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September 16, 2004

Digital Culture

Michael Blowhard writes:

Dear Blowhards --

Another week, another perfectly-fine NYTimes Circuits section. David Pogue, who writes about the new Imac, is as helpful, informative, and amusing as ever.

Good as it is, though, I always feel depressed when I leaf through the Circuits section -- because there's never any discussion of the impact of digital technology on culture. The latest in robots or cordless phones, sure. But culture more generally? Nada. What a missed opportunity. How are movies changing? What values are books now selling? In what ways is narrative being affected? What's it like to give a performance in front of a blue screen? Not a word about any of it.

Now that I type this, it occurs to me that I should admit something flatout, and then ask something. The flatout thing first: I take it for granted that the move from analog to digital is the most significant change in the basis of culture since the invention of the printing press. I mean, this is big. In ten or twenty years, it's likely that 95% of the culture we encounter will be digitally-based and digitally-mediated. Even much "live" culture -- art galleries, music concerts -- will be affected, because many instruments, materials, sound systems, and audience expectations will have gone digital.

As a consequence, I can't help believing that -- for the last couple of decades, and for the next who knows how many years -- the most important (and fascinating) story in the arts has been, is, and will be the impact of digital technology on culture. Which is, ahem, why I raise the topic so often around this blog. God knows it can be amusing to compare notes about the latest movie or album -- er, DVD or CD. But aren't such matters just a little dwarfed by such questions as: Where are we going? Where have we been? And how is our experience of culture changing?

But I may be assuming agreement where there is none, so I gotta ask: what's your hunch about the importance of the move from analog to digital where culture's concerned?



posted by Michael at September 16, 2004


"the computer is the LSD of the business world." -marshall mcluhan, 1968

um, i think this was pretty much (breathlessly!) covered in mondo and wired during the 90s. i believe it was called a 'paradigm shift' iirc :D we have now, as i understand it, entered the era of the 'regime change'!

unfacetiously tho, nicholas negroponte diligently documented the transition to our digital selves ("atoms to bits")* in his wired column 'being digital'.

i'd also hasten to add bob lucky's column in the IEEE's spectrum.

and, fwiw, it's a persistent theme of such 'cyberpunk' SF writers as bruce sterling and cory doctorow...

so, not my hunch per se (altho i feel like i did 'grok' digital information's importance fairly readily :) in that it constitutes what economists define as a 'public good' (or 'natural monopoly' such as fireworks and national defense that exhibit 'increasing returns to scale') and given its ubiquity and now prominent role in the means of production, i think the move from analog to digital has the potential to bring about peter drucker's 'age of social transformation' (but remaining just shy of of 'global consciousness' :)

i elaborated on it a bit more over here (near the end :)


*derived from a (future)shockingly prescient marx & engels perhaps? "all that is solid melts into air." -communist manifesto, 1848... wrote an essay once using this to frame how digital technology can transform any intellectual property's value from one of exchange to use, ie. air's use-value is high, but it's exchange-value is low.

Posted by: glory on September 16, 2004 11:16 PM

oh and it also impacts culture in terms of scales that were previously unimaginable. why not index it all? why not archive it all? why not keep track of everybody? (could be sinister!) and like its database ramifications...

"As a cultural form, database represents the world as a list of items and it refuses to order this list. In contrast, a narrative creates a cause-and-effect trajectory of seemingly unordered items (events). Therefore, database and narrative are natural enemies. Competing for the same territory of human culture, each claims an exclusive right to make meaning out of the world."

cheers :D

Posted by: glory on September 16, 2004 11:49 PM

I think there is plenty of theory about the effects of technology on cultural developments, but it's one step removed from the technology itself, so you tend to have to look for it seperately. There's also the problem that the theory-world is usually itself removed from the practice-world. An example that comes to mind: Wearable computers. Theorists will tell you about the merging of flesh and machine, or some other outlandish thing, while someone who actually uses them will probably tell you how practical they are. Especially when these external perspectives are either building or supported by nutty world views (Voluntary Human Extinction, etc), I find myself having to align on the pragmatic side.

Posted by: . on September 17, 2004 2:06 AM

A good example of how the theory-world and the practice-world collide comes with my day job. In theory, we're creating a multimedia history of British film and television whereby anyone can look up pretty much anything and be served with articles, synopses, credits, video clips and other background materials, all delivered instantly via state-of-the-art broadband links.

