May 25, 2020
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Pop Goes Culture

The new infotech culture causes a shift in a whole way of life

Pop Goes Culture
Software For The Self: Culture And Technology
By Anthony Smith
Faber and Faber Rs 275
THE Swiss playwright and novelist, Max Frisch, had described technology in his celebrated novel, A Wilderness of Mirrors, as the "knack of so arranging the world that we no longer need to experience it". With the rapid advance of technology—what would happen to our 'ways of life' and 'the structures of feeling' with its salient areas of 'knowledge, beliefs, law, morals and customs?' Cable and satellite communication spread via camcorders, e-mail, desk-top publishing, video recorders, the Internet, virtual reality and High Definition Television (HDTV) have already changed our perceptions across the board from high culture to popular culture of the masses. Anthony Smith in his T.S. Eliot Memorial lectures published as Software for the Self: Culture and Technology believes that because media and information highways have created a public sphere, a neutral zone through which relevant information passes and is by its very nature free, the division between minority/popular culture has disappeared and everyone is in the same melting pot.

Smith examines the shape of things to come from four perspectives: Arts and Government and The Arts in an Age of Bureaucracy; Making Culture Prevail—Arnold's Vision and Television; Information as a Paradigm of Culture; New Technologies and New Illusions which are then rounded up in The Future of Entertainment. Smith defines the 'arts' which are a crucial element in any culture, as a standard of high excellence—that is high culture or aesthetic sensibility, the stuff that only the 'cultured' know and which resides in museums, theatres, universities and music halls.

Oscar Wilde's definition of the first principles of aesthetics that "art never expresses anything but itself" is no longer economically viable in market-led economies. Art has to be a player in the economic field even if this means being paraded and cos-meticised as another product in the supermarket. Art has to be marketed along with other materials of tourism" with a subsidiary political role as providers of prestige and the underpinnings of a new nationalism."

Art has to be subsidised. But would the state which has emerged as a giant holding company for the new information technology not put curbs on the art market? Smith believes that the concept of the mega-State, with its tentacles everywhere, is dead now. The political changes that resulted in the communist world system and the end of the Cold War owed a great deal to easy accessibility to information. Centralised states could no longer control information: faxes, e-mail, the Net went across borders. National boundaries were porous and the mindset changed forever. Besides, in a glob-alised capitalist economy money flows round the world in electronic impulses, as if borders were not there any more.

Changes in the technologies of communications ultimately leads to changes in "the hierarchies of sensing". Smith examines the role of photography and the cinema and how they provide new illusory pleasures.

Cinema and television dominated our ways of representing the world. Now, as they themselves pass into history, their offspring technologies (HDTV etc.) suggest different ways of representing the world. Communication technologies with the advent of more sophisticated computers because "we could see 'through' images more than we saw 'of' them. We had begun to sense that living realities were shaped by process and conventions, that the advertising of politicians was different from the advertising of goods; but the kinds of belief and acceptance we'd been trained to offer were themselves exposed to the results of aesthetic convention; the arrangement of these had been disclosed to us, like the cracking of a code. But the code had been built into the sensoriums; so the better we knew the medium, the better we saw through it."

The picture became an "institutionalised disillusion". The more we saw the picture, the more we disbelieved it because the picture was only a partial reflection of reality. So, Smith says that "the culmination of the cult of the image was not the 'demystification' that the radicals of the '60s envisaged as a form of liberation, but our complete mistrust of it."

Communication technologies have impacted enormously on our lives which "presage a cultural shift, an alteration in the means of culture and therefore in the definitions of culture". A whole way of life that "encompassed all the characteristic activities of a people will change." The distinct shift in cultural values is clearly seen in the newly emerging forms of the entertainment industry. Hitherto, it was TV with primarily aesthetic concerns that provided entertainment for the family. But with the breakdown of the nuclear family, the home was no longer the primary focus. Audiences, too, have been reconceptualised into groups and specialised interests which has meant many more programmes, with an emphasis on soap operas like Dallas, Coronation Street, Eldorado, and so on. Media aided by technology will 'educate' people into ever-pro-filerating forms of entertainment to stimulate the boredom we are afflicted with.

Technology manipulated by the hidden persuaders of the market will worm its way into all aspects of our lives. There is no way out if you want to be in the race—or as a wag put it, "either you are part of the steamroller now or part of the road."

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