Category Archives: culture

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We all know teens can’t spell. And parents blame technology. And they’re partially right.

In talking with teens, the lack of available namespace is something that regularly comes up. They can’t get the screenname they want on AIM or the URL they want on MySpace. So, they go with alternate spellings. It’s fascinating to talk to them about how they started mucking with the spelling of words to create accounts on this that or the other system. Can we blame the lack of meaningful namespaces for the destruction of English? Perhaps.

Once on these systems, they want to create a unique identity, something that really identifies them, something that has “personality.” Personality… personalization. Why not personalize the English language? Suh-weet. This makes it fun and expressive. (My favorite part of this is that when someone goes to copy/paste an AIM into Xanga, they have to be very careful to change the spelling to that person’s style if they’re going to mod the copy/paste and pretend like that was the real conversation.) So maybe we can blame the fact that teens are stuck at home, bored, and wanting to be expressive?

SMS is, of course, taking this to a whole new level. This is pretty well known outside of the US where SMS-speak has destroyed native tongues everywhere, but we’re only about a year into massive texting adoption amongst teens in the States. Now, they’re trying to be expressive using as few characters as possible. Remember when secretaries used to learn shorthand? Imagine how fast a teen today would be at that. Maybe we should train them to be secretaries and give them phones? Scratch that. But once again, the solution to a technological limitation is to mess with the English language. Hmm.

The English language is not actually that stable. Go check out some Old English texts and you’ll see all sorts of peculiar spelling of familiar words. It took a long time for English to evolve to its current structure. I can’t help but wonder if that evolution just sped up.

to remember or to forget? on babies and beer goggles

to remember or to forget? on babies to beer goggles

At a dinner party long ago, a debate emerged about the importance of forgetting versus the techno-utopian desire to remember *everything*. As the animation level of the debate approached unmanageable, a woman at the table confronted the most vocal of the anti-forgetting people, asking him if he was the first child. He looked at her oddly and said no, the second. She smirked and told him that he should be thankful for the power of forgetting because no woman in her right mind would ever go through childbirth a second time if she could clearly recall the pain involved. Needless to say, her point resulted in many muted giggles.

Lately, i’ve been reading too much about the history of courtship in the United States. “From Front Porch to Back Seat” offers great insight into just how brand new the 1950s image of “dating” is. Go back 100 years and no proper girl would ever be caught dead out in public with a suitor. Girls chose which boys could call on them (boys had no choice) and these calls were taken at the girl’s home, initially with a chaperone present. Working class girls had no parlors and thus couldn’t take calls; they met boys in public spaces. Rich girls, irritated by the limits of traditional courtship, began rebelling by taking to the streets with their beaus. Slowly, from there, public dating became the common practice for courtship. Ironically, what is now perceived as solidly middle class in terms of practice originated from working class and was solidified by the rebellious upper class.

Public dating began a radical re-gendering of courtship. The move out of the home (viewed as a woman’s sphere) into the public (viewed as a man’s sphere) shifted everything. This was further magnified by the fact that the move to public required money and money was boy’s money. While calling-driven courtship was controlled by women, men began calling the shots when it moved out of the home. They chose who they wished to date, they controlled where the date was to take place, etc. The norms also shifted as girls became popular by dating as many good-looking men as possible (and vice versa). Dating was not about love or companionship, but solely about status. The iconic image seems to forget that.

Part of how this image of dating was solidified in mainstream culture as normative has to do with mainstream media’s perpetuation of the cultural norms. Magazines, TV, and movies all perpetuated this image of dating, providing structure to the ritual. Today, as we are caught in our own confusions about courtship, we long for the idyllic image of dating that never really existed, the image that the media “forgot” to convey. We no longer have social scripts for how to go about mating. I love asking teens and college students about dating… The term seems so antiquated, so wrong. Sure, teens have boyfriends and girlfriends, but ask them how they met or how they knew they were dating and all lines get blurry real fast. Hell, ask most 20-somethings about how they went from a hookup to being partners – they have no idea either.

While we continue to perpetuate an image of dating as an institution, the realities of courtship are quite fuzzy. A few too many drinks and Mr. Playboy takes home the hottie in the corner; the hottie thinks a relationship’s brewing while Mr. Playboy blames beer goggles. Close friends begin adding benefits to their friendship – is a Relationship emerging or is it solely Friends with Benefits? Ideally, we’d all be good at communicating the state of our relationships with others, but the truth is that we suck at reflexivity.

