What Happens When Today's Entertainment Becomes Tomorrow's Culture?
Since at least the 1940s, when Dr Frederic Wertham's Seduction of the Innocent argued that comic books were damaging our youth and causing juvenile delinquency, there has been an ongoing debate: does art create culture or merely reflect it?
For years, the standard answer on the part of content creators has been that film, books, movies and video games reflect society rather than creating or directly influencing it: movies about gun violence reflect the fact that we live in a gun culture, rather than creating a demand for firearms on our streets; misogynist rap tunes about @!$%#es and hos and pimping reflect dysfunctional gender role understanding, they don't exacerbate it or create roles that young men feel they need to emulate.
There was a time I believed this. There was a time -- as an aspiring writer, a wannabe champion of those who toil in creative pursuits -- when I wanted (yearned!) to support this notion, in the name of artistic freedom. A standard-bearer for imagination! A guardian of free speech!
Today, though, these arguments seem a bit threadbare.
Is this simply the perspective of an experienced adult who every day edges closer to having accumulated a half-century of experience and has therefore seen a few things?
Perhaps it's the perspective of a relatively new father who is at all times scanning the environment, assessing it for potential threats to the safety and well-being of his 3-1/2 year old.
Perhaps it's nothing more complicated than the jaded outlook of a former rake who's dipped his toe into just about every viscous pool of decadent behaviour he could find (in the name of Experience, you understand) and found them all wanting.
Perhaps it's all of them? (Heck, perhaps they even all amount to the same thing -- a personal version of realpolitik grown from the seeds of a lifetime of human interactions.
Regardless, I have come to the conclusion that art, culture and society participate in a dance whose steps are vastly more intricate than a black-and-white, 'reflect-versus-create' dichotomy can describe, and a host of new voices have emerged in recent years to suggest I'm not the only one.
And remember, even when they're rippped and DVD-burned, motion pictures are old tech. So, too, is recorded music. In this latter case, which has been used to document rapid evolutionary changes that have taken place in urban cultural norms over the last 20 years, it's arguably no more than a reflection of the challenges faced by inner city residents. But it's equally hard to argue that hip hop -- and more significantly, the accompanying videos -- hasn't worked to dramatically broaden and deepen the reach of these cultural norms, far in excess of anything that would have been the case in a less media intensive world, yo.
The phrase 'media intensive' is important here, because as profoundly far-reaching and rapid as these cultural changes have been, they're still largely the result of a 20th century media model of communication. An old-school, broadcast model, whether we're talking about manga, recorded music or movies. Despite the almost seismic shifts in society they've engendered in recent years, the real revolution, that of fully wired, on-demand, immersive, interactive and participative electronic virtual interaction, has not even begun to make its impact felt.
The most mature of these new media is probably that of the video game, and you only have to consider the already examined links between titles such as Grand Theft Auto and the Devon Thompson story, where a young man went on a gun rampage inside a police station in an eerie restaging of events in one of his favourite first-person video games.
In the wake of the Virginia Tech shootings, many questions (informed and otherwise) were raised about the role video games may or may not have played, and even as far back as 1999 and the Columbine tragedy, accusations of culpability were levelled against the makers of games like Doom and Redneck Rampage.
The publicity seeking histrionics of a Dr Phil aside, the debate is far from over. And yet, we're already faced with the next thing. As Newsviners, we're already using the next thing.
There have been any number of speculative articles written about how the Web 2.0 world will change the way business operates, or how it wall forever alter the way in which people communicate. Heck, I've even contributed a couple of articles to the dialogue myself.
But a much more profound question now occurs to me, if perhaps belatedly: how will what we call Web 2.0 -- and all its vast spectrum of possibilities -- manifest in terms of popular culture and in terms of its effect on the fabric of our society, on our values and on our fundamental character as a people?
That's something worth thinking about.