The digital era: new possibilities and challenges for culture

The notion of “disruption” has been initially used to refer to a radical economic transformation brought about by technological innovations. In the cultural sector, it is the digital era that has brought about numerous disruptions. Indeed, cultural products such as music, movies, and others have been increasingly consumed online, thus, their monetisation, which provides revenues to producers, has had to adjust. But the digital disruptions that affect culture go beyond the economic aspects as they have deep social and political implications: for example, they affect how artists can reach their audience and who benefits from the revenues that they generate.

The de-stabilisation of established cultural intermediaries.

In the wake of the digital era, many hopeful discourses predicted that the Internet would lead to radical disintermediation, and enable information exchange among people. The rise of peer-to-peer exchange, of user-generated contents, as well as the increasing success of individuals building their reputations on YouTube or Instagram without any support by large record companies, or media production and distribution firms, was viewed as a sign of cultural democratisation. In addition to this, people began to challenge traditional cultural expertise, for example, that of film or book critics working for newspapers by using social rating systems, such as Trip Advisor or Rotten Tomato. However, it became progressively clear that the rising influence of the crowd was not synonymous with the disappearance of power dynamics within the cultural field.

The rise of new dominant actors and regulatory challenges.

The GAFA (referring to Google, Apple, Facebook, and Amazon) have become crucial players of the cultural economy, but the rising power of these internet giants raises several regulatory questions. For example, a key issue for states is taxation, but when it comes to digital services it is difficult to trace where value is created and Internet players often manage to avoid paying taxes in the countries where they generate their revenues. This represents an issue for the funding of public cultural policies to support creation, but it also generates unfair competition for traditional players that are subject to more taxes. The rise of dominant Internet players has also generated issues with regards to the management of private data. Numerous Internet companies collect and store data about the activities and practices of their users and sell them to generate profit. This has generated numerous discussions about the necessity of a greater transparency about the way people’s data are used and about how their privacy can be safeguarded.

New vulnerabilities for the democratic order.

The open system, on which digital media and communications rely, is more vulnerable to numerous threats, ranging from manipulation of information to cyber-attacks. There are multiple reasons that explain such threats, the first being the influence of governments. As the Internet has become a new field of geopolitical struggle, national defence and security actors have increasingly invested in digital tools to increase their influence and intelligence capabilities. A second reason is the loss of authority of legitimate and credible sources of information due to the disintermediation process mentioned above. A third reason is represented by the lack of digital literacy among the population, combined with a loss of trust in traditional media contributes to the spread of unverified or false information. Finally, social media have generated phenomena of social bubbles where people only get information from a limited amount of sources, which segments the public sphere and favours the rise of radical and violent speech.

This is a brief overview of the various issues that we will discuss in this course.

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This article is from the free online course:

Culture in the Digital Age

European University Institute (EUI)