Tethered in technoculture
A moment of silence, please, for the imminent death of the old Mainstream Mass Culture.
Born sometime between the invention of baseball and the 1904 World’s Fair, it began experiencing violent headaches and seizures shortly after Sept. 11, 2001, then lapsed into a coma during the launch of MySpace.com.
There will be no survivors, except on select reruns of “Lost.” In lieu of flowers, friends may send checks to the “Bring Back Dan Rather and Tom Brokaw Emergency Fund.”
There -- that wasn’t so painful, was it? After all, it’s been common knowledge, or at least conventional wisdom, that traditional mainstream mass culture has been clinging to life for decades, like one of Anne Rice’s mottled vampires. But 2005 is when a chronic condition may have turned terminal.
This was the year in which Hollywood, despite surging DVD and overseas sales, spent the summer brooding over its blockbuster shortage, and panic swept the newspaper biz as circulation at some large dailies went into free fall. Consumers, on the other hand, couldn’t have been more blissed out as they sampled an explosion of information outlets and entertainment options: cutting-edge music they could download off websites into their iPods and take with them to the beach or the mall; customized newcasts delivered straight to their Palm Pilots; TiVo-edited, commercial-free programs plucked from a zillion cable channels.
The old mass culture suddenly looked pokey and quaint. By contrast, the emerging 21st century mass technoculture of podcasting, video blogging, the Google Zeitgeist list and “social networking software” that links people on the basis of shared interest in, say, Puerto Rican reggaeton bands seems democratic, consumer-driven, user-friendly, enlightened, opinionated, streamlined and sexy. Or so nearly everyone believes at the moment.
But after bidding adieu to old-fangled mass culture, the question arises: This roiling, recombinant technoculture dangles the promise of change, creativity and shared public life -- but in the end, will it just come down to always-on, one-click shopping?
A decade into the Age of the Graphic Browser Interface, Americans seldom are focused on the same event or activity at the same moment. But they’re congregating in enormous numbers on websites and other high-tech portals that function much like the institutions they’ve nudged aside. The culture’s being boutiqued or, as the expression goes, “unbundled.” Broadcast has given way to a proliferation of narrowcasts.
Or perhaps it’s more accurate to say that Americans now have an unassuageable appetite for creating and consuming entertainment and interacting with media of all kinds, mass and otherwise. They’re schlepping the kids off to “The Narnia Chronicles” and cruising the Web for old high school flames. They’re loading up on Wal-Mart CDs and iTunes gift certificates. They’re firing off bellicose e-mails to the Wall Street Journal and daily kos.
What’s more, much of the supposedly independent and free-spirited techno-culture is being engineered (or rapidly acquired) by a handful of media and technology leviathans: News Corp., Apple, Microsoft, Yahoo and Google, the budding General Motors of the Information Age.
Linking with the like-minded
THE real story isn’t so much the death of the old mass culture or the rise of a new, fragmented technoculture, but the empowerment of the American consumer -- which isn’t quite the same as the American citizen.
Beyond racing out to get the must-hear Mariah Carey single and see Hollywood’s 10-ton gorillas, We, the People are poring over iTunes playlists of friends, celebrities and strangers to find music that matches our personal preferences. And tapping services like Pandora to stream customized “radio stations” into our PCs. And browsing the endless virtual shopping aisles of opinion and analysis in the blogosphere.
En masse, people not named Rupert Murdoch or Ted Turner are using increasingly accessible technology to wrest control of cultural production -- creating, curating and critiquing their own output and nudging along its consumption. An enterprising anarchist-death metal band, say, can make a video, post it on MySpace, sell its home-pressed CD off the Web and develop a base of fans who chat, post reviews and forward the video link to friends.
Maybe they sell only 10,000 CDs. But so what, says John Battelle, co-founding editor of Wired magazine. If you have 10,000 ardent fans who’ll buy whatever you record, and those fans can find you directly on the Internet, you don’t need a label that would grab 13 of your hard-earned bucks from every $15 CD.
Multiply one band’s efforts by thousands, even millions, and you’ve got a culture imagining itself in an endless electronic loop of searching and citing, e-mailing and linking, getting and spending. And the engine that’s driving it all is search, says Battelle, author of the recently published (and aptly titled) “The Search,” a history of how Google and its rivals, in Battelle’s words, “rewrote the rules of business and transformed our culture.”
The shift to search-driven culture didn’t happen overnight -- it only looks that way in retrospect. Up through the 1990s, Battelle says, most search engines were crude, spam-choked devices that could only bring up partial texts for Web surfers to peruse.
