MEDIA: Author Jay David Bolter provides a comprehensive description of contemporary digital culture where digital technologies facilitate and shape the creation of many diverse communities of participation.

Melita Zajc
Melita Zajc
Melita Zajc is a media anthropologist and philosopher. Regular contributor to Modern Times Review.
Published date: June 14, 2019

The Digital Plenitude: The Decline of Elite Culture and the Rise of New Media

Jay David Bolter

MIT Press

On June, 2, Republic Day, a statue of b-movie and advertising pop icon Bud Spencer was inaugurated in the Italian port city of Livorno to an applauding crowd. Bud Spencer was not a Livorno native but a star who achieved world fame alongside Terrence Hill and a childhood hero of Filippo Nogarin, the mayor of Livorno and member of the Five Star Movement. The initiative, promoted via Facebook, collected 18,000 Euro to realise a life-size sculpture resembling a toy from lunapark via crowdfunding campaign. The online art journal Artribune reported about this in an article where they also presented other cases, such as sculptures of favourite dogs, indicating that populist politics has taken over yet another realm of civic life, the public art.

I write from Italy, but the experience of an outright triumph of popular – if not populist – culture is not purely local at all. The Digital Plenitude by Jay David Bolter is dedicated to explaining this phenomenon from the perspective of the United States, where cultural antagonism between popular and elite have even prevailed over the traditional, class-based antagonism between poor and rich. Such is Bolter’s thesis where, in the preface, he claims that «unlike their European counterparts, what the American working class resents above all is not the economic divide between itself and the wealthiest 1% (.)… Instead, the American (white) working class both sees and resents the chasm in outlook and status that separates it from the educated elite – above all, anyone in the media or the academic world, anyone who works with words as their profession or vocation». (p. viii)

«Instead, the American (white) working class both sees and resents the chasm in outlook and status that separates it from the educated elite»

Culture of convergence

Bolter is also the author of Remediation: Understanding New Media (together with Richard Grusin, MIT 2000), one of the seminal texts on the practices of media within the culture of convergence made possible by digital technologies. As an expert and authority on contemporary media, he explained that the fragmentation of various hierarchies in the arts has been announced many times in many contexts, but our cultural moment feels different because «digital technologies, including social media, make the changes far more apparent» (p. 13). He traced the breakdown of the modernist paradigm back to the advent of avant-garde art and asserted that the present breakdown does not mean that modernism has been effectively replaced with a new paradigm (p. 19). «Instead, our media culture has become additive, accepting new forms (…) that sometimes cooperate with older forms (…) and sometimes compete with them.» (p. 20).

The culture of today, claims Bolter, has a form of digital plentitude that, like the Internet, has no single centre. Digital technologies have been deployed in a way that facilitates and shapes the creation of several diverse communities of participation, none of which are truly universal (p.83). To understand the current cultural moment, Bolter identified a few characteristics that, as dichotomies, shape its main practices: catharsis and flow, originality and remix, organic/spontaneous and procedurality/datafication, history and simulation (p.84). Procedurality, flow, remix, and simulation are primary characteristics of today’s large digital communities, but their counterparts exist too. In the following chapters, Bolter neatly describes how each of the dichotomies manifest in the digital plenitude of today.

The culture of today…has a form of digital plentitude that, like the Internet, has no single centre.

New meanings

What I like about the book is that Bolter treats his sources in exactly the same way he claims the today’s culture works, with no hierarchy or centre: Wikipedia and documentary films have exactly the same weight as books and legal documents, and anonymous commentators on YouTube are considered as equally important as Christopher Lasch. In this way, he creates a new interpretative context where old notions of art and avant-garde, modernism and postmodernism get new meaning. He even creates new concepts, such as «popular modernism» and «popular postmodernism».

[Jay David Bolter] creates a new interpretative context where old notions of art and avant-garde, modernism and postmodernism get new meaning.

What I did not like is that the author does not consider context. He stresses that the focus is on US culture, yet also that several movements – Dada and Futurism – and authors, from Berthold Brecht to Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi, came from Europe. By not acknowledging that the focus is on the culture of the global north and that the insights might have been different if the global south was also taken into consideration, important elements pass unobserved, starting with social media as a successful business enterprise. The enthusiastic statement that «Our media plenitude opens up opportunities for hundreds of millions of people to express themselves and to share their self-expression with others. This wealth of opportunity seems (to me at least) to more than compensate for the loss of a single cultural center and a set of universally shared standards», conceals the fact that hundreds of millions of people pay for these opportunities with their personal data and with unpaid work. Namely, as they express themselves in social media, they create content for this media, without being paid for it.

A broad scholarly tradition is exploring this aspect, as the prosumption – the merging of production and consumption in the contemporary global north – and as the monetization of user-generated content. It is a pity this has been completely left out. It might bring new light to the truly magical shift presented at its beginning, a shift in which working-class Americans became more antagonistic towards academics (whose social conditions are often similarly precarious, see for example Virginia Eubanks’ book Automating Inequality, 2018) than towards the wealthiest 1%. Might this, too, be the feature of digital plenitude? Is it, as it is making the audiences richer by enabling their self-expression, also making them poorer, by spying on them and making them work in their leisure time, but also by substituting traditional ways of obtaining verified knowledge and thus simply making them more ignorant? The Digital Plenitude is a comprehensive description of contemporary digital culture and many readers will find it relevant and extremely useful, while the unanswered questions require future research.

Modern Times Review