Culture in the Age of Information Clutter

Virtualization of culture and its perils

Although the pandemic is almost over and already forgotten by many, it has changed our everyday lives, leaving many distinctive "scars". One of these "scars" concerns the way we consume what is known as "a cultural product" (music, movies, etc.) and the role that culture plays in this context. In other words, many patterns of behaviour that were shaped during the severe coronavirus crisis are still visible today. Failure to reflect on this fundamental shift and draw appropriate conclusions today may lead to catastrophic consequences in the future.   

Generally speaking, COVID-19 and pandemic-related restrictions have significantly sped up the "virtualization" of cultural institutions, prompting them to perceive the Internet as the primary platform for their activities rather than an extra set of nice-to-have options. As far as the rapid pace of virtualization is concerned, it is tough to identify when the Internet changes its function by turning from a tool into a platform of existence. However, there is every indication that culture is rapidly drifting online to settle in the virtual world.

First of all, "virtual culture" is becoming a fetish: these days, there is always something fashionable about virtual events. Every week we are bombarded with news reports that "neural network A has come up with a movie script" or "neural network B has re-created paintings from a certain art gallery in its way", and so on. In addition, many cultural events that previously took place offline are now moving online. This tendency includes the process of learning and sharing cultural experiences.

Interestingly enough, the value of online cultural events is often judged by their association with such hot topics as the Internet, artificial intelligence, neural networks and the like. In other words, little effort is made to evaluate the merits of an innovative product in line with traditional criteria. The same approach applies to assessing the effectiveness of online events and training sessions. Measuring the real impact is a daunting task, especially since event organizers typically use the most basic indicators, such as the number of visitors during online streaming or even the number of potential viewers capable of joining the online event in question.

Consequently, we witness the emergence of a certain "parallel culture" that seems to be getting a higher priority status than traditional culture. This is purely due to its technological element rather than its ethical or aesthetic content. The impact of this "parallel culture" on people is unclear. Its influence may be radically different to what we have experienced after consuming the usual "cultural product".

Secondly, the Internet is gradually becoming the main platform for monetizing culture, which also strongly influences the virtualization of culture. During the pandemic in 2020, even Russia saw revenues from online cultural events exceed offline revenues for the first time (57% and 43%* respectively). Although coronavirus restrictions were eased considerably in 2021, this trend continued (58% and 42%, respectively).

It all started with music in early 2010 when streaming video and audio services capitalized on easy and inexpensive access to music via smartphones and began taking market share from hard media, concert halls and movie theatres. The pandemic solidified the lead of streaming platforms which seems irreversible now. When most coronavirus restrictions were lifted, the trend continued and gained momentum. In 2021, officially registered video services saw a 28% increase in revenues, while audio services reported a 47% growth rate.

Special mention should be made of NFT digital tokens. These are setting a new standard in artwork by creating both a certain work of art and an investment opportunity. Again, evaluation criteria for such items remain very vague. It is argued that the value of NFTs will be "determined by the market". However, in this case, the market formula sounds a little tricky simply because we all know how token prices may be inflated. Some NFTs already cost a few million dollars. In 2020, around 250 million "NFT paintings" were sold. Unlike paintings by Van Gogh or Raphael, the number of digital tokens is unlimited so that the market may grow indefinitely. This, in turn, will mean that art will primarily develop in the digital space, given that artists are promised a percentage each time their digital work is resold.

It follows that culture, in one form or another, is increasingly becoming digital and virtual even though its traditional physical infrastructure is still available to us. Let us consider what this migration may entail. To identify the dangers of cultural virtualization, one need only study the lessons learned in the aftermath of the "revolution" triggered by the Internet in the information sphere. In the early days of the Internet, it was thought that an infinite number of information sources would allow people to get an objective, fact-based picture. In reality, however, the downfall of traditional media brought about chaos, poor information quality, meaningless messages, outright fakes and, in economic terms, the collapse of many professional media outlets.

These media went out of business mainly because the information they produced could not compete with other information that was more in demand in line with the laws of "free competition". It is said that "all are equal" on the Internet, so the notorious "attention economy" reigns supreme. According to the rules of the online game, unsophisticated information messages loaded with solid emotional content receive the best search rankings and are shown at the top of Internet pages. As mentioned before, the semantic value of such stories is often close to zero.  

As culture continues to migrate into the virtual space, we are breaking the traditional hierarchy in the same way. To put it differently, we seem to be playing Bach on the same footing as pop culture figures, for instance, Morgenstern, with the number of likes used as a universal evaluation. It is easy to imagine who will receive more likes and win in the end. Most importantly, applying this fundamentally different evaluation system to cultural phenomena on the Internet (where what is good or bad is determined by large numbers of unqualified users) is likely to create a different culture in no time at all. The critical difference is that the emerging culture will no longer exist somewhere parallel on the Internet. It is bound to dominate and determine what our descendants will look like.

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