Sunday, March 27, 2011

What's Old is New Again

"However, we need to remember at this point that the technologist is a social being and that all this is taking place within the social sphere. The social has obviously informed the model thus far. The scientist conceptualizing necessary fundamental understandings are as much social beings, exponents of and prisons of the culture that produced them, as are the technologists who have ideas for devices and build prototypes".
-Brian Winston: Media Technology and Society

Technology is often pictured as a scientific march to the sea- the conquering power of digitalization enacting a scorched earth policy that wipes out older developments. Yet Jenkins and Winston both point to the powerful social factor that determines the need, use, and proliferation of any new technology. To use music as an example, a simple model would show vinyl, the switch to CDs, and then mp3. Always better, easier, more convenient, but there there are additional social factors to the equation. Vinyl is regaining popularity, and contemporary artists such as The Killers and Ryan Adams are offering new releases on vinyl. For artists, records are a deterrent to technologically savvy individuals who may illegally download music. For older generations it hearkens back to nostalgia, but young people (the prime culprits for pirating music) also find something compelling about the ritual of listening to albums.

I wonder if it is not somehow linked to the ground breaking ideas set forth by Walter Benjamin in "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction". Vinyl seems to retain it's "aura"- it creates a sense of magic and ritual that mp3's lack. The record is culturally significant and in that simple disk there is an encoded message which speaks to rebellion, youth, and freedom. The mp3, on the other hand, has no physicality and therefore feels as if it belongs to the cultural collective- a disembodied reproduction.

Interestingly, media producers that post videos to youtube combine the speed and universality of the digital age with the humble charms of vinyl. From Elvis to Iron Maiden, there is a flood of users mixing these two medias, creating an interesting convergent form of visual/audio, high tech/low tech.
In a similar vein, television test patterns are a popular youtube item, for the same reasons as vinyl. There is nostalgia and an evoking of a "Golden Age" (whether real or imagined) where things were simpler and more honest. The test pattern indicated when the transmitter was active, but no program was being broadcasted, a difference and (some would say) drawback from the hundreds of 24-hour channels available today. But the it could be argued that the test patterns in some ways restored or represented television's "aura" and signaled personal ownership and authenticity. 

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