Art + Thought / AF 2012 - Pau Waelder


Our Culture is Digital

In a recently published text, Howard Rheingold suggests the possibility of achieving an expansion of human intelligence using digital tools we commonly use and suggests that such devices have already transformed the way we think. Quoting Andy Clark, Rheingold says that we are "born cyborgs" as this term describes not only the insertion of technological devices in the body but “people whose brains are not physically jacked in to a computer (yet) but whose nervous systems are (already) attuned […] to a kind of “thinking” possible only with computers”. These words remind definitely the science fiction future described by William Gibson in his novel Neuromancer (1984), whose protagonist, hacker Henry Dorsett Case, connects his brain to cyberspace via a neural implant. But one doesn't need to evoke a dystopian future to find already the human-machine fusion that occurs at a cognitive and social level.

In recent decades, the rapid development of new technology has brought profound changes in our global society. The way we live, work, communicate and create our image of the world is increasingly dependent on digital tools we use every day. These tools not only provide us with previously unavailable resources (information in real time, virtual environments, and instant communication without distances), but determine, through their interfaces, the appearance of an environment to which we devote most of our hours waking.
The way these new ways of documenting our experiences, create and communicate have spread in industrialized societies and the speed with which they have become part of all areas of our daily lives have led us to a situation where as Charlie Gere indicated: "there is not and can't be a point outside the media from which we can have a privileged perspective and free of preconceptions about any aspect of our existence, and even less about the media itself" [2].
A decade ago, Gere noted the increasing presence of new technologies in contemporary society and proposed, on the basis of this observation, “the existence of a distinctive digital culture, in that the term digital can stand for a particular way of life of a group or groups of people at a certain period in history […] Digitality can be thought of as a marker of culture because it encompasses both the artefacts and the systems of signification and communication that most clearly demarcate our contemporary way of life from others”[3].
The influence of technological media marks therefore the existence of a digital culture, since the way we communicate, relate, consume, create and share cultural products is determined by the use of digital tools, data networks and other devices.

The rapid pace with which changes have occurred leading to the identification of a digital culture certainly poses great difficulties in developing a clear reflection of its influence, let alone raise their long-term consequences. But surely we can see, as stated by Pau Alsina, that we've gone from the digitization of culture to digital culture, meaning that we are no longer at the time that the manifestations are translated into bits, but that these already occur defined digital by tools, not only as mere representations on a screen that replaces the paper, but as new forms of creation, distribution and reception of culture, where there is no longer an assigned static role of producers and consumers, but both are in a complex web of mutual influences that occur with no little friction.
The very concept of culture is transformed: As indicated by Alsina, "it is appropriate to think of culture as a dynamic process and not as an unchanging essence that must be defended. Culture, understood as a dynamic system formed by flows of information, people and products, takes different forms that respond to dynamic models of relationship between individuals, societies and territories "[4].
In this conception of culture as a system of relations, we surely owe to the new technologies the configuration of the ways that it manifests itself, but at the same time it must be recognized that digital culture itself generates the use of new technological devices. So, we can say, with Charlie Gere, that new technologies are a product of digital culture [5]: Digital tools open new possibilities, but when it makes a real difference is when its use is so commonplace as to be virtually invisible. Clay Shirky points out that is not the more innovative devices that introduce large changes in society, but the commonly used tools such as email, mobile phones or websites.  Precisely those are the tools that a large part of the population uses in everyday life, and have facilitated the mass mobilization of the Arab Spring in 2010 and the 15-M movement in Spain since 2011. "The Revolution", Shirky reminds us, “doesn't happen when society adopts new technologies —it happens when society adopts new behaviors” [6].

Increasingly ubiquitous, while necessary, technology has become invisible and integrated naturally in our everyday landscape. The above examples indicate the paradoxical situation in which the technological media form an inseparable part of our culture, at the same time that they stop being outstanding. Watching a video on YouTube, we focus on the content but often we ignore the means that make it possible to reach our screen, from the personal computer, through a server platform video to the Internet to the tools, for example, that have allowed a group of teenagers to make a short film with special effects that a few years ago were only available from a major studio film.

