The Rise of the Cultureboxes, Part 1: The Xbox

xbox 360The online magazine Slate runs most of its arts and culture stories in a section called “Culturebox.” Ironically, it’s taken the consumer electronics industry several years to catch up, but now it seems like every new gadget is marketed as a culturebox, from the shiny iPhone to the pioneering Tivo to the hot-running Xbox 360. Manufacturers, advertisers and producers everywhere are thinking about how to sell us sleeker, better boxes and the media that go with them.

The trouble is, nobody is quite sure what the culturebox should look like or what it should do. We can all agree on video, audio and some kind of storage function. But do we want our media pocket-sized or on a big screen? Is the goal to entertain us on the commute or to build up a library of cherished media objects? More importantly, when we say “culture” do we essentially mean television or the whole panoply of forms? Are cultureboxes just TV by other means or are there genuinely new cultural forms on the horizon?

Last week Microsoft announced that Xbox 360s are failing in unprecedented numbers: A dramatic example of Culturebox Anxiety Syndrome. The new generation of videogame consoles allow us to do so much more than blasting aliens—video on demand, HD and Blu-Ray DVD playback, online chatting and music library management are just a few of the roles these particular cultureboxes want to serve. The complexity is clearly an overload: the New York Times argues that the $1 billion Microsoft is setting aside for this problem implies that between a third and half of Xbox 360 consoles could get the culturebox blues. Now a high-level Xbox executive has announced his resignation, though few people think it's a punishment since the platform is generally selling well.

Perhaps I’m only writing because I use all these gadgets and my Xbox recently succumbed to “red ring of death” syndrome. Ironically, it only freezes up when I use it to load a videogame. But there is a broader issue here: the transformation of culture from something we experience in concert halls, movie theaters and other shared public spaces into something that we do on the couch or on the go.


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