In practice, though, the need to accommodate copyright holders (which many sites regard as optional but which is essential for an expensive project launched by a respectable institution that's partly government-funded) has led to unavoidable gaps in our coverage. Not only are certain key titles omitted altogether (our account of post-1970s cinema is particularly skimpy), but access to the video material is hugely restricted - it's completely inaccessible outside the UK, and only reachable via schools, colleges and libraries within it.

Obviously, I totally sympathise with the many frustrations that have been expressed in our feedback e-mails - but it's completely out of our hands: in order to offer legal access to this material at all (and we're talking about literally hundreds of films and TV programmes), compromises have to be agreed with people who, not unreasonably, are petrified of piracy, another side-issue of the digital revolution.

Posted by: Michael Brooke on September 17, 2004 5:35 AM

I'll be contrarian and say the analog-to-digital transition isn't remotely as big as the printing press. I'd argue it isn't even as big as the live-to-analog-recording transition of the phonograph/motion picture era. That transition broke performance off the stage and brought it into living rooms. What can digital do?

Digital makes things easier--easier to distribute, easier to duplicate, and in some ways, easier to create. Easier creation is especially true for audio or video pastiche (e.g., sampling in pop music, the Zelig/Forrest Gump effect in film/television). But all this does is convert recorded performance into even more portable forms--instead of being limited to my living room, I can now listen to a Tom Waits album or watch a Kubrick movie in my car, in an airplane, in a park, hiking in wilderness, on a boat in the middle of the ocean. Digital refines the world of recorded performance, but doesn't upend it the way the printing press upended the manual copying world, or the movie camera and microphone upended the stage and concert hall.

Posted by: Raymund on September 17, 2004 9:56 AM

Glory -- Like a zillion other people, you and I are convinced the changeover to digital is huge, and we see many of the implications where culture's concerned. As someone living and working in the arty-culture field, though, I'm often surprised by how few people here really "get" the implications of digitification for their own fields. Many of them seem not to have given it a moment's thought. (It can be a real relief to talk to techies and businesspeople.) Have you run into this too? If my experience isn't unique, I wonder why so many culture-world people are so resolutely blind. Because of the kinds of brains they have? Because many of them haven't had to grapple with the technology and its implications as much as people in many other fields have?

"." -- Something about the introduction of digital seems to heighten the divide between theory and practical people, at least in some ways. (In other ways, it seems to give theory people insane amounts of license to gas on.) For years, I've found that the most interesting people to talk to about cultural changes have been the practical people, which isn't to say there haven't been some good, intellectual books on the topic. But I've gotten a lot more out of talking to behind-the-scenes people in book publishing or photography, or film editors, or people who've made CD-Roms (remember them?) than I have out of talking with traditional cultural types. They "get it" a lot more, and a lot more uninhibitedly, than cultural types do. I wonder if some of the resistance from cultural types comes from the fact that digital tech tends to undermine their positions as priests of culture ...

Raymund -- That is a contrarian stance! It's often hard to know if these things are a change in kind or just a change in quantity. When does something become so much more convenient that it in effect becomes something different? Tivo's an example. I always used to do the Tivo thing, pre-Tivo -- I never watched straight TV, I always recorded shows and watched them on videotape. Skipping commercials, watching at my schedule and not the TV's, etc. That's 9/10ths of what people use Tivos for. But now I've got something like a Tivo (a DVR in the cable box), and it does become dramatically easier than my old method was. So much easier that it seems to change the nature of my relationship with the TV. That's an example of more convenient, more convenient ... and then something flips and changes. Interesting too that pre-Tivo everyone else could have done what I did -- recording, watching on tape. But very few people did. Now that they've got Tivo, everyone is -- and the TV industry's in a panic. Where do we draw the line? At which point do we say a change has occurred?

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on September 17, 2004 10:32 AM

And how do y'all respond to the coverage that's given to digital developments? A lot of it necessarily is given over to personalities and gizmos -- these sections run in order to sell ads, and it's not like Great Thoughts are to be had on a weekly deadline. But still ... Just as a consumer, I'm surprised more editors don't realize that many readers would find the occasional thought-and-reflection piece interesting and provocative. But the mainstream press is very averse to thought-and-reflection, except in an op-ed, arguing-heads kind of way generally. Not for the first time, I marvel over this. Just speaking opportunistically, it seems like such a lost opportunity.

Posted by: Mchael Blowhard on September 17, 2004 11:14 AM

Michael, I agree there's a point where greater quantity becomes qualitatively different. The printing press is an example--all it did was increase the productivity of document generators, after all, but the increase was so large that it enabled such social changes as universal literacy, the Protestant notion of the "priesthood of the believer" (and the justification for a couple of centuries of European wars), universal education... more will come to mind after I hit "post," I'm sure.

