The Culture of the Earth-Sized Time Machine

Spurred by the expiration of my Pandora One subscription, I recently spent a few days putting music into iTunes and organizing playlists. When I finished, I skimmed over my music collection and was surprised at what I found. Lots of disco, heavy metal, and instrumentals. But also much from several different countries as well as different times. The Andrews Sisters played contentedly with Frank Zappa, who followed Angélique Kidjo with elegance. Wolf Parade and Mosie Burks go just fine with The Balancing Act, Professor Longhair, and Kate Nash. I’m not restricted by era or place. I listen to what I like.

After that I wondered what my other media consumption looked like, so I went back and looked at my recent favorites on Netflix. Here are the last four:

1) A British miniseries based on a Terry Pratchett book
2) A Thai martial arts movie
3) A Jean Arthur adventure/drama/comedy from 1939
4) A 2009 comedy from India

I have never, until the last year or so, been a great movie watcher. But a random mention by a friend led me to watching His Girl Friday (that link takes you to the full movie, which is free to view on YouTube) which led to other old movies which led to Netflix and Amazon Video-on-Demand which led to a far, far greater range of material available than I ever had before. And now I watch movies constantly, but for the most part they’re not the movies currently being pushed by Hollywood or advertised on television (and no, I still haven’t seen Avatar.)

Of course it’s always been the case that one can enjoy things that aren’t currently popular in the culture. You might like ragtime or surf movies or whatever. But it was not until very recently that you could easily and very quickly obtain either access to such media or the media itself, thanks to digital delivery and quick shipping from giants like Amazon.

A recommendation from a friend on Facebook can lead to an evening movie on Netflix. Stumbling across a blog post about a band can lead to an MP3 download on Amazon — or sometimes just some Web downloads. (After Imaginary Baseball League broke up, they put many of their songs online as free downloads. Jane Siberry has over a dozen albums and even some sheet music available for free. And these are just two examples.)

If I think about it, if I hear about it, if I remember it, I can find it. And often I can very quickly download it, watch it, or listen to it — sometimes for free, and sometimes not. I am not limited by the most recent television shows, or the most popular music, or even what plays on the radio stations in my country. The shouting of the world does not matter as much as one person who whispers an authentic experience that causes in me a desire.

Through a hundred years’ worth of movies, through the music of everywhere, through the books of all time, I build my own culture. I constantly develop and evolve an array of symbolism and metaphors and words and archetypes through which I define the world and through which I filter my own experience.

What happens to the idea of national culture, to local culture, to personal identity, when everyone in the world can do this?

How do we define ourselves when we have quick access to the sounds and sights of a hundred years across the entire planet, and immerse ourselves in and cause ourselves to be changed by them?

As an Internet searcher I have used cultural vocabulary to narrow down my searches in ways that search engine parameters don’t offer. (I have talked about this in greater detail in Google Hacks and Information Trapping and have longer rants on request.) If you use a primarily-British slang word like “stroppy,” you will get a different kind of search result. If you use more recent words like “staycation” or even “LOLcat” you will be able to efficiently narrow your results in to a certain time stream. This breaks down if one person’s culture involves movies from the 40s and they’re far more likely to say “What’s buzzin’, cousin?” than “What up?” If you’re watching Monty Python all the time you might be more likely to use “stroppy” in a blog post anyway, no matter that you live in South Carolina and wouldn’t know a crumpet from a ham sandwich.

When you are searching you are looking for something that other people said, or wrote, or experienced. Of course your topic might be extensive and complicated, but you’re essentially researching humans and their interactions with the world, whether that interaction is how many Mentos you need to do that cool thing with the Diet Coke, or how other people have done fundraising for family members with Cystic Fibrosis.

If the ubiquity and immediacy of consumable media means the idea of culture in a country, location, group, or individual will change, then I need to think about that a lot. Because if the culture changes, then they change. And if they change, their interaction with the world changes. And if the interaction with the world changes, then the way they write or vlog or make a podcast will change.

And searching and discovering will both be different.

Note: This has been bothering me for a while, and I had to write it down. Normal “Lookit this cool thing I found” ResearchBuzz posts will resume shortly.

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1 reply »

  1. You know I love the “Lookit…” posts. But my gosh was this lovely.

    One of these days, someone will figure out a way to truly “bookmark” or index music and films at the source — when recorded. At the very least, if we’ve got an audio and a video track, there oughta be a searchable text track as well: the closed captions/subtitles, maybe, or maybe the entire shooting script.

    And once that happens, will the day be far off when you can do the equivalent of an I-frame or embedded YouTube video… within a larger work?

    Seriously. I hope you’ll continue to post like this every now and then.

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