Then again, do we really want precise communicative efficacy? Sometimes, the fuzzy line is more desirable. What if you don’t know what you want? Land-o-gray is a hell of a lot more simpler than full commitment or complete anti-commitment. Besides, plausible deniability is a girl’s best friend. But there’s a difference between the blurred space and the incomplete crystalized image from the silver screen. The further we move from the space in which that was created, the more we “remember” something that never existed.

Now, imagine that you had to face every uncomfortable dating situation ever for the rest of your life, every awkward disconnect, every terrible blind date, every painfully unpleasant interaction. Would you ever date again? All around me, my friends are becoming dating-phobic because they’re terrified of messing up one more time. I watch as they swing to extremes, overcompensating for the last relationship disaster. And they don’t even remember the details of what went wrong! (Which reminds me… you out there… you really hated him when you broke up the first time, the second time AND the third time… don’t get back together just because he’s being nice now!)

While i’m all down for remembering everything i ever read, just imagine the havoc wreaked on courtship by remembering today. First off, you “remember” interactions that never took place because you read the details of her blog before you even met. Next, all of those blog entries you wrote reminds you of your own emotional naiveté because you were in lurve. And now you have the snarky emails and IMs and texts that show that you’re a complete dickwad and are the root cause of all relationship woes. You have the video of your breakup that you watch over and over again to see what you could’ve done better so that you don’t feel like such shit. Oh, and you have shelves of DVDs that prove that your relationship looks nothing like what “normal” relationships should look like (proof through Molly Ringwald). Somehow, just as you’re starting to feel better, you think that it couldn’t _really_ hurt to look at her MySpace. Only you found that she erased your very existence in an effort to delete the relationship out of memory. And you wonder why you’ve stolen every emo MP3 out there.

I don’t think it’s just babymaking that we want to forget. There are good reasons for the tried-and-true attitude that you can’t immediately just be friends post-breakup. The reason you take time away is to forget. The reason you want to forget is because it’s how you make sure your ego doesn’t go suicidal on you. The natural decay of negative memories is quite useful. The re-organizing of your past allows you to be confident in who you are today. (We all remember middle school sucking, but do you really remember the details of it or just an abstraction? Statistics suggest that the #1 feeling you felt was boredom, but i suspect that’s not the first emotion that comes to mind when you think of le sucktitude of middle school.)

Media has made it difficult for cultural memories to fade. We don’t remember the days of house calls for courtship because society moved away from that rather quickly (and few read beyond the Crib Notes of 11th grade English texts). But thanks to TV and movies, we “remember” past practices and norms. Does this mean that culture will have a much harder time evolving with the times? Or perhaps it means that there will be an ever-increasing disconnect between the generations because even though your mom didn’t fall in love like Ingrid Bergman, she’s still gonna imagine that this is how it’s supposed to be. How does the non-forgetfulness of archival media influence our culture’s ability to shift over time?

We are building technology with the implicit desire to remember everything. Every interaction, every feeling, every idea. Why? Perhaps this isn’t such a good thing. I for one would like to see my digital memories fade into hearts and flowers. Of course, being the ever-benevolent giver, technology has decided to invent a different solution: “the memory pill” (guaranteed to obliterate negative memories so that you can overcome the memory of murdering your wife… err… i mean, PTSD…). Better living through chemistry and technology, right? Right??? Bueller?

This Film Is Not Yet Rated

Last night, i went to see This Film Is Not Yet Rated (and the director Kirby Dick) over at USC. I had wanted to see the movie since Cory reviewed it on BoingBoing. Wow.

While most people i’ve talked to are fascinated with the legal (copyright, first amendment, etc.) issues involved, what i really enjoyed was the portrayal of how we leverage protectionist rhetoric and “child safety” to uphold hegemonic moral values that will aid industry. This isn’t actually about the children; it’s about maintenance of power. One of the sections that really highlights this is a discussion on how the MPAA handles violence. Glorified violence (a.k.a. no blood) is PG-13 while imagery that shows the consequences of violence (a.k.a. blood) is R. In a country that is at war and with a generation of soldiers who think that war is like a video game, this bugs the shit out of me. God do i worry about those kids coming back – they’re not doing so well.