Then Google had the novel idea of compiling databases on millions of people’s search habits and began to compile what Battelle calls today’s massive “Database of Intentions,” a term that resonates with both Big Brother and Tomorrowland associations. Through ingenious keyword search combinations, smart engines now can direct “specific” Web traffic to sites where users have a high probability of acting “in relation to a business’s goods or services” (Battelle again). In other words, to become customers or content creators of one sort or another.
This “from-the-bottom-up” transformation has touched every corner of American culture. Instead of flocking ‘round the tube to watch “The Simpsons,” ordinary Americans are taking advantage of ever-widening bandwidth and ever-lowering per-megabyte storage costs to star in their own five-minute, do-it-yourself programs. Check out, for instance, “The Carol and Steve Show,” at stevegarfield.blogs.com, which tracks a married couple’s quotidian life, complete with laconic electric bass lines between scenes, a la “Seinfeld.” Or “Rocketboom,” a Web-based tongue-in-cheek daily “news” cast that is produced out of its creator’s Manhattan apartment and attracts 100,000 fans a day.
Advertisers, like content producers and audiences, are taking the cue, steadily drifting from television and newsprint advertising to the Web. Advertisers spent nearly $10 billion online in 2004, a figure expected to be up 30% when this year’s figures are tallied. Who needs to fork over millions on the equivalent of Apple’s “1984" Super Bowl ad when you can create a flash-mob with some scratchy video shot for pennies in your own backyard?
Websites like Cafe Press and Zazzle, engines of what some call “micro-entrepreneurialism” or “the everyone economy,” allow enterprising but underfunded designers to advertise their products -- mainly things like T-shirts, stickers, mugs and other items that can be easily customized with the addition of a slogan or a piece of art -- but leave the actual printing, processing and shipping of the goods to the websites. Among the former site’s offerings are truckers caps, beer steins and “classic thongs” engraved with the logo of ... “The Carol and Steve Show.”
In the existential hall of mirrors of the new mass technoculture, what goes around comes around, like plot points in a Charlie Kaufman screenplay.
Now you’re the expert
BOUTIQUE culture’s trickle-down effects are touching people’s hearts and intellects as well as their wallets. More important than steering consumers to innovative products, services and ideas they didn’t even know existed, Google, Yahoo and other intelligent search engines are linking people with other people who share their particular interests and obsessions. Ten years ago, if you had a thing for 15th century Ottoman poetry, or you were the parent of a child with a rare sleeping disorder, or you just wanted to bitch about your boss, you might have felt isolated and freakish. Now you can find or create your own audiences and support groups online, at any time of the day or night. (Not to be too gee-whiz about it -- note “support groups” for neo-Nazis and the 70-plus million people visiting porn sites.)
Besides rejecting generic, bar-code-scanning consumer models in favor of specialized models, Americans are doing end runs around experts and authority figures, choosing wine on the basis of a casual blog mention instead of the pronouncement of towering critics such as Robert M. Parker Jr. Or getting their cultural criticism from text-messaging friends.
Slowly but steadily, all of American culture is becoming as customized as an East L.A. lowrider -- and increasingly self-conscious of its own construction. The new mass technoculture establishes its street cred by citing and cross-referencing the works of its forebears, friends and cultural allies.
Sometimes this produces wild, revealing juxtapositions. William Shatner’s iTunes celebrity playlist includes Eminem’s “Lose Yourself” (clean version) along with Sir Simon Rattle and the Wiener Philharmoniker’s rendition of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 2 in D Major. “I’ve heard philosophy in music through Beethoven,” quoth Capt. Kirk.
The cut-and-paste, anything-goes aesthetic of the new technoculture provides something that was sorely lacking in the old mass culture: the element of surprise, as you click through a chain of recommendations, pitches and links toward a passion for a person, product or idea you might never have started out by seeking. Alex Soojung-Kim Pang, research director of the Institute for the Future, a Silicon Valley think tank, compares the effect to opening the New Yorker and finding an article “about something that you didn’t even know existed that turns out to be fascinating.”
Still, the old mass culture titans aren’t backing off. They’re aggressively positioning themselves to regain control; if you can’t beat ‘em, they reason, buy ‘em. “With products such as Apple’s video iPod and TiVo-type digital recorders becoming widely available, Hollywood is inching toward an even more lucrative way of exploiting the home market,” slate.com reports. And the new boss of that avatar of hipness, MySpace.com? Murdoch’s News Corp.
The open question, though, is what the streaming, searching, boutiquing masses will bring not only to the furtherance of capital-C culture but also capital-D democracy.
Critics of the emerging technoculture point out that aesthetic taste is more than the sum of our keyword-search preferences. Tapping into another human’s sensibility involves more than drawing inferences based on shared “marketing profiles.”