If, in the last decades of the twentieth century, we celebrated the creation of a new culture around the digital, full of utopian dreams and spurred by the constant appearance of new inventions, today it is no longer viable to talk of a digital culture, but to affirm that our culture is digital. As an invisible layer that extends across the globe, we share a common culture based on our daily experiences with the devices we use and the services to which we subscribe online. The daily use of these resources creates new customs, new needs which, in turn, call for the creation of new devices and applications. In this continuing series of interdependencies, digital media becomes so common that we cannot affirm that it generates experiences beyond our everyday reality, but that is part of it. As Clay Shirky indicates, in reference to social networks [7], there is not a digital world separated from the real world. Therefore (returning to the example of the novel by William Gibson), there is no longer a cyberspace to plug into the brain, but it has become already part of our environment.

Claiming that our culture is digital, however, raises many questions and concerns: What consequences can have the progressive integration of new technologies in our daily lives? Note that not everything that is provided by digital tools is positive: There's the loss of privacy that foster social networks, the progressive loss of interpersonal relationships face to face with the exchange of text messages, or  the consequences of environmental mass consumption of technological devices. Digital culture has also negative aspects that sometimes call for disconnection and invite to serious reflection.

In the aspect of human relations, digital culture can be a culture of long-distance relationships, the "shared solitude", as described by Sherry Turkle, who says that we are in a "robotic moment" [8]. And there, we as individuals, are increasingly willing to cast our feelings, not in other people or living things, but on machines that simulate an emotional connection with us. In the development of modern society, next to the possibilities that social networks and Web 2.0 tools open to create new forms of collective organization, we find the opposing forms of control and surveillance that those same tools offer to governments and large corporations.

All this is part of a world in which more than two billion Internet users are only 32.7% of the world population [9], and the actual scope of digital media, despite being very deep, is geographically limited. Recalling the words of Howard Rheingold, at the beginning of this text, we are certainly in a time when new technologies are transforming our culture, our society and even our way of thinking. It is therefore a good time to think about the effects and find the way to bring a positive global change. As stated by Rheingold, digital tools "can and do bring amazing solutions to problems. And, therefore, we expect incredible changes "[10].
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[1] Howard Rheingold (2012) Mind Amplifier: Can Our Digital Tools Make Us Smarter?. Nueva York: TED Books.
[2] Charlie Gere (2010). «Algunas reflexiones sobre la cultura digital». En: Pau ALSINA (coord.). «De la digitalización de la cultura a la cultura digital» [dossier en línea]. Digithum. N.º 12. UOC. [Fecha de consulta: 1/10/2012] <http://digithum.uoc.edu/ojs/index.php/digithum/article/view/n12-gere/n12-gere-esp> ISSN 1575-2275.
[3] Charlie Gere (2002) Digital Culture. Londres: Reaktion Books, 12.
[4]  Pau Alsina (2010). «De la digitalización de la cultura a la cultura digital» [dossier en línea]. Digithum. N.º 12. UOC. [Fecha de consulta: 1/10/2012]. <http://digithum.uoc.edu/ojs/index.php/digithum/article/view/n12-alsina/n12-de-la-digitalizacion-de-la-cultura-a-la-cultura-digital> ISSN 1575-2275.
[5] Charlie Gere (2002), 198.
[6] Clay Shirky (2008) Here Comes Everybody. The Power of Organizing Without Organizations. Nueva York: Penguin Books, 159-160.
[7] Clay Shirky (2010) Cognitive Surplus: Creativity and Generosity in a Connected Age. Nueva York: Penguin Books.
[8] Sherry Turkle (2011). Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other. Nueva York: Basic Books.
[9] Internet World Stats [Fecha de consulta: 1/10/2012].  <http://www.internetworldstats.com/stats.htm>
[10] Howard Rheingold (2012), 62.