The digital wealth makes us poorer

The Digital Plenitude: The Decline of Elite Culture and the Rise of New Media
Forfatter: Jay David Bolter
Forlag: MIT Press (USA)
NEW MEDIA: Jay David Bolter gives a thorough description of today's digital culture, where technology makes it easy to create and shape digital communities that users fill with unpaid content.


2. June, Italy's National Day, a statue of b-actor and pop icon from the advertising industry, Bud Spencer, unveiled in the port city of Livorno to applause from the crowd. Spencer was not born there, but became world famous along with Terence Hill and a hero from childhood to Filippo Nogarin, mayor of Livorno and a member of the Five Star Movement. The initiative, which was promoted through Facebook, collected 18 000 euros to create a natural-sized statue similar to a toy from Luna Park. The online art newspaper Artribune reported this in an article where they also presented other examples, such as sculptures of favorite dogs. The newspaper saw this as a sign that populist politics has taken over yet another area of ​​social life: public art.

I write from Italy, but the experience of a complete triumph of popular – if not populist – culture is not local at all. The Digital Plenitude by Jay David Bolter undertakes the task of explaining this phenomenon from an American perspective. In the United States, the cultural antagonism between the popular and the elitist has won over the traditional, class-based antagonism between the poor and the rich. It is Bolter's thesis when he states in the preface that the American working class, unlike the European, does not react negatively to the economic divide between itself and the "1 percent richest". "Instead, the American (white) working class both sees and is harmed by the gap in attitudes and status that sets them apart from the educated elite – especially those in the media or academia: those who work with words in their profession or cold. "

The culture of convergence

Bolter is also the author of Remediation: Understanding New Media (with Richard Grusin, MIT 2000), one of the most influential texts on media practice in the convergence culture made possible through digital technology. As an expert and authority on contemporary media, he explains that the fragmentation of different hierarchies in art has been pointed out many times, but our cultural present is experienced differently, since "digital technology, including social media, makes the changes much clearer" (p. 13). He traces the collapse of the modernist paradigm back to the emergence of avant-garde art and argues that today's collapse does not mean that modernism has actually been replaced by a new paradigm (p. 19). "Instead, our media culture has become additive, in the sense that it accepts new forms (…) that sometimes cooperate with older forms (…) and sometimes compete with them" (p. 20).

Bolter establishes a new interpretive context well-known concepts about art and avant-garde, modernism and postmodernism gain new meaning.

Today's culture has a form of digital diversity which, like the internet, has no defined center, Bolter claims. Digital technology has become widespread in a way that has enabled and shaped different participating communities, without any of them being truly universal (p. 83). To understand today's culture, Bolter identifies a few characteristics that in the form of dichotomies characterize this culture's most important practices: catharsis and flow, originality and remix, organic / spontaneous and procedure-based / database, history and simulation (p. 84). Processualization, flow, remix and simulation are the most important characteristics of today's large digital society, but their counterparts also exist. In the following chapters, Bolter elegantly describes how dichotomies manifest themselves in today's digital diversity.

New opinions

I like that Bolter treats his sources as he claims that today's culture works, without any hierarchy or center: Wikipedia and documentaries are given the same relevance as books and legal documents, and anonymous commentators on YouTube are considered as important as Christopher Lasch [known as an author of among other things The narcissistic culture, 1979, ed. Note]. In this way, he establishes a new interpretive context in which old concepts of art and avant-garde, modernism and postmodernism gain new meaning. He even creates new concepts, such as "popular modernism" and "popular postmodernism".

What I do not like is that the author pays little attention to context. He emphasizes that the emphasis is on American culture, but also that several movements – Dadaism and Futurism – and the authors, from Bertolt Brecht to Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi, came from Europe. He does not acknowledge that the emphasis is on the culture of the northern hemisphere, and that the insights could have been different if the southern hemisphere had also been taken into account. Important elements are overlooked – such as social media as a successful business venture. The Enthusiastic Statement “[our] media diversity provides opportunities for hundreds of millions of people to express themselves and share their own expressions with others. It seems […] that this wealth of opportunities more than compensates for the loss of a single cultural center and a number of universal standards »hides the fact that hundreds of millions of people pay for these opportunities with their personal data and with unpaid work. When they express themselves on social media, they create content for these media without getting paid for it.

A broad research tradition explores this aspect, which the prosumption – the fusion of production and consumption in today's northern hemisphere – and making money from user-generated content. It is a pity that this is omitted. It could shed new light on the magical shift that is in its infancy, where the American working class becomes more antagonistic towards academics than towards the richest 1 percent of the population – although social conditions are often just as uncertain, see for example Virginia Eubanks book Automating Inequality (2018). Could this also be a feature of digital diversity? Is it the case that diversity makes people richer by giving them the opportunity to express themselves, but at the same time poorer by spying on them and making them work in their spare time – but also that traditional ways of obtaining verified knowledge are replaced and thus make us more ignorant? The Digital Plenitude provides a comprehensive description of today's digital culture, and many readers will find it relevant and extremely useful, while the unanswered questions require further research in the future.

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