Mechanical sex is R while sex that shows female pleasure is NC-17. Heterosexual interactions are PG-13 while homosexual interactions are R. What values are we upholding here? For me, it was particularly compelling to hear the director of Boys Don’t Cry speak. I saw a pre-release viewing of that film with an audience of queer and transgendered folks. I started crying during the opening credits. In depicting the brutality that queer and trans folks experience, that movie broke my heart. And for that reason, i wish that i could get every teen on the planet who’s screaming faggot this and faggot that to watch it. I was ecstatic when Swank won the Oscar. I was horrified to learn that it was rated NC-17 for sexual pleasure and the rape scene (but not for the brutal violence). While i find rape scenes horrifying, most movies fail to show just how devastating being raped is; it’s simplified, pretty-ified. There’s nothing pretty about it in “Boys Don’t Cry.” It’s realistic and heartbreaking, the kind of thing that should be shown precisely because it is anti-glorifying.

Anyhow, go watch the film. It’s worth it.

the fabric of elephant society

I read the NYTimes’ article on shifts in elephant society a few weeks ago but BB’s post reminded me to post it. In short, elephant society is going haywire. The young males are not being properly socialized into the elephant herds because of not having older patriarchs and matriarchs to keep them in line. As a result, there’s massive amounts of unchecked violence and aggression. Violence is rampant now, as is what appears to be PTSD (resulting in more violence). Anyhow, read the article. It’s a fascinating look into the collapse of society. (And obviously, there are interesting questions of parallels…)

Henry Jenkins and Convergence Culture

While i was off playing this summer, one of my dear mentors (and a good friend) went off and started blogging. There are few people that i respect more than Henry Jenkins and i’m *sooo* stoked to get a daily dose of Henry insightfulness – i deeply miss that from my days at MIT. I feel bad for not being around to properly welcome him to the blogosphere. **WELCOME!** I strongly encourage everyone to check out Henry’s blog – i’m sure you’ll find it as mentally yummy as i do.

For those who work in the tech or media industry and don’t know Henry, shame on you. Henry is the expert on participatory culture and really gets “user generated content” because he studies how fans create content and culture around their favorite artifacts. Over the years, he’s looked at everything from fan fiction to WWF, gaming to Columbine, children’s culture to media consumption. His work is seminal and uber-relevant to folks interested in media and tech.

His latest work is particularly relevant to those interested in what’s going on with YouTube and MySpace, Lost and American Idol. Henry just published a book called Convergence Culture which provides a set of case studies where media is converging in interesting ways. Video games are telling the backstories to movies. TV has become participatory. Etc. This is precisely why i find LA fascinating – old media and new media are converging because the consumers are making them. This is a must-read book for folks trying to understand why and how people are engaging in all sorts of new media practices.

PS: Henry also has a really good article on Four Ways to Kill MySpace for you MySpace folks…

PPS: In case you missed it before, Henry and i co-authored a piece on MySpace and DOPA

Cognition, cults and ethnography

One of the goals of ethnography is to understand cultures on their own terms, from the perspectives of the people living them. Spending so much time thinking this way makes me really good at making sense of two people fighting – i’m able to see both sides of an argument and how different psychological frames lead to different impressions of a situation. (Of course, playing relationship therapist is not one of my favorite roles.) Over time, i’ve also gotten a lot better at understanding disparate political ideologies and other systems differences. Of course, it often bugs me that i can easily see the world from a conservative frame or from the position of big business. I prefer to stay meta where i think those frames are culturally devastating. But it is useful to be able to see the world from a different POV. And then there’s religions and cults.

In trying to analyze religion and cults, i find that i can never truly understand the experience from the POV of the people experiencing them. I am always meta, analyzing the effects and practices from a safe distance. Part of this is that i’m scared of getting too deeply embedded. So then i started thinking about what i’m afraid of.

One of the things that intrigues me about both religion and cults is their use of DMT in their rituals and initiation rites. DMT is produced by your brain when under great stress, during sleep deprivation, fasting and meditation. (It can also be synthetically introduced.) When experiencing heightened DMT production, people are very vulnerable, very open. This is critical for communing with God, but it can also be easily manipulated. Given the practices of many self-help cults, it is not surprising to me that many self-help attendees come out thinking that they’ve found the path to improving their lives. They’ve just gone through an intense experience where they’re stripped of control (must ask to go to the bathroom), sleep depped, food controlled, and pushed to reveal their deeply buried demons to a group of strangers who challenge them and push them further. This tightly bonds you with the strangers, with the ideas. This is coupled with a change in language thought to be needed to help understand the deeper truths, but in fact, used to help mark inside/outside positioning. The moves are brilliant and it’s not surprising that there are different degrees of cult-ness, but that’s a different post.

