphor. Our sight and hearing are described as input devices. Our hands can do things: this is output. And we can interact with others — this is line networking, or even going on the Internet.

But we can take this metaphor of the mind as a computer even further. We can say that if the mind is a computer, then our first culture is its operating system.

What’s an Operating System?

Sand dunes
Silicon, used for computer chips, is often found as sand (SiO2).

Computers are, when you boil it down, specially made piles of silicon, arranged in ways that process information stored in “bits.” An operating system is the basic program that allows all other applications (also programs) to run on the system.

When we think of operating systems, we think of them as Windows, or Linux, or the various Apple products. We think of the part that we deal with, the U.I. (User Interface) as the operating system, but that’s not the critical part.

At a much deeper level, the important parts are the ones that allow us to send commands like “read the magnetic charge on a specific place in the hard drive” or “put a little dot of light on that computer monitor in place x.” Whether it’s a command line with a keyboard, or windows with a mouse, all the really important work is happening way below the surface.

In other words, a computer’s OS stands on the boundary of the computer’s virtual world and the physical world. Maybe our user interface looks this way or that, but the goal is to make the computer able to function.

Why Is an Operating System a Good Metaphor for Culture?

There are three traits of operating systems that, in metaphor, represent culture for humans.

  • Culture tells us how to interact with the environment.

Just like the OS tells the computer how to manage things in its environment, culture informs us how to interact with our own environments. Culture tells us how to make tools, and how to use them. Culture, through language and ritual actions, tells us how to interact with other people. Culture provides us with the basics of function and interaction.

  • Operating Systems are relatively opaque.
Schipset Sul South Bridge
Without an operating system, a computer is just a chunk of…well, whatever it is.

When we learn how to use computers, we learn how to function within an operating system. We learn Windows, but we don’t write our own code — we simply install it. And in a similar way, when we learn culture, it’s installed more or less whole. It’s not something we build from scratch.

  • We only get one culture as our first culture.

Like a computer’s operating system, the first culture we learn is the one we use to manage our own minds. That’s why the first culture we learn is through a process called “enculturation,” while further cultures we study are “acculturation.”

Acculturation is like installing a shell of another operating system. If we study really hard, maybe we can become functional in additional cultures, but (so it seems) that first one always informs our basic processes.

These three traits of culture are what make it especially hard to study. Like computer OS’s, it takes specialized training to learn how to work directly with one.

Most people who use computers aren’t interested in the operating system. Instead, we install applications that let us get about our work.

In the same way, most of the time we’re not interested in working on our culture. Instead, we use our culture to function, and go on to learn things within it — additional skills like driving, or accounting, or public speaking. Skill sets are like applications, run within the OS so that we can perform necessary actions.


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