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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.
One of the key shifts in culture is the move towards it being increasingly mediated through devices or interfaces of different types. The interfaces we use for accessing culture shape our experiences of that culture. So think about the shift - the move from live performances and theatre to even something like the cinema. Whereas now we’re able to access any culture we want through mobile devices. So culture has gone on the move. It’s now something we can consume anywhere and any time and without really any limitations. And that changes what culture is. It changes our understanding but it also changes the part culture plays in our everyday lives.
So culture is something that we can consume across the time and space of our everyday lives.
That doesn’t just change the way we experience culture: it changes the way we experience social spaces. So think about how mobile devices change your journey to work or college. Those spaces alter because you can play a game, listen to music, watch a film, whatever it might be. Those spaces are altered, as well as the cultural forms. Now alongside the increasing mediation that’s come about through the miniaturisation of devices, and various other changes to our technological infrastructures, the other thing that’s happened is that our culture’s become more and more immaterial. Now, where we used to focus our attention upon different kinds
of cultural objects that were very material: things like the vinyl record, or the CD even, the videotape,
the DVD; these sorts of cultural forms; they’ve all changed: they’re becoming increasingly immaterial. Now some people are reacting against that, and the sale of hardbacked books and vinyl records has gone back up again, but in the large part, people’s cultural consumption happens on platforms.
And this has been called a kind of Platform Capitalism: where we live our lives on platforms that
provide cultural content to us in immaterial forms: in digital compression formats of various types that we can stream on our devices wherever we are in the social world. So the dual processes of mediation and immateriality are crucial if we’re going to understand the way we relate to the cultural forms we consume, and also the way that culture changes the space in which we live.

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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