The Privatization of Culture and the Illusion of Depth

An MP3 used to be a concert. A Kindle used to be a bookstore.

Is this you? You listen to music personally on your MP3 player. You read books by yourself and watch your TV on your laptop or iPad. You eat alone at least 50% of the time, rarely go to concerts, and watch more movies at home than in theatres.

Do you recognize yourself in this profile? 😉

A side effect of the digitization and portability of cultural artifacts is that they have also been brought from the public to the private. A gramophone used to be expensive, and a community might have had only one, so they shared it. Now we all have iPods, so we have our own music collection. We can download our favourite songs privately, so we don’t have to talk to a record store clerk– or anyone, for that matter.

What was once necessarily public has become private. What used to belong to a community has become private property. This might be a normal process of commodification– food becomes affordable, so we have snack foods or protein shakes instead of feasts. Stuff get cheaper, more portable, and private.

Interestingly enough, this also leeches value out of the public domain and into the pockets of corporations. This may, or may not, be an accident. But that’s not the point. The privatization of culture is a fact, and we have to deal with it. Though it fuels a sense of personal power, if we’re not careful, it also feeds loneliness.

Collective activity is a pillar of connection inside a community, helping people laugh together and share good conversation. It fuels a sense of belonging and happiness. How much of it are you doing?

If this is a normal phase of cultural and technological evolution, then it might be unstoppable. But your personal choice will reflect your priorities and decide the kind of life you live. The more public, the better you are at conversation and the more you feel a sense of kinship with others. The more private, the less conformity, but at the expense of belonging. You are either a wolf or a sheep, but the choice often happens without your consent.

Creative Commons people and programmers tend to get this, and bloggers often do too– the more you give stuff away, the more you get back. But often we live this only in regards to the web, and miss out because of it. Dungeons and Dragons has become World of Warcraft– an impression of being public, but without the actual increase in satisfaction or happiness. It is a trompe-l’oeil that mimics depth.

My strategy to trade favourite books with people, to have weekly ‘dates,’ and to have people over for supper. These are not exciting things.

They are not about technology. They are about people.

But if you’re part of the social web, and all you get excited about is the New Twitter, you do not see the big picture, and you are mistaken about why it matters.

Take a step back and look again.






15 responses to “The Privatization of Culture and the Illusion of Depth”

  1. Rob Metras Avatar

    You have it right, your big picture view can be obscured at times by shiny pennies, but a good meal and a great conversation can only be obscured by self action or perhaps inaction.

  2. Joe Sorge Avatar

    really interesting thinking here. for some reason I’m always trying to picture where your mind is when these thoughts come to you. but what you’ve written is quite true. and for me ironic, because the business that I have chosen is great at helping to pull communities together, but I do find my own livelihood in it as well.

  3. Sandy Sidhu Avatar

    Hi Julien!
    Your last few lines really resonated with me. The social web excites me because of the possibility of connecting with people in my very neighborhood who I may never have met. I’m not romancing the technology, today it is Twitter, tomorrow it may be something else but I am using the social web to enrich my life and forge new connections/friendships. New or old Twitter makes no difference!

  4. Suyog Mody Avatar
    Suyog Mody

    very thought-provoking. we’ve always needed to continue to be social … social media does not mean that our so-called offline world goes away.

  5. Murelle Avatar

    This is thought provoking and can agree that you can connect with many people in an online setting but that doesn’t equal socializing. I see in some ways the portability of media can make us more private. But we can also share pieces of culture in ways we never could, across impossible expanses of time and distance. So in some ways I feel there is more shared across cultures than ever before.

    I also believe that nothing can replace a concert, sporting event, festival, protest, or other gathering of people. Even though we have access to live events through the internet and on our TVs, it’s no fun cheering alone on the couch. I’m not sure if portable media and entertainment makes a society more private. I think it depends on the individual and if you’re a private person you’ll tend to be more private, if you’re social you’ll be more social regardless of that portability of media.

    Great discussion starter!

  6. Scott Meyer Avatar

    Really enjoyed this post Julien.

    As Shirky says, the technology isn’t interesting until it’s boring. Focusing on the New Twitter or Google Buzz misses the point that this stuff should help us augment our “IRL” relationships or maybe lead to new relationships. Plus if we are only interacting via technology, it generally means we’re “hanging out” with people just like us. Most people don’t have the New Twitter or Google Buzz and if we only hang out with clones of ourselves, we lose the ability to learn from and about others.

    There’s a reason poiticians kiss babies and wear funny hats, it gives the illusion of knowing their electorate and being one of the guys/girls. Unlike politicians however, we can actually do that by getting offline and sharing experiences.

    With that in mind, time to check my Twitter feed.