“I’m afraid that that sort of tailoring one’s universes to one’s tastes creates a sort of self-imposed ghetto of tastes,” says Albert Borgmann, a philosophy professor at the University of Montana who has written extensively about technology’s social effects. “It can put you in touch with lots of people, but they’re all your kind of people.”
Its champions love to compare the Web’s advent to the invention of the printing press. But what made Gutenberg’s machine revolutionary was as much about what he printed -- the Bible -- as how he printed it. If he had published a list of his favorite songs or anguished confessions about his breakup with his girlfriend, he and his remarkable machine might not have had quite the same cultural impact.
Americans tend to embrace new technology easily -- cars, television sets, the atom bomb -- and postpone reckoning with the costs until decades later. Smart search engines and personal networking software are highly useful but, in and of themselves, politically and morally neutral.
“Don’t be evil” is Google’s admirable motto. But author Battelle and others question whether Google is always practicing what it preaches. The company recently launched a massive library book-scanning project that critics claim will violate copyright laws. Google also collects and stores tremendous amounts of users’ search data and plants cookies on their computers that don’t expire until 2038. Some have questioned what might happen if such data fell into the wrong hands or if government agencies under the Patriot Act compelled Google to release it.
Clickstreams are great for tracking “Desperate Housewives” backstage gossip. Preferential software is wonderful for finding tracks from a New Orleans benefit album. But will that help create a political climate in which the actual hurricane-ravaged city can be saved from abandonment and economic collapse? A click is not a vote -- yet.
Some 38 years ago, Walter Cronkite, the trusted paterfamilias of “CBS Evening News,” helped precipitate U.S. withdrawal from Vietnam when he used his exalted network perch to declare the Indochina War unwinnable. Cronkite is long gone from his evening post, and no anchor today commands such respect. On the other hand, today practically anyone with access to a video camera and a forwarding function can flog the nation’s conscience. The new Uncle Walter may be Cindy Sheehan, the antiwar mother of a dead U.S. serviceman who gave the White House fits over its Iraq policy this year. But 15 minutes of fame do not a bully pulpit make.
Still, while network CEOs and newspaper publishers wring their hands and mutter darkly about the “balkanization” of civic consciousness, the electorate is finding new ways to stay informed. “If you type ‘Sam Alito’ into [blog search engine] Technorati, you get thousands of results,” says Pang. “There clearly are a lot of people across the political spectrum who are blogging about this person and whether he should be on the Supreme Court.... The collective mind of the blogosphere turns out to be a reasonably good news editor.”
The late social critic Christopher Lasch, author of “The Culture of Narcissism,” took a darker view of whether market-based consumer empowerment can enhance citizen empowerment.
“When half the eligible voters do not even bother to vote,” Lasch wrote in a prescient 1981 essay, “students of public opinion -- journalists and academics alike -- turn to ‘culture’ as the only field in which individual preferences still seem to matter. By redirecting their attention from public policy to consumer tastes, however, they unavoidably help to sustain the illusion that people can initiate sweeping changes without resorting to politics, merely by exercising their right to make individual decisions as consumers of goods, services and ideologies.”
If future revolutions will not be televised, here’s hoping that at least they will be podcast.
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An irresistible new world
In the dozen years since the debut of Web browsers that turned the Web into a graphics-rich environment, the migration to life online has been unrelenting. Below, a small sampling of the many milestones.
* Netscape goes public. Amazon.com and eBay launch. n There are an estimated 100,000 sites on the web, up from some 623 in 1993.
* Google opens with a staff of 3.
* Blogger, one of the first popular weblog publishing tools appears.
* Craigslist, which began as an e-mail list of arts events in San Francisco, becomes an online classified ads-listing company.
* An average 52 million adults are online, about 5 million with high-speed internet access at home. As the year closes, there are 25.6 million websites.
* Google handles more than 100 million queries a day.
* Apple introduces the iPod.
* 65% of American children ages 2-17 use the Internet, up from 41% in 2000.
* MySpace and Friendster launch, putting “social networking site” in the vocabulary.
* One-millionth iPod is sold.
* Audio blogging is dubbed podcasting, and how-to articles begin to appear.
* Flickr, the photo-sharing/social networking site, launches.
* A typical day sees 128 million U.S. adults online. About 60 million have high-speed connections at home.
* eBay has 79 million U.S. members, 168 million worldwide.
* MySpace has 40 million members.
* 87% of 12- to 17-year-olds use the Internet.
* Technorati tracks 22.9 million blogs.
* By midyear, Flikr has 775,000 users and is growing about 30% a month.
* LiveJournal reports 2.5 million active accounts.
* 10 million Craigslist users search some 6.5 million classified postings each month.
Source: Pew Research Center For The People & The Press: Mid-September 2005 Political Survey, September 15 , 2005