We live in a time when just about every national institution is experiencing difficulties or is right out failing. There are many reasons why this is happening, but much of it boils down to two basic forces: dramatic over-reaching and the influence of the Internet. I’ll leave the hubris of our financial sector to Shakespeare, since he made a living out of depicting it well, but the Internet is the opportunity and challenge of our time. There’s little doubt it will redefine what “media” is, and along with that the bits and pieces of a culture which are delivered by a medium.
The first major challenge posed by the Internet was to the music industry, which succeeded in having a punishing law passed to clamp down on pirates. They were careful to preserve their ability to make money off of songs even as some artists (especially Ani DiFranco) used the internet to distribute their own content, sometimes for free. Writers have similarly played both sides of the ‘net, gaining new outlets for their work but trying to fight to keep printed matter more exclusive. Some of that was lost recently when google won the right to scan out of print books, meaning that while music gained special protections, literature did not.
The Internet, however, fits will with the basic culture of the USofA in one important way; we are a people of Folk Culture, not High Culture. Our sense of what makes up a culture is as Democratic as our government, valuing knitting and carpentry alongside writing and music. Even those things that could be considered High Art are usually crafted in a way that has a lot of popular appeal.
If we allow the Internet to evolve as a medium of self-expression, there’s always the possibility that some kind of culture-inducing art will come from it. The problem is that the ‘net allows people to gravitate towards the sub-cultures that they already find themselves attracted to, reinforcing their own opinion. A culture that serves to unite us into one nation has to bridge these divides, and current Internet usage rarely does this. If anything, it may make the divides stronger.
Why do we need a strong sense of culture in the first place? After all, if so may of our institutions are failing from over-reach, why not stop reaching around the world and keep our hands in our own pockets for a change? It does seem to make sense. Before mass communication of any kind, regional accents and differences in culture were part of the great Federal system that the USofA was based on. So what if people down South listen to Country or Zydeco or, if you go far enough South, Merengue?
This question gets to the heart of why we need some kind of common culture in the first place; to understand our neighbors and allow us to organize to solve common problems. A people who live close together who do not have a common understanding are a people that are easily exploited and have a tough time remaining free. It may be that we don’t need a national concept of common culture, but instead a stronger regional identity that holds us together. This is even more important in a culture which is highly mobile and allows people to move freely; a stronger sense of regional culture would present a barrier to mobility based purely on preference and nothing stronger. That solves the over-reaching problem, but it goes against the strengths of the Internet.
Of all the victims of changing media, none has been hit harder by the Internet than newspapers. The shame of it all is that the Internet delivers news from Tajikistan often more effectively than it does news from down the block. Where the focus needs to sharpen as you get close, ‘net news is distance independent. For purposes of supporting culture at its roots and effective organization, the ‘net has to learn how to be more local.
I think we know that all media are changing because of the Internet. What’s less obvious is that with the right bits and pieces in place, this could also encourage a resurgence in culture, broadly defined, starting at the local level. In other words, Citizen Journalism as a movement is probably about much more than delivering news to people, but about a community being “a people”. Making this work and creating the appropriate revenue model to support it is what is needed to make this something far more than just another over-reach. But what we have to do is create a revenue model that will allow this to work for journalists and artists alike.