Digital technology has transformed our world, opening up and bringing the everyday to culture and heritage.
We’ve formed new habits of mind and new ways of sharing our memories and identities. Digital inexorably opens up local communities and entire nations to the rest of the world, yet this technology isn’t appreciated as much as it should be.
Culture itself is in a constant state of becoming. As you look at an African mask, a New York bagel or a mug of British tea, history, relationships and emotions all come together right in front of you. But that “coming together” moment is fleeting—and it’s unique to you. The spaghetti junction of cultural connections is continually mutating—as history is made, as relationships are born or die, and as emotions brighten or fade away.
Digital is a tool that not only facilitates culture but also furthers its formation. It is a “cultural tool.” Looking through time, various people, texts and machines have transcended their elementary purpose and become catalysts that make connections expand and glow. These tools help spark emotion, ignite pride and trigger those spaghetti-junction connections to make sense: “I am part of this culture.”
Digital platforms also encourage people to “dial in” and actively participate in their popular, national culture. In the UK, hashtagging and conversing over Saturday night TV or retweeting “Very British Problems” bring an end to the passive consumer, as broadcasters adapt to the power of the intelligent, digital audience.
Audiences are the savviest they have ever been with the most broadcasting power at their fingertips. With this, digital offers an opening to an intelligent cultural dialogue. It generates proclamation for a nation that goes further than an archaic anthem or custom. Through digital, people can now carve a personable, shared culture and heritage.
But whilst digital is a neutral device, in the wrong hands it can be used to open cultural darkness. Havas CEO David Jones argues that we live in an “Age of Damage.” Through digital platforms, consumers can create mass movements and sanction leaders or businesses that do not behave the way they want them to.
More unsettling is cyber bullying, online suicide cults or even the London riots that were triggered by Twitter and Facebook events. The point to note here is that these are still types of digital communities and subcultures. The tool of digital can facilitate the formation of shared culture, but it cannot dictate the actors who use it.
On a wider scale, and what excites most, is that digital technology has enabled people to see in to other cultures and simultaneously allowed other cultures to speak out. The geographical distances of endangered ecosystems, civic revolts or communist dominance have been broken down to much closer proximity via blogging, Twitter and even Google Earth. This makes it much harder for us to plead ignorance.
Unlike philosophers and their critical theories, such as the Situationists in the ’60s with their idealised fight against mass consumerism, digital preaches the everyday. It also reveals the wonderment along with the granular and uncompromising; what we don’t always wish to see, but what is most important for us as a person, as a community, as a culture.
I don’t think any other tool of culture has performed so brilliantly. Digital is an effusive catalyst that has opened up and brought the everyday to our world, our heritage and communities—all cultures, great and small. So where’s the appreciation for that?
Kathryn Butterfield is a junior planner at gyro London.