Both religion and cults change worldviews. One could say the same about politics but i don’t know if it’s the same. I started wondering about the effects of DMT production on this process. Most likely, given its hallucinogenic properties and other research on hallucinogens, DMT production results in an altering of synaptic connections. In other words, when you’re producing a high level of DMT, you can build strong synaptic relationships between previously unrelated ideas (apophenia). Given the rapid language transitions i’ve seen in people, i feel like there has to be a neural effect of cult participants, probably because of DMT. (Is there? Chemists?)

This then puts me into an interesting bind as an ethnographer trying to make sense of these things. If there are changes to the neural processes, are there ways to see practitioners on their own terms? Is it possible to understand the cultures there without experiencing the effects that the rituals are meant to bring on? I have to imagine that anthropologists studying religion and religious practices went through some of this. (Anyone?)

This then cycles back. What are the cognitive/neural pathway differences between different cultures based on their practices and belief systems? We usually get at this through the differences in language with metaphors being a very notable synaptic difference. But what else is going on? Who studies the cognitive/neuro models of culture anyhow? Hmm…

(Caterina: this one is for you.)

remix is active consumption not production (when media becomes culture, part 2)

After great comments and good conversations, i want to take a second stab at explaining the shift i was asking for wrt copyright and remix. My argument is that we stop thinking of remix as production, but as active consumption. Remix happens as a bi-product of consumption. What we’re remixing is culture and the active consumption of culture is part of identity development and living as a social creature in society.

Think about clothing consumption. Few people buy all of the items on the mannequin. You buy different pieces and mix and mash them. You might even decide to alter them by adding patches, by dying them, by cutting them up. You make the clothing yours. And then you share your consumption with the world by parading on the streets. In this way, you make the clothing tell your story. (tx Kevin Bjorke)

Think about IKEA consumption. Isn’t it great that they lay out entire rooms for you to look at? Do any of you have rooms that are exactly like the ones in IKEA? You take furniture, you mix and mash it up until it suits you. You may paint it, you may add a different bedspread, you’ll add your own books. You then invite your friends over to show them what you’ve done.

Are you expected to consume clothing or IKEA exactly as prescribed? No. These items are made to be personalized, made to be altered to meet your needs.

So what is fan fiction? I take a story and i alter it to tell my story. What is hip hop remix? I take a bunch of different sounds and put them together in a way not prescribed by the mannequin.

From clothing to songs, we consume and we connect it to our lives. We’ve always done this with media. We’ve made collages out of magazines, we’ve put together pieces of songs in a new sequence for our friends. Of course, now, the cultural bits that we consume are more accessible Lego blocks. It’s possible to play with them in new ways. And there are so many more choices that we can be really creative with that play. We can consume culture in new ways and what we shit out in that process actually gets to be digested and mixed together with other bits of culture that we consumed.

There’s a problem though and that has to do with distribution. When i parade around the public square in my remix of the Gap and Nike (well,…), i am sharing my remix with the world. Yet, there’s nothing persistent or searchable about it. What happens when my friends snap a photo of me? They are making the remix more permanent but, still, no one from those megacorps sees what i’ve done. What happens when my friends sell that picture to the tabloids for a bazillion dollars because Britney and her new baby are also in the photo? And they are also wearing a different remix of various megabrands? I wasn’t remixing clothing for distribution. Of course, even that does happen. Ever seen pictures of celebrities in magazines where it says the top was made by Ralph Lauren and the skirt was made by Versace or whatever?

When Jonah Peretti sent his conversation with Nike to a few friends, was he distributing it? What about when it got forwarded to millions of people and got him spots on TV? In digital world, our intentions and the potential results might not be the same. You might be speaking to six people in your blog. It might feel like the town square but what happens when millions of people apparate there like it’s a Quidditch match? Only witches know this instant appearance of beyond imaginable audiences with some of them under invisibility cloaks. Yet, online, we’re living like witches. Is it distribution when we’re performing to beyond imaginable publics and lots of people are taking pictures?

What about when we’re intending to share to our friends just like we’ve always done? Why do corporate interests get to tell us that our sharing with our friends is now bad even though we’ve ALWAYS done it? Is this only because they get to be the voyeur in the room? Who gave them that right? Sure, it’s a new public, but yuck. I can’t imagine growing up with a RIAA rep perched in my school bathroom.

