Is Technology Culture? Yes and No and Maybe

Is technology culture? The answer depends on what you mean by “technology”. And “culture”. Starting with culture, there are three main meanings of the word: culture as art, culture as human effort and culture as shared values and rituals. If culture means art, the thing we take pleasure from and express ourselves with, then No. Technology is not culture. However, in this case technology can be a product of art, for example when film-maker James Cameron invents a new type of 3d-film camera to be able to shoot Avatar. Technology can support culture, for example when the printing press made mass publication of books possible or when the vinyl record player provided a mass distribution format for music.

Second, if culture means human effort, then Yes technology is indeed culture. Culture as opposed to nature. Just like the original meaning of the word culture – from cultivate, related to agriculture – technology is the outcome of human effort. It reflects human choices, values and ideology. If you build a house, it will reflect your values: maybe you want big windows to let the light in. Or you want small windows to avoid outsiders peeking in. A house is technology. Digital technology is no different. Some like to think of technology as a form of higher power. They might say “you can’t stop new technology”. But they are wrong, technology is not nature. Technology is culture.

Lastly, if culture means shared values and rituals, then Maybe technology is culture. Think of a ritual like Christmas celebration. Ingredients like candles, stockings and tree decorations are all products of technology (the tree itself is from nature, but you need technology – a saw – to cut it). The values we like to associate with Christmas – spending time with family, sharing food and giving gifts – are eternal and independent of technology. Let’s say technology can help give form to some of the shared values and rituals that are culture. Different cultures obviously celebrate different holidays in very different ways.

And of course the answer depends on what you mean by technology. There are two main ways to think of technology: one looks at function – what does a tool do? A saw cuts a tree. The other looks at how technology governs relationships between people: The saw cuts trees so you can build a house in which to put a Christmas tree that your family can gather around. Without technology, humans would be without protection, vulnerable and helpless. Technology sets us apart from animals. We survive by making technology.

Why do I ask if technology is culture? Stupid question, you may think. But some say Tech Is Culture to make a certain point: that technology supports culture and therefore cannot hurt culture and thus must not be regulated or restricted in the name of culture. This is speaking from self-interest: the companies that provide this technology will make more money if they are not made to share revenue with those who make the content they monetise. I would put this in the culture-as-art and technology-as-tool bracket, respectively. As I’ve described above, in this respect technology is not culture. The point fails.

Taking a closer look at some of the claims made:

“Online driving cultural diversity” – more content is being produced and consumed than before. True, if you look at quantity it’s easy to say that there is more. Online has made some types of culture accessible to new audiences: niches like speed runs in video games or foreign cooking classes (the list is endless of course). But factor in quality and a different pattern appears. In most sectors, hits get bigger and niches more niche, but the middle loses out. The hour glass is the shape of digital consumption. But it is in the middle we often find what we think of as quality, the books that get the best reviews are most often not the bestsellers, but also not completely obscure. The television drama that wins awards: same. When the middle is squeezed, we get more of the most popular and more of the most specialized, but something is lost. That something we think of as quality. Those that inspired the next great works. The works that live forever. Casablanca, L’Étrangère, Mrs Robinson.

“Online driving jobs and growth in the creative sectors” – this is a strange claim as creative sector organisations keep asking for help against online phenomena such as dominant players and unauthorized distribution. But there is a fair point that a lot of new jobs are in digital content. The good news is that it’s not one or the other, there is nothing to say we can’t have both support for independents against abusive business practices and promote functioning digital markets at the same time. Digital content jobs, creative jobs, real creators… the only loser would be those intermediaries that harvest most of the value without sharing the revenue with those who made the content (looking at you GAFA and ISPs!).

“Online driving the fight against piracy” Legal streaming services killed music piracy is half true. The whole answer is that legal services help consumers go legal and action against pirate services make illegal less attractive. A study on site-blocking in the UK showed 75% decrease in illegal consumption and 12% increase in legal consumption. Legal services is half the answer, so online drives half the fight against piracy. The same piracy that it made happen in the first place.

“Online driving innovation in the creative sectors” Yes, the creative sectors were among the first to go digital. The first to embrace the opportunity. Think of visual effects in movies. Think of video games. Think of digital music recording. The creative sectors were also first to see some of the downsides: cybercrime, monocultures, dominant players, filter bubbles, fake news, hate speech. The creative sectors understand digital and innovation. They also understand there is a need for remedies against the dark sides.

“Online driving more consumption of European cultural content” True, but it can do even better. The audience is local and creative content can be particularly sensitive to local flavor. It is no coincidence that some of the most famous digital content companies focus on local content. Let the creators and their business partners tailor the offerings to the audience. That works best for everybody.

Is technology culture? Yes, no and maybe. Technology cannot trump culture. Legislators should not be tempted by the promise that technology is culture. Some technology supports some culture some of the time, but can also hurt culture and thus must be regulated or restricted in the name of culture. The way forward is to make sure technology supports culture. That way, we can have both.

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