Negotiating Modernity: Youth, Technology and Culture

By Tsering Norphel (Stakmo) Leh, Apr 29, 2016
Leh :

Till a few decades back, Ladakh was primarily an agrarian society with a subsistence economy. The introduction and growth of a market economy, especially tourism, modern communication technology, media, and education have accelerated these changes. These have each contributed in shaping a distinct form of modernity in the lives of youth (15-29 years, India) in Ladakh.


There is no doubt; youth constitute one of the important segments of society. Modernity is perhaps best epitomised by mass media, such as television, internet, cinemas, and phones that are shaping lifestyles in Ladakh today. Most advanced technologies of media play a pivotal role in producing and reproducing different images, information and knowledge about the world, which becomes the cognitive life styles of people, specifically the younger generations throughout the world. Modernism explains the sensory world as unique.


The technologies help produce and enhance awareness of ideas in other parts of the world but also create a digital divide between generations. As a result, traditional folk arts that Ladakhis cherished, have now been replaced by digital music at social events; both, as a status symbol and a mark of modernity. The advent of media has also created spaces for new representations of traditions and identities. Cultural expressions such as contemporary music provide glimpse of how cultural identity is engaging with modernity through media technologies. The cultural experience of young people is a hybrid of many different elements because young of the area are not limited by their parents’ experiences and memories they are generally flexible and dynamic. 


I studied Buddhist youth in Leh town and observed that they employ different strategies to balance their aspiration for modern lifestyles with a desire to preserve traditions. They experience a constant struggle to embody a contemporary Ladakhi identity that incorporates socially and economically valued attributes of modernity and tradition.  


Modern period is seen as the development of technologies to extend and store the material of human sensation and communication-to transmit messages through different mediums. These modern technological devices play an important role in providing links with the outside world, and allow people to transcend their everyday lives. Similarly, media has become a pervasive presence in the lives of youth and enables them to access elements of the ‘young upwardly mobile professional individuals (yuppie)’ culture from urban India and the West. Technology thus enables youth to transcend geo-political and social boundaries to explore other cultures. It’s thus not surprising that television channels and glossy magazines are very popular amongst youth in Leh as they allow them to access to modern lifestyles in urban India and the West. The consumption of mass media provides a powerful channel to imagine ‘other’ and ‘future’ lives. 


As Leh town has become more integrated with technological networks, youths are able to access images and information from around the world, which shapes their aspiration for consumerist lifestyles along with awareness of brands and products. Consumer culture is related to what numerous contemporary thinkers refer to as ‘material culture’. Material culture is not only about material objects and things but the values assigned to them, the patterns of cultural consumption of particular objects-laptops as a marker of yuppie culture, functionality, aesthetics and expenses. This further strengthens the idea of ‘Western culture as modern.

Besides technology, young Ladakhis also physically travel to places outside Ladakh to access education and employment opportunities. These students are situated at an interface between Ladakh, India, and global cultures, which they navigate linguistically by switching between Ladakhi, Hindi, and English. These young urban Ladakhis simultaneously experience traditional Ladakhi culture, urban Indian culture and cosmopolitan modern cultures, which often leads to insecurity and identity crisis. 


In most studies on modernity, youth serve as flag-bearers of modernity and this seems to be true in Leh too, where they have evolved bi-cultural identities incorporating local and global values. As youth of Ladakh travel outside the region more frequently, their cross-cultural interactions and adoption of new traits has increased. In this context, education is an important factor, as those with higher education are more likely to challenge existing social values and assert their individual preferences. Thus, these changes amongst youth are strongly influenced by access to opportunities and material constraints. This implies that if other youth were able to access similar educational opportunities without material constraints, they too would exhibit views similar to those of youth from higher socio-economic groups. 


Besides the proliferation of mass media in Leh district due to the technological development how such change made up youth whose cultural life was organized by Buddhist social order is another aspect of this study. My study on Buddhist youth in Leh also points to certain parallels between the Buddhist philosophy and core values of modernity, such as rationality, equality, freedom and compassion which are entrenched deep in their minds. It thus suggests that Buddhist youth in Leh, are able to relate the values of their traditional society and modernity. 


Communication technologies on the other hand have intensified cultural changes in language, food habits, dress and tastes, which are anchored by ideas of modernity. The experiences of these Ladakhi youth offer important insights, learning and values to understand the idea of modernity and how it shapes changes in societies, given that every society, in its own cultural milieu, has something to offer to the project of modernity.