What social changes will the analog-to-digital transition bring about? Culture production will shift from a few culture factories (e.g. a movie studio or a Manhattan publisher) to many culture artisans (e.g. computer animators, bloggers, bands distributing music through Culture marketing will shift from "big box stores" to "direct mail." Culture consumption will shift from the big three networks to a hundred channels, streaming video, and TiVo.

Big shifts, yes. (Especially if you're the manager of a culture factory that will soon lose most of its market share). But qualitatively different? People will still be sitting alone or in small groups, watching stories enacted on video or listening to music generated by vibrating speaker diaphragms. It's only when digital will enable the production of culture artifacts that analog can't that I'll think A-to-D is as big a shift as manuscript-to-printing.

Posted by: Raymund on September 17, 2004 1:05 PM

Forgive the long comment, but...

Michael B., I think that it will be a while before the mainstream press truly understands what's going on in a way that they can write coherently about it. It's one thing to notice that technology is creating a revolution. It's another thing entirely to really embrace it, understand it, and use it to the fullest. Just in the last few weeks, my understanding of how to use technology has shifted dramatically. RSS, Gmail, Flickr,, and desktop Wikis have all caused me to rethink my options for collecting and managing information. I've said for years that we're still in the dark ages when it comes to computers. I think we're a long way from living in a mature world of computer and network technology, much less really understanding it. I'm not sure many people really can see where this is going.

For instance, I'm working on a new project. I'm attempting to create a new kind of online history book. I'm developing a wiki where the narrative and encyclopedic entries about characters and events will be developed simultaneously. I'm doing this on my own right now, but will soon open it up for others to contribute, much as Wikipedia has been built by the efforts of a large community. As I develop this project, I realize that there's really no limit to what can be included in or linked to from this wiki. My long-term goal would be to have original source material for every aspect of the period I'm studying available online - a one-stop-shop, if you will, for people interested in this historical event.

Now, I'm not way out there on this. Others (like Michael Brooke, it seems) are working on similar "deep resource" projects. How will this impact culture? We're going to move from the idea that knowledge is something filtered and parsed by individuals to something that is created and managed by the group. I think this core idea has always been true, yet the methods we've had to deliver content - books, radio, television, and so on - have mostly been filtered through the narrow perspective of one person or one organization. It hasn't been practical in the past to develop and disseminate group-think. Once a book is printed, that's it until the next edition, if there is one. Any mistakes remain; ideas aren't reconsidered in the light of new evidence. Moreover, sources remain unavailable to the media consumer in many cases, so independent evaluation of an author's conclusions are impossible.

However, group-reviewed, dynamically updatable resources are available now, the tools to create these are starting to mature, and more of these resources will come online when people start to see how powerful and useful they are. Libraries are starting to digitize content like Shakespeare's quartos and Lewis Carroll's scrapbook. The balance of power in cultural filtering is shifting. It's as if gold went from being something only prospectors could locate in far-off locations to something anyone could create with their own personal alchemy machine.

(I'm also seeing a shift in the way we perceive top-down hierarchies in general. In business, for example, there are some who suggest that the wisdom of the group is more valuable and "right" in many cases than the wisdom of the manager or the CEO.)

Culture will change - back, perhaps - from something you consume to something you participate in. I've already seen a couple of wikis that attempt to facilitate group-created stories. More will follow.

Technologically speaking, we are in the midst of a mini-revolution in which computers move from being separate machines with discreet installations of data and programs (analogs of our personal experience) to "network appliances" connecting us to a world where applications data, and experience reside on the network and are easily shared. Everything will interconnect, and we will develop tools (like RSS readers) to help us manage the torrent of information. Experiences, expertise, and ideas will be shared freely.

Raymond: What can digital do? It can make all this possible. People won't simply consume. Portability and interconnectivity will open humans up to a level of collaboration that was previously impossible. Wikis and social bookmark sites like are the tip of the iceberg. This isn't a subtle shift. Once people start to grasp what's possible in an interconnected world, the sky's the limit. It's no small thing, for instance, to consider digitizing the Library of Congress so that the information contained therein is available instantly and everywhere.

Perhaps I wax rhapsodic. I tend to believe that people will use new tools in the best, most culturally enhancing way possible. It's just as likely, I suppose, that people wont. However, I am optimistic that once the infrastructure and tools are built, creative people will be called upon to use them. Culture will grow, as it always has, in the proper medium and conditions, and I like to imagine that this new medium is fertile indeed.

