The explosion of diverse cultures
© Copyright 1994-2002, Rishab Aiyer Ghosh. All rights reserved.
Electric Dreams #39

As information societies spawn around the world they grow to form a sprawling web, a gigantic amalgam of peoples, citizens of the closest thing to a global village. Despite this apparent unification of humankind, the idea that the smaller the world becomes with the increasing speed of travel and levels of communication, the more similar its inhabitants will be, is blatantly false and is one of the least obvious leftovers of the industrial era.

The assembly-line model of industrial society called for total standardization as the ultimate goal. This applied even to the trade in knowledge commodities such as news and entertainment. The industrial age provided the breeding ground for the development of monolithic news organizations, who would (and often still do) gather widely distributed information, channel it through centralized editorial processing, and then disseminate the same news to millions of customers. The industrial age also brought us mass-produced, standardized entertainment for massive, uniform audiences. In a process of 'mainstreaming', television and large movie producers targeted the lowest common denominator - in terms of popularity, not necessarily of quality or taste - exploiting the economies of scale rather as if providing entertainment was like making steel rods.

Which it was, in a way. Even had producers wished to reach smaller, diverse markets, it was hardly convenient to learn whether such niche markets for cultural produce existed. Now, or in the near future, it is. The information market talks back, and what were a few producers get subsumed in a population of those who no longer simply consume. Selling culture though, is just as possible with two-way traffic as with monotonous broadcasting. And the big culture factories seem to hope that the global village will magnify their economies of scale infinitely. They are mistaken, as the market for culture is exploding, but into fragments.

The collapse of the Soviet empire brought with it two seemingly contradictory movements. An outburst of cultural feeling, expressed in the often violent breaking up of nations in a perverse flood of national identity; and a strange attempt to paper over cultural differences with a nominal sense of shared identity based on geography or economics - the 'Asian Way' for instance, covers a population speaking 25 major languages and following over 8 religions. These movements reflect two major aspects of the information revolution - the increased ability to communicate easily across cultural barriers, and the new- found ability to identify and form ever smaller cultural units.

This last aspect has not been fully realized except in the only functioning information society in existence - the Internet. While it is true that the Internet has adopted English as its lingua franca given the lack of automatic translation systems, it is far from homogenous. The Internet is full of hundreds of alternative subcultures including several that don't (or couldn't) exist in the world outside. Despite its relatively small 'national' population and several similarities between users, it is not one market, but thousands - because they are so easy to create.

New markets and cultures happen on the Internet just as they are beginning to happen in, say, the world of music CDs. Due to the low costs of production and distribution, a multitude of musical genres is now available, just as a multitude of cultures is spread out in cyberspace. It is growing far simpler to discover and participate in cultures other than one's own. Mainstreaming is dead. De- streaming has begun.

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