Michael Wesch Looks at “Mediated Culture” at EDUI 2009

(Originally published in 2009, moved here 9/2013, and still highly relevant.)

Professor Michael Wesch’s talk at EDUI 2009, “Mediated Culture,” may well have been attendees’ favorite session.

Looking at relationships between individuals, communities, traditional mass media and the state, Wesch showed how blogging, YouTube, Twitter and other social media provide us with a new way of relating to one another, a way that has not been available in television and print.

Wesch builds on his own anthropological research in New Guinea, explaining that the creation of a state book of law changed the way individuals related to one another. When the law book was published, communities began to gather to measure up individuals against the rules and apply punishment accordingly. The book shifted focus from individuals’ relationships to one another to individuals’ relationship to the state. He says that the media are not just tools or means of communications but that they mediate our relationships. When media change, our relationships change.

Drawing on Neil Postman’s book, Amusing Ourselves to Death, Wesch says that our culture is far more the way Aldous Huxley envisioned it, rather than George Orwell. Huxley commented that it wouldn’t be necessary to ban books, because no one would want to read them.

Television became the primary medium for  the conversations of our culture, controlled by a few people and designed for “the masses.”  The conversations are always entertaining, even the serious ones. They’re punctuated by commercials and they create a culture of irrelevance, incoherence and impotence. As Huxley said, we are amusing ourselved to death. At the same time, because so much of the media is aimed at entertaining us, we feel special, flattered, as if shows have been created just for us.

Wesch shows a funny picture of school children demonstrating various states of boredom in the classroom and explores the origins and meanings of the word, “whatever.” He explains that reality TV has shaped the meaning of the word as, “who cares about you–I’ll do whatever I want.” In addition, kids have been told by their parents the world is their oyster. Becoming a contestant on reality TV has become the way to prove that it’s true. And, as all but the shows’ winners discover (and as they head into the world in their twenties), they see that it isn’t true. We see that discovery happening on every episode of American Idol and the other reality shows.

Moving to a discussion of digital media, Wesch comments that it is fundamentally different from anything we’ve seen before. We still use concepts from the past, such as referring to web “pages.” But Tim Berners-Lee said, long ago, that the Web is not supposed to be a glorified television channel.” And thanks to blogging, YouTube and other social media, anybody can create and publish anything for “the masses.” Evolving Web standards for web browsers have helped make that possible. It’s no longer necessary to know HTML and other aspects of digital technology to have visibility online.

(To be continued…)

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