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How Tech Redefined the Experience of Culture

Video games and social media require human users to enter into a procedural loop known as flow

Photo by Julius Drost on Unsplash

BBeginning in the late 1960s, a new group of technologists (including Douglas Engelbart’s team at Stanford, Alan Kay and others at Xerox PARC, and later Steve Jobs and his colleagues at Apple) set about to redefine the computer as a medium for representation and communication. By developing the personal computer, the graphic user interface, 3D computer graphics, local- and wide-area networking, they helped to provide millions of users with a digital platform for reading, writing, and eventually aural and visual communication.

These technologists had a modernist conception of what a medium is and of their capacity to engineer culture, but in fact they were designing the platform for media culture at the end of modernism. The digital media they helped create now support an enormous, heterogeneous world of media forms, makers, and users, a world with as many centers as there are communities, and more communities than anyone can know.

If the printed book and the library were suited to define hierarchy and cultural order, networked digital media are suited to foster multiplicity and competing orders. The internet and the World Wide Web provide an ideal environment for the various elements of traditional high culture and popular culture to coalesce into their own media communities. The fragments of modernism turn up in many of these communities: among film critics and enthusiasts, makers and critics of video games, industrial designers of computer interfaces, tablets and smartphones, graphic designers for print and digital media, and so on.

For some digital communities, then, it makes good sense to keep close to the modernist heritage. The stand-alone computer of the 1940s was a modernist machine, the physical embodiment of the finite-state logic of Alan Turing. But today, when each computer is part of a dynamic network of devices, applications, and users that constitute the digital plenitude, the grounding assumptions of modernism no longer suffice.

The loss of hierarchy in cultural knowledge clears the way for greater participation in our media culture. Traditional universities coexist with online communities that share knowledge without any formal credentials. Gallery art coexists with online art of every style. In fact, style itself, which was the imperative of modern art, is now completely a matter of personal preference. Play becomes a powerful metaphor for cultural participation, and playing in the plenitude means assuming there is no imperative, nothing that has to be done based on a controlling historical understanding. Everyone is invited to play in whatever corner of the plenitude she cares to, and all kinds of making and playing can be characterized as art or creativity.

Even if the newest digital media favor flow rather than catharsis, neither aesthetic seems likely to eliminate the other.

While there are no universals in media culture today, there are many qualities worth exploring, because they are shared by many communities or because they are compelling remediations of the age of modernism. One of these is procedurality. Popular modernist writers today claim that this is the essence of the computer: its procedures (algorithms, programs) allow it to interact with other machines and human users in increasingly complex and creative ways. Video games and social media are procedural: they require human users to enter into a procedural loop that both constrains and empowers them. Procedurality is itself the latest version of mechanization, which has been a key condition of society and the economy since the Industrial Revolution. While modernism was vitally concerned with the cultural meaning of mechanical and power technologies in the 20th century, today’s media culture is exploring how far procedurality and simulation can penetrate into and redefine creative expression as well as our politics and everyday lives.

Procedural media often favor a particular state of mind in their users. Video games and other contemporary cultural experiences aim through repetition to induce in their audience a state of engagement that the psychologist Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi has named “flow.” The player of a video game, a Facebook user, or a YouTube viewer falls easily into a state in which she simply wants the experience to continue at a more or less constant rhythm.

This flow state in digital media contrasts with another familiar state of mind often called catharsis. Popular films, novels, and a great deal of traditional music aim to evoke catharsis, an emotional release through identification with a main character. And even if the newest digital media favor flow rather than catharsis, neither aesthetic seems likely to eliminate the other. Neither is dominant in our time. Millions prefer to spend their leisure time watching films, whether in a theater or streamed to their computer; millions play video games; and of course many millions do both. What is new is that the flow aesthetic has an equal status with catharsis. Video games are now as legitimate a cultural experience as novels, though largely for different communities.

Remix is another facet of our current media culture that thrives in and through digital technology. DJs, dance remixes, and hip-hop (all now supported by digital sampling and mixing machines) are among the most influential musical trends of recent decades. And the internet’s vast (commercially available and pirated) resources of photographs, films, television shows, and printed texts invite professional and amateur players to appropriate, edit, and combine samples into new versions.

Remix is a repudiation of the modernist and earlier romantic notions of originality. Remixes on YouTube and throughout the web may be clever or trivial, compelling or mind-numbing; they may be original and derivative at the same time. Huge remix communities today reject the absolute values of authorship and intellectual property that seemed unquestionable in the heyday of the printed book. Yet even some of the pioneers of the current digital media technology protest against the “remix ethic” of borrowing and revising, because interfaces and applications can be revised and remixed as well as songs and films.

To a time traveler from 1960, the present would look like a chaos of media forms all competing for our attention, far too many to absorb and appreciate. The view from the present is that the earlier media culture is parochial, limited, and hierarchical, especially because of the absence of participatory media. In 1960, a relatively small group of producers controlled the content for a huge audience of consumers. But the relative cultural unity of that period also meant the categorization and marginalization of women and minorities in the media to an even greater extent than today.

Although no one can travel back in time, there are many today who seem to be stuck in a particular moment in the past. I mean contemporary critics who evaluate our current media culture from a perspective that belongs to the mid-20th century. They assume that we should still have a unified media culture for art and entertainment and an agreed set of standards of evaluation. Whether they realize it or not, they are popular modernists who want to reinstitute a hierarchy of forms enlarged to include their own popular favorites, such as film or rock music, raised to the level of art. What they fail to acknowledge is that the same forces that freed us from a rigid definition of “high culture” have brought us to a plenitude in which there can be no universally shared hierarchy. It should be no surprise that the shift from that earlier cultural condition to the current plenitude entails both loss and gain.

Adapted from The Digital Plenitude: The Decline of Elite Culture and the Rise of New Media by Jay David Bolter (The MIT Press, 2019).

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