New Media, Old Culture: meeting the Luce Foundation selection board

By | February 5, 2010

I wasn’t able to get a blog post up earlier this week because I spent Tuesday and Wednesday with the Henry Luce Foundation’s fellowship selection board (and Thursday catching up on all the sleep I didn’t get Monday and Tuesday night). But I wanted to get something up so a handful of scattered, poorly articulated thoughts ahead:

Recursive Thinking

It was a refreshing break in perspective from the marketing/advertising/media/consumer culture world. The selectors were astonishingly accomplished individuals who hand strong hands in international politics, policy, development, finance, and so forth.

The questions I was asked over the course of two days were provocative and unlike any that I’ve dealt with from corporations or colleagues. After all, here were people who knew tremendous amounts about culture, media, politics and the world at large, but not about what I knew about. And it made me realize how insular our world can become, how easy it is to find ourselves shaping discourse exclusively with those working from a shared set of assumptions, and how much that might potentially hinder new thinking.

It seems reasonable to want to step back from the building recursion of conversations and interrogate some of the fundamental assumptions. Not just popular opinions that have been taken as fact but ideas so deeply a part of the very structure of thinking around new media that they’ve become naturalized. One of the questions I was asked is that if I were consulting with a company that wanted to bring a new product to Asia, what would be my most crucial and fundamental piece of advice? I gave a number of examples and talked around it a bit, but the core of my answer was simply this: that thing that you think you most know, the most absolute conviction you have — let go of it. If you can’t make room for your own ignorance, you can’t begin to rectify it.

So what’s the most fundamental, unquestioned assumption about new media? What immediately came to mind was first that new media is new and more to the point, that it’s what’s changed that strive to understand if we are to anticipate what’s to come. As a long-standing CMS tenant, there is as much continuity in media (and media use) as there is rupture. There is, it seems, as much to be learned from looking at what hasn’t changed, the habits and behaviors and desires that have endured across technological development are what can point us how technological change will be adopted and adapted. For instance, we think of fanservice — media producers following conversations about their properties online and then changing scripts in response — as relatively new, afforded by online forums and blogging. But fanservice has been the very foundation of the monolithic Northeast Asian idol industry since the 1960s, and before that, Arthur Conan Doyle brought Sherlock Holmes back from the dead due to fan response. And looking at what remains the same can give us insight into what has changed: after all, the re-emergence of fan service in broadcast media can be attributed to the fact that we’ve come back to a point in which media production technologies and consumer technologies are matched in speed.

Another problematic assumption we’ve come to rely on is that the new is desirable. There’s such a focus in industry now on early adopters and the “bleeding edge” (and honestly, did no one think that metaphor through? You have to cut before you bleed, so the bleeding edge is actually just a bit behind the cutting edge) that there’s a tendency to assume a “wired” group who “gets it” and everyone else and that it’s the former that’s engaged and informed. Too often the assumption is that not everyone has adopted a technology simply because they’re behind and will sooner or later catch up and fall in line. But this perceived lagging group includes people like those that I met with on Tuesday and Wednesday who no doubt wield greater influence in the affairs of the world than any social media guru can ever dream of. Why aren’t we thinking more about their media use (or lack thereof)? Why aren’t we giving deeper consideration to how they use these tools, which tools they consider valuable, and how they might reshape the way these tools are used when they do decide to join in? In focusing to narrowly on new media culture, do we run the risk of dismissing culture at large?

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