Posted by: Stuart Maxwell on September 17, 2004 2:11 PM

In a culture already suffering from information overload, not very. Digital offers the computer literate more options and even more information, but the capacity of minds and hearts for beauty, truth and love can't be significantly modified by computer. Witness Hollywood- special effects are ever more amazing, but how many movies are not re-writes of earlier successes, how many truly lovable characters are created, how many truly memorable lines written. Indeed, how many scenes last long enough for any of the former. As in Hollywood, digital prowress seems to result in increasingly fragmented, busy thoughts that often produce more words than truth, more action than beauty, and more selfeshness than love. Tools are tools, digital can carry more information than a book, but quality is produced at analog rates.

Posted by: Dave Juncer on September 18, 2004 11:50 PM

yeah, i think it was bruce sterling or william gibson who noted the fusion-like marriage of black folkways and the electric guitar that spawned the seminal artform of the 20th century. now we have 'mash-ups'? dido singing with eminem? 'blogs' and chatroom transcripts?

i think culture in some ways happens when people are given a means of self-expression and is amplified when it is tried to deny them. so maybe the places to look are where that's happening technology-wise, like where whole populations move up maslow's pyramid of needs or something.

i guess like in mali now or iran maybe. and surely many places else, besides.

like it'll be interesting to see if things like MIT's open course ware or the internet bookmobile ever catch on, particularly in the 'developing' world. i guess when everyone has a camphone and intarweb access we'll see what happens!

clay shirky and paul graham have interesting things to say about technology and culture btw.

the other thing that's happened culturally since the computer is nerd ascension. certainly scientists have been hailed throughout history as our modern prometheuses, but with the advent of digital technology, it seems that sense of veneration has broadened out to those (anyone?) technically inclined and somewhat obsessive. (i am merely curious and never made it beyond that; so i'm also lazy :)

what i'm not so sure about is how susceptible some countries are to nerd proclivities. and if amenable, how nurturing? to overgeneralize the UK for example to me has a fairly high nerd quotient, like it seems the 'english tinkerer' as a trope is held in wide esteem, or is at least endearing. to continue stereotyping, i have heard india described as a nation of nerds. china, i have discovered, is displaying distinct symptoms of nerd tendenitis...

these are just impressions, ones i don't get from say nigeria, yemen or paraguay, to pick at random. so, not to belabor the point i'm coming to (it's not even mine!), mamoru oshii recently sed of japan:

" has a huge influence on Japanese society, and also Japanese novels. I think it's because before, people tended to think that ideology or religion were the things that actually changed people, but it's been proven that that's not the case. I think nowadays, technology has been proven to be the thing that's actually changing people. So in that sense, it's become a theme in Japanese culture."
and that i think explains in a nutshell why, as william gibson sez, "the future is here. it's just not evenly distributed yet." (or was that bruce sterling? :)

Posted by: glory on September 19, 2004 2:29 PM

Glory - Right on. There's nothing inherently creative about digital, and there's also nothing inherently creative about roads, radios, canvas and paints, or musical scales. It's the human interaction with these things where creativity is born, where culture is bred. The new digital technologies are creating a massive infrastructure that will invite creativity to blossom.

Posted by: Stuart Maxwell on September 19, 2004 5:21 PM

fwiw, just came across a couple weblog entries on "the impact of digital technology on culture" - one on a businessweek article about how, "With affluent markets maturing, tech's next 1 billion customers will be Chinese, Indian, Brazilian, Thai... In reaching them, the industry will be deeply transformed," and another on game guides :D

so they're out there, you just gotta know where to look, or at least have the proper rss/xml/rdf feeds for 'em i guess, cheers!

Posted by: glory on September 20, 2004 9:26 PM

Aren't we in some predictable honeymoon phase after the invention of some new technology in which culture and business are entranced by the thing itself, unable to view the new invention as merely a tool to help us do better the things we used to do? Seems to me that's where Hollywood is right now, with projects like the vaguely absurd "Sky Captain" and the rush to make movies out of video games (Tomb Raider, Resident Evil). Ditto, it could be said, for mainstream media coverage like the NY Times' Circuits section that is still having its love affair with microchips and LCD screens and non-keyboard-based input devices and whatever. The more interesting coverage of the digital revolution is already appearing in the paper's other sections, no?

Posted by: Vanessa Del Blowhard on September 23, 2004 2:37 PM

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