Recently, while watching Casablanca for what must be the 4,538th time, I had occasion to start pondering the connection between the availability of culture and how that has affected society in general. I remember an occasion in the 1980s when my parents, returning from a trip to New York to our home in rural Cape Breton, brought with them the hardware to set up a satellite dish in our backyard. Among the necessary pieces of hardware was a VCR – top loading, with a remote control connected to the unit by a long wire. Cutting-edge technology which soon made me the envy of my friends in high school, as I was able to watch MTV back when they (believe it or not, kids) played music. My friends would supply me with blank videotapes to fill with videos – in those days, pushing “record” and walking away overnight was sufficient. No matter what was on the tape, it was the experience of being able to see new media in its infancy that my friends and I appreciated more than anything. There were the odd hour long music video programs on the air, but nothing could compare to having six whole hours of your very own music videos to enjoy over and over again.
It was the memory of being able suddenly to revisit programs again and again that got me to thinking about cultural memory and how we relate to our own culture through digital media. Once upon a time, you would go to a movie, or catch the late show on television, and the memory of the film stayed with you to a greater or lesser extent – it wasn’t possible (barring repeat showings) to watch films at will. Unlike music, which has been commercially available since the first cylinders with raised pins were used to reproduce the same music over and over again sometime in the 9th Century, the relatively youthful art of moving images were for a time ephemeral, and the messages they conveyed were carried and delivered to a public that absorbed them and remembered them as best they could.
Film, like other popular media, are reflections of the times in which they are produced; there will not, I am confident to say, be a remake of Birth of a Nation coming to the local multiplex anytime soon. If we look at films as cultural documents as well as works of art their importance in conveying social conventions, morals and mores to the public cannot be underestimated. As I watched Casablanca, however, I began to wonder what effect the availability of cultural products would have on memory, socialization and the learning of culture. The ability to choose freely (or not to choose) from thousands of cultural artifacts with significant collective meaning is a boon to historians, but if such important cultural touchstones are so readily available, why do we need to retain or absorb the messages within them? If the significant lessons of culture are contained as subtext within (for example) our dramatic performances, are these lessons cheapened by the ability to watch them on demand, or for that matter, consciously avoid those elements of the cultural mosaic that we disagree with?
We are all the result of our culture; you are the sum total of every experience, every interaction, every event that has happened to you right up until the moment you sat down to read this. The single largest influence on us from the perspective of acclimatizing us to the society we live in is our parents: without them, we wouldn’t begin to classify the world, which initially is divided into two categories: “NO” and “EVERYTHING ELSE” – those things we may not touch/do/say and those we are allowed to. The process of learning to be a member of a society continues throughout our lifespans, both formally and informally, through parents, school, peers and exposure to the media. In the past the potential exposure to media was limited; we generally speaking had the same small number of cultural products to choose to absorb or emulate. Now, given that the sheer volume of cultural capital that we have access to has grown so fast, it is not difficult to choose our influences to reinforce our worldview and ignore those cultural influences that cause us discomfort. We can create a comfortable ‘niche’ for ourselves where everyone speaks the same language and has the same views and opinions. We are all able to silence the critics at will according to our own set of beliefs and values. The ability to ignore and actively shut out dissenting opinion or challenges to our own personal status quo is unprecedented, and troubling. Taking away the need, or at least the perceived need, for logical, substantive debate is dangerous and potentially disastrous. If we can choose which elements of culture to internalize and ignore the rest based on nothing more than personal preference, we are at a dangerous place – not just politically, but societally. It’s like being able to purchase a mirror that reflects you at your best and ignores your flaws no matter how noticeable they are – it is not particularly useful to prepare you to go out into the world. What’s most troubling is not that we have the ability to create our comfortable niches, but that we may not even be aware that we are doing so.
I am not decrying the fact that culture in many forms, including film, is so widely available. It is an absolute delight to be able to have so much entertainment and art available at my fingertips. I do think, however, that those of us who are associated with the sharing of information and the dissemination of culture online or in any other new medium have a responsibility to ensure that we let people know about the breadth of experience available on offer. As human beings, it is our responsibility to continually explore what it means to be human and to share that experience for the benefit of our fellow citizens. Part of that is holding a mirror up to society that accurately reflects the good and the bad. We need to engage in reasoned debate and share informed opinions about our culture rather than succumbing to the ‘shrillocracy’, or the rule of whoever shouts loudest. We need to take responsibility for letting people know that there is more to experience and that disagreement can be constructive. Culture in all its forms, particularly the artistic or creative, is the mirror that is most reflective of the times in which it is produced. Let’s do our best to facilitate and encourage the exploration of culture, and thereby create an understanding of the meanings that lie beneath the surface of the cultural looking-glass.