Arts and Culture

In a fractured world, we need culture to survive and thrive

"As we make our way toward an unknown future, culture has a crucial role to play in our survival," writes cellist Yo-Yo Ma

"As we make our way toward an unknown future, culture has a crucial role to play in our survival," writes cellist Yo-Yo Ma Image: REUTERS/Toru Hanai

Yo-Yo Ma
Cellist, Sound Postings LLC
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My job as a musician is to seed hope: when I consider the future, I see tremendous possibility. But I’m also concerned. The good news is that human knowledge is advancing at a faster rate than ever before. The bad news is that, given the pace of change, we might not always proceed in ways that are best for people. If our progress outpaces our values, we risk hurtling forward without a map and finding ourselves at a precipice where we have made unprecedented strides, but have lost sight of our humanity.

I began thinking about this challenge when I read Klaus Schwab’s 2016 book, The Fourth Industrial Revolution. He describes an era in which technological advancements like artificial intelligence and robotics are both significantly improving people’s lives and creating massive disruption. And this is happening at a time when our world is increasingly fractured and ill-equipped to absorb such rapid change – when the ties that bind us together, economically and socially, are fraying.

I’ve played the cello for more than five decades, and over the years, I’ve discovered that humans invented culture for a reason: it gives us an evolutionary advantage. As we make our way toward an unknown future, culture has a crucial role to play in our survival.

As humans, we naturally need food, water and shelter to survive. But equally important is understanding. To survive, we need to understand our environment, each other and ourselves. We invented culture to meet this need: we found a short-hand to take the essential values and truths a society holds, and collapse them into coded narrative, sound, images and symbols that mean something to all of us.

From the golden rule to the iconic Ode to Joy from Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, a symbol of freedom and unity around the world, to E=MC2, the radical formula that changed how we understand the universe, these words, sounds, and codes help us speak a common language and agree on shared values. They give us a foundation for trust.

My understanding of culture’s reach developed over many years, beginning in 1962 as a seven-year-old immigrant from Paris to New York. Everything was, quite literally, foreign. Wonder Bread replaced baguettes. There was baseball and hot dogs. Even the sky was different, diminished by the height of skyscrapers. It was at once a confusing and exhilarating experience, and it took decades, and the generosity of many people, before I could feel at home. It was a journey I made with the help of music.

Culture turns “the other” into “us,” says Yo-Yo Ma
Culture turns “the other” into “us,” says Yo-Yo Ma

Music is the prism through which I found the code to strangers’ inner lives and learned to trust them as neighbours. Bluegrass took me to the American heartland, Piazzolla’s tangos to Argentina, Shostakovich into the Stalinist era, a blind Namibian musician into the world of pre-agricultural hunter gatherers, a long song singer into the heart of Mongolia, and the poetic aspirations of two young musicians in Amman, Jordan, led me to Silkroad, a project that changed how I think about tradition, music and boundaries. Today, I feel at home in the world.

This is culture’s potential. The truth is that politics, whose currency is power, and economics, whose currency is money, only get us so far. We also need culture, whose currency is trust. And the complexity of this moment demands that we approach our global challenges with a more comprehensive lens, in which politics, economics and culture work in concert.

It is encouraging to see artists more and more present in places like Davos, not merely as entertainment, but as meaningful contributors to the conversation. But this is just the beginning. It’s not enough to outsource culture to the artists and musicians, and receive it as a passive audience. We must engage the full spectrum of human understanding, and every one of us needs to participate in strengthening our cultural resources, all the time — to generate trust and understanding by pursuing basic scientific research, playing music together, or simply looking at the stars. We need to put culture first, because it is the only way to make sure that the decisions we make as a global society are actually good for humanity.

It is no exaggeration to say that our survival depends on it. My grandson will inherit a world filled with problems that are more complex than we could have imagined. And yet he will also have the scientific knowledge, the entrepreneurial spirit and the technological advances to meet them. The question is, how will his generation not only find a way to cope, but find a way to hope? How will they seek happiness and fulfilment? Just as it always has, culture gives us purpose and meaning – it grounds and stabilizes us through change. It also teaches us to imagine life beyond ourselves while enabling each of us to be part of a larger story. Most of all, it allows us to live our lives with love instead of fear, with understanding instead of division, with empathy instead of apathy.

Culture turns “the other” into “us.” The shared understanding that culture generates can, in these divisive times, bind us together as one world, and guide us to political and economic decisions that benefit the entire species. And this has never been more important. Technology has given us the power to determine the future of our society, our planet. Now, we must use this power for good, to build a united global community that is connected and invested in each other, and that works for the progress of all humanity. Let us choose the next step of our evolution together.

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Arts and CultureFourth Industrial Revolution
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