Photo: R.M. Nunes/Shutterstock

WIRED Magazine Co-Founder Kevin Kelly Explores Asia’s Vanishing Cultures in His New Photobook

by Eben Diskin Feb 1, 2023

It’s easy to think that the culture of a particular country or region is unassailable, cemented by time and tradition, and therefore immune to change. Though it may happen slowly, sometimes over many centuries, culture does evolve — often into something completely unrecognizable. Sometimes these changes are a good thing, with technological advancement bringing about much-needed progress. Sometimes, they merely bring about cultural erosion.

This is particularly true across Asia, where globalization has shrunk the once vast geography and threatened thousands of local traditions and customs with extinction, says Kevin Kelly, co-founder of WIRED Magazine and a futurist and self-described “technological optimist” who is the author of the book Vanishing Asia. Kelly spent 40 years traveling the backroads of Asia, learning about its ancient traditions and documenting the continent’s vanishing cultures. After visiting 35 countries and traveling thousands of miles on hundreds of separate trips, he laid out his findings in his photobook with over 9,000 images of Asia’s disappearing cultures. Kelly joined Matador Network’s No Blackout Dates podcast to discuss the photobook, his experiences in Asia, and the effects of technology on culture.

When it comes to the preservation or erosion of culture, one of the biggest determining factors seems to be political and geographic isolation. Kelly cites Myanmar as an example of a country cut off from the rest of the world by a military dictatorship, and which has consequently retained its culture better than more globally connected countries. He also mentions secluded villages in India’s Nagaland mountains, which have similarly managed to cling to their cultural roots.

And one of the biggest technological advancements bringing isolated regions into the 21st century? Motorcycles. Cheap motorcycles, he says, “can carry incredible loads, and you can go up a trail that’s impassable to any other vehicle, so you don’t need to build expensive roads…that [and the cellphone] has suddenly brought the hinterlands into connection with the hub.”

And these changes aren’t always a bad thing. Some rural villages, settled out of pure necessity, were never hospitable places to live, or even very good for agriculture.

“There are places in China,” Kelly says, “that were settled for thousands of years that everybody has left and gone into the cities, and I don’t think those villages will ever be inhabited again. It was really terrible soil and climate, and there was really no reason to be there. Those terraces will collapse and the forests will come back, and in some ways that’s a good thing…I think urbanization will become the norm.”

Rather than being a negative force supplanting ancient tradition with cold technological advancement, Kelly believes urbanization is a positive force. He cites healthcare, economic opportunity, and professional diversity, arguing that cities have the potential to vastly improve the livelihood of those who live in more rural areas.

For the full interview with Kevin Kelly, check out the No Blackout Dates episode wherever you listen to podcasts.

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