Sunday, March 22, 2009

Musings on Mass Culture

I originally wrote this entry on August 5, 2004, and published it on

In his 2003 Aspen Institute information technology roundtable comments, John Seely Brown draws a distinction between mass and popular culture. As summarized by rapporteur, David Bollier:

In mass culture, meaning is generated and disseminated centrally, through television, radio, and film, for example. In popular culture, however, meaning is actively generated through a dynamic social process in which everyone can participate. People appropriate and change meaning as it suits their needs, tastes, and circumstances—a process that cultural anthropologists have called bricolage. The new forms of social participation and collaboration enabled by the Internet are creating new structures of identity and meaning.

I will try to write about Brown's ideas on a later occasion, but here are some immediate musings, not necessarily last thoughts, that follow along the lines Brown has set up.

The development of personal identity depends on social participation. Pure, non-participatory consumption creates only mechanical beings lost in the world.

Mass culture assumes, creates and regenerates consuming machines.

Popular culture requires participating creatures.

Andy Warhol's work celeberated mass culture and its icons but also tranforms them through a kind of participation which may, today, raise copyright issues. I'm not sure if such issues were raised when Warhol produced his work, for example, his Micky Mouse images.

Writing of weblogs is certainly a participatory activity but of course the possibilities and realities of disembodied communities and their resilience is a different matter all together worthy of a real dialogue.

As an example of popular culture, consider Tai Chi, as I saw it in Daqing, Harbin, Bejing, Chengdu, Xi'an, Kunming and Shanghai. People wake up in the morning, meet friends, do Tai Chi, have tea, walk to work, home or finish breakfast. One does all of this with no payments necessary and as the city walks by, or at least, that used to be the case in 1990 - 1991, when I lived and worked in China's north eastern provinces.

As an example of mass culture, consider aerobics exercises to the music of Britney Spears with the required equipment and the payments made to your local club. (I have to admit, I could be totally wrong with this particular example. There may be a real feeling of participation and community involvement that one feels when one joins these exercises or clubs for at least a short period while in the club. I doubt the feeling extends when one goes out into the city. In any case, there's nothing in the commercial activity of the usual clubs that would facilitate that. I'm basing my observation on limited personal observation as an outsider, not any real involvement of my own.)

When the producers of mass culture become overzealous in the perpetual protection of their revenue streams from cultural products, they lobby for laws that effectively banish to oblivion other cultural material. Lawrence Lessig's Free Culture describes this very salient point.

The trouble is that the vast majority of the U.S. public rely on non-participatory television, the greatest instrument of non-participatory mass culture, as a source of news and views.

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