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

Yo-Yo Ma
World Economic Forum

By Yo-Yo Ma

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.

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.

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