A huge part of the identity process is to consume culture, mix it and personalize it, and share that with our friends because it has identity implications. We even share in public so that we can get parents to scrunch up their noses. Just because technology puts the elephant in every room imaginable, why do we have to accept their dictation of how we should consume their products? Why can’t we consume for identity, for culture, for life? Why can’t we recognize that remixes are active consumption where we’ve made culture personal and for our friends? We live in a world where accidental distribution is always possible, where everyone has the potential to be a celebrity in public – everyone wants to copy them. That’s weird. But that doesn’t mean that the acts we’re doing aren’t what we’ve always done. We just have different technologies now but the practice hasn’t changed.

when media becomes culture: rethinking copyright issues

After listening to representatives from the RIAA and EFF speak past each other, i found myself frustrated at how to push the debate further. It looks like such a religious issue (two sides who simply can’t understand each other) but i have to think that there’s a way of progressing the debate. I turned to Mimi and asked her what she thought. She pointed out that the most important issue is always lost in these discussions: the use of media in remix (and other “infringement”) is primarily not about art or creative expression, but about communication. This hit me over the head like a hammer.

Mass media has done such a good job at embedding their copyright into culture that it has become culture itself. The watercooler effect is what happens when media becomes the bits of communication – it’s what lets us share our values and interests, determine common ground, etc. Conversations swirl around TV characters, brands and movie quotes. I remember two kids in college deciding to only express themselves through Monty Python quotes in conversation. They felt that every question or comment necessary was already present in the movie. Of course, much of the language that i use is straight from media. Take a look at my posts and you’ll find littered references to songs and movies, sometimes cited, sometimes not. Perhaps the language of cinema truly is universal?

With new media, we have begun to communicate using more than just words. You see LJers use different photos and animated gifs on different comments as their signature of sorts. Personalized ringtones are all about associating sounds with people, building in-jokes and cultural references into the communication channels. Hip-hop certainly has an artistic bent but there’s also a long-standing tradition of telling your story. Remember mixed tapes as a way to say something to someone? Or when girls made collages out of YM magazines? Lives are littered with media and as we become adept at using it to communicate our thoughts, it will appear more and more, in spite of copyright.

To magnify the issue, our communications have become increasingly persistent. While we still produce a great deal of ephemeral communications, digital and mobile technologies make much of our communication persistent. The remixed sounds of the local club suddenly have mass appeal. But at what cost? On one hand, folks want to get their expressions out to the masses, but when their expressions include copyrighted material, they are at risk.

But with media saturating our culture, how do we express ourselves devoid of references to copyrighted material? Why can’t a kid wear a hand-made iPod costume for Halloween? Why can’t i tell my story through the songs that i’ve listened to over the years? Media is the building block of storytelling and it has become so essential to what we do.

The RIAA (and other such organizations) have been so successful at getting their media distributed that they have become culture. In turn, this means that they are the building blocks in which communication occurs. At this, they balk. Do they have the right to? Do they have the right to limit culture built on top of culture? If i want to tell my story using the cultural elements that have become a part of my life, do i need to recognize the RIAA and such as the controllers of culture? This is a dangerous limitation.

Copyright was meant to help artists get their work out. Mickey Mouse is out there; they were super successful and the copyright owners made billions. But now Mickey Mouse is culture – it symbolizes far more than Disney. Do the copyright holders have the right to control culture in this way? They’ve succeeded beyond most artists.

We have rights for parody and fair use, but perhaps we need to push it further, to make space for when copyright becomes culture. And then let it at the hands of the culture.

Of course, power likes to maintain power, even when it means forgetting what it was originally fighting for. The RIAA and such want to own culture – that power is so tasty. But why should we let them? When they restrict the growth of culture, they are no longer serving the people or the intentions of copyright – they are simply serving themselves. They are also unfortunately doing a good job of convincing artists that the only way to become part of culture is to go with their model. I realized that we don’t need to educate the masses – we need to educate these behemoths about culture, its creation, their role and the intentions behind the laws that they’ve used as shield for so long.

Creative Commons is fighting the RIAA on their terms, helping cement the legal structure as is. But honestly, CC is not creating culture in the same way that mass media products are. Sure, many of us want that to be the case, but will Christina and Britney ever be CC artists? Will Fox ever make its TV shows CC? Will indie ever overcome pop? The very nature of pop is that it’s about mainstream and this means buying into the power holders instead of the underdogs. That makes it really hard to overturn the cultural empire. Perhaps we should think about how to reframe the debate, focusing on the cultural output of mainstream artists rather than trying to play on their turf?

Honestly, i don’t know how but i definitely agree with Mimi that the debates miss the communication and cultural sharing aspect, focusing instead on the material component.

Update: i wrote a Part Two