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Cultural change

In this video, Dr David Beer explores how advances in digital technology have altered our relationship with the cultural landscape.

In the video above, Dr David Beer discusses the ways in which culture has changed due to digital devices and formats. Cultural objects, which were once recognisable symbols of our engagement with culture and our interests, have become increasingly immaterial: virtual formats mean that we no longer hold an album or a film in our hands; the term ‘box set’ often means digitally streamed video rather than an actual collection of physical tapes or DVDs.

One effect of this is the flexibility and portability of our consuming culture. Boring journeys can now be filled with television and films, as well as a greater breadth of radio, games, music, and anything else that can be done from a device. The Walkman, the car radio, the Game Boy, and Travel Scrabble could only do so much. We could only carry so many tapes and games on our travels. Now we can be enlightening ourselves with thoughtful podcasts on the walk to the station, and then catching up with the latest TV series on the train: we can engage with a wider range of interests in an increasing amount of ways and spaces. In terms of our wellbeing, this change in cultural forms gives us greater opportunity to do the things we enjoy in a breadth of locations and with different people, allowing us to live our lives how we want to.

Think about the culture – music, films, TV shows, books, games, etc – that you enjoy and interact with. How has your access to this content changed? How much of the culture you consume do you get via the internet? And how has the growing storage capacity of portable devices, and the breadth of content available, changed your habits?

Not every aspect of culture we engage with will be entirely ‘virtual’: as David Beer points out, lots of people have been buying hardback books and vinyl records again. Older formats become ‘retro’ and that can give them cultural capital, whether because they have become rare and desirable or because their materiality gives them status (and perhaps a degree of permanence) over more immaterial digital formats.

Once, if you wanted to hear a record, you’d go out to a shop and buy it. And then you’d get it home and give it your full attention. And maybe it would even be a rubbish record and you’d never play it again. But it would’ve made its mark on you through the anticipation and the intensity wrapped up in the process of seeking out the item, buying it, taking it home, and listening to it. Television, broadcast on a small handful of channels, would create watercooler moments from appointment viewing. The growth of a breadth of choice in our viewing and listening has altered our engagement with such media. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, and new forms of culture have emerged as a result of that transformation, along with the potential for a greater democratisation of existing cultural forms. That’s something we’ll explore in more detail in our next step.

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