  7. Nina Borgersen Avatar
    Nina Borgersen

    I just came across your interesting comment through a retweet and will certainly start following your blog. One of my interests is culture and audience development, and I thought you might be interested in this report: It is called “Audience 2.0: How Technology Influences Arts Participation”. I have only skimmed through it, and will not attempt to discuss it in depth. I was relieved, though, to read in the conclusion that media-based arts participation tends to encourage live arts attendance, rather than replacing it. Hopefully, this means that for the majority of us, social media makes us more active in face to face activities as well as in digital activity, because I wholeheartedly agree with you: “Collective activity is a pillar of connection inside a community”.

  8. Rufus Avatar

    “Hey brother, can you spare a dime” was the anthem of the Great Depression because there was a national conversation, a common culture. I read an article in the WSJ earlier this year (I can’t find it now that I need it) that talked about some GenY dude trying to create an anthem for his generation and this current Recession. And he couldn’t get anyone to adopt it because everyone was singing his/her own anthem. (My paraphrasing)

    We buy singles from an album; we collect topics from a newspaper into our own individualized inboxes; we TiVo television shows and watch when we want to; we create our own personalized documents and then we wonder why we can’t all pull in the same direction to solve large national and international issues? Why does that come as a shock? I will solve world hunger when I can create my own personalized execution plan.

    We’re all like Lucy in the chocolate factory, oblivious of our place in the overall process. It was funny then; it should be an example of disfunction for our society now. Maybe Lucy and Ethel can be our anthem? 🙂

  9. Hamish Avatar

    Well said, Julien.

    Seems we are headed down the Wall-E path, abdicating small amounts of personal responsibility in exchange for convenience.

  10. Kneale Mann Avatar

    To paraphrase the Bard; without people, technology is full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.

  11. Ryan G Avatar

    Gosh the truth hurts. This could be the Great Learning Lesson of our time Julien.

    You have tapped into something I have personally been struggling with these days. I was always a social person and still am, but I have found today’s technology and corporate marketing mantra chipping away at that sacred aspect of human life in myself and among others. It’s like watching mankind obliviously slip through a wormhole to some other side of the universe.

    As you suggest, life is still a choice for us, but it’s getting to the point where it’s like we are swimming upstream or against the current, which means we need a different boat, or different flippers, to navigate through this new medium.

    Good stuff Julien.

  12. Rob Lee Avatar

    Technology can both enable/enhance and block/inhibit social interaction – as you say, it’s down to the individual choices we make in how we use technology.

    But as Ryan G notes, there are externalities that actively promote our isolation in the interest of convincing us to buy more stuff we could really do without, as described in “Life, Inc.” by Douglas Rushkoff.

    Another interesting book that touches on this is “Driven: How Human Nature Shapes Organizations” by Paul Lawrence and Nitin Nohria – they present a theory of humans having four innate drives, one of which is the drive to bond or feel a sense of community (which they name D2). The other drives are to: 1) Acquire material goods or status (D1); 2) Defend oneself and one’s acquisitions (D4); and 3) To learn and gain mastery (D3).

    What you’re talking about in your post is, I think, the conflict between D1 and D2 (and perhaps D3 as well) – the privatization of culture makes it easy to acquire artifacts which would previously have required community interaction to obtain, and helped to fulfill people’s D2 or D3 drives.

    They go on to point out that since these drives all appear to be innate, forcing one or more to go unfulfilled by concentrating almost exclusively on one – the D1 drive to acquire, these days, followed mainly by the D4 drive to defend one’s property and status – leads to an unhealthy state of existence.

    Keeping things in balance, as you’ve suggested, by reaching out to others and sharing culture – both in the form of artifacts as well as through personal interactions – is necessary for a healthy society where all those drives can be satisfied.

    Let’s hope we haven’t reached the point of no return on the path of privateness.

  13. Bernard Dahl Avatar

    Well, this just became the top post I have read this year.
    Well said, Julien – though I’d rather high-five you in person!

  14. Marjorie Clayman Avatar

    I was thinking about this today. It seems like lamentations are increasing about how Social Media and technology are turning us all into isolationists. There is a reason that strategy didn’t work for Woodrow Wilson. The Lusitania!

    Will it take a tragedy to get us to take our ear buds out and listen to real people talking? I hope not. If (heavens forbid) another 9/11 happens, will we all just sit in front of our respective computers and tweet? I hope not.

    There’s something to be said for talking in “real time” in “real life.” It’s called, I think, human connection.

  15. Lisa Avatar

    Yet having lunch and dinner with you and other SoMe lovers this week who were all tweeting and eating included the most engaging F2F convos I’ve had all year. And now I get to connect with you via the web, even though last week I didn’t know you even existed and now you’ve flown away. It’s the paradox, the rabbit hole…what planet are we on?

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