In the mid-1950s, a radio DJ by the name of Jean Shepard began talking about the “Night People”, a separate group of society that did not live for the standard daylight schedules, but made their own culture in the after-hours haunts of the world. From a great piece about Shepard on The Awl, comes this description of the difference:
Here’s how Shepherd would later describe the difference between Night and Day People—more than a half-century later, you’ll still recognize the types. The Day Person “believes in the world of the office; he really believes in file cabinets. … The time from 8 a.m. to 6 in the evening is the time he’s alive.” Whereas, for the night person, the world began the minute he stepped out off the office. The two types, in Shepherd’s view, were always battling, without even being aware of it. “So you’re sitting in this sales meeting and here is this guy sitting over here and he’s got this light of ecclesiastical fervor; he believes in Operation Dynamo that you’re about to foist on the public.”
While such a sub-cultural type certainly pre-existed the 1950s, during that epoch of American Cultural history the mainstream culture suddenly became aware that there was something other than a mainstream, and that they themselves were the mainstream. The markers of this realization are well-known–they stretch from William Burroughs’ Junkie, to Hollywood productions like Rebel Without a Cause. The subject of these investigations were not just abberations or cultic outliers. In fact, it was in 1950 that David Reisman first used the term “subculture” to refer to these people who “which actively sought a minority style … and interpreted it in accordance with subversive values”. The subculture was now inimically linked to the mainstream as a fixture of cultural expression, even as it actively opposed it.
Subcultures are typically identified by their style–a set of symbolic indicators in their fashion, dress, or mannerisms that allow the participants to identify themselves to others, and simultaneously allow themselves to be identified. The fans of two similar types of electronic music might be identified by their style of jacket or shoes–these small differences might be invisible to someone not aware of the two different sub-genres, and yet to those who consider themselves one or the other, the shoes not worn would make all the difference. These semiotics are diverse and intricate, and can be analyzed to a fine degree. Perhaps the subcultural languages of drug users in one of the most interesting–under the threat of incarceration by the State, and with the tendrils of addiction as motivation and also debilitating to reason, the smallest verbal ticks and body postures can be signals of whether another person on the street corner is friend or foe.
But a class of subcultures that will no doubt bear a different sort of indicator, are those subcultures that form across time-space. We are very aware of regionalisms, nationalisms, and other cultures bisected by geographic boundary as local as neighborhood and side of the street. But now these subcultures are forming across the borders of time, and the notion of a temporalism is a subculture we are not nearly as prepared to recognize. But we might, very soon.
Shephard’s “Night People” were the precursor. Those who spend time in bars, all-night diners and coffee shops, who spend most of their time on dark and empty streets. Whether forced by circumstance or Circadian rhythm, those who inhabit the night hours of the world interact with a different world and population than those who live the standard 9-to-5. In contemporary times, technology is heightening these sorts of alternate dimensions formed by the hard-reset of humans’ need to spend a third of their day resting. The ease of jet travel has given us the concept of jet lag, as our natural rhythms catch up with the daylight cycle of the new place we inhabit. The internet, an alternate information dimension not unlike the 24-hour radio broadcasting schedule, allows people to meet and interact socially regardless of the time of day. Cory Doctorow’s novel Eastern Standard Tribe, introduces the idea of internet users aligning in de-spatialized tribes according to the timezone in which they were typically awake, regardless of location. Anyone who has stayed up late or woken early in order to take part in a conference call with another part of the world certainly knows the feeling.
These variations of time-zone are their own form of localization in an information dimension that prizes synchronicity over geographic happenstance. But as this dimension evolves, we will see more time-based subcultures emerge. For instance, the relative passage of time might create recognizable differences, and differentiated sets along the continuum of relativity might appear. Cognitive enhancements, or the accelerations that significant advances in processing speed might bring, could end up differentiating between two separate cultures in the midst of one society. We might speak the same language, but if you have already had a full conversation in the time it takes for me load the app you are using for that conversation, we might as well be conversing in different dialects. A quick-time subculture could find themselves cut off from the processor-deprived slow-timers, as the rising curve of Moore’s law becomes a wall. Another example is a potential separation between those who tend to process information according to a short-temporal period of current events, live feeds, and up-to-the-minute updates, versus those who take a long-period atemporality, trusting the wider lens of history over the narrow lens of news. As the population reached 9 billion by 2050, keeping up on current events might require a complete disavowal of history, and vice versa. Before we discount such a possibility as ridiculous, think about attempting to explain the difference between shoegaze and thrash metal to someone living in the time of Buddy Holly. Differences that were once completely inconceivable are now commonplace, because the shifting terrain of that difference has allowed it to become recognizable, like a mountain ridge pushing up from the bottom of the sea to break the surface.
The rationale for forming subcultures is not simply to “be different”. The commodity markets of capitalism have made being truly different as difficult as space travel, and being merely different as easy as online shopping. Subcultures still contain an urge to rebellion, but it is a rebellion towards something, as opposed to away from the mainstream. How else would one choose a subculture, if one is not drawn by an ease of locality and affinity towards something one sees, which appeals? A thousand styles of music, headwear, and reading material may bloom, but it is a stickiness of an evolutionary niche that allows practitioners to collect in a subculture, and to give it the uniformity of a genre. As technology continues to change the way we think, and reorganize our society both spatially and temporally, it is inevitable that these lines of stratification will begin to grow their own subcultures as well. We are pushed by time, but we are also attracted towards it.