The Rise of the Cultureboxes, Part III: The iPhone

(Continued from Part II)

iphoneThe most recent major foray into the world of cultureboxes comes in an entirely different size and market niche: the Apple iPhone. It may look different, but it has all the hallmarks of a culturebox. The iPhone wants to deliver video, audio and the best of the Web; it hopes to revolutionize its market; it requires monthly service fees and a hefty price-tag to use fully.

Just like Microsoft and Tivo, Apple has had some struggles in getting their new device to live up to its promises. The batteries on many of the iPhones are not living up to expectations and some standard phone features seem to be missing. The new phone purports to combine the roles of iPod and cell phone more elegantly than any other device.

Music. Video. Connection. The Tivo, Xbox and iPhone all want to sell us cultural services through an integrated system of digital control. Record or purchase content from the authorized digital store and watch it on the authorized device. All three companies know that the success of their product depends on maintaining a delicate balance between defending the walls of their digital kingdoms and allowing in enough outside content to remain flexible in uncertain markets. All three boxes can be hacked and manipulated, of course, but their manufacturers are counting on the vast majority of customers to play along and pay along.

Just as the box-makers struggle to cut deals with content producers to make their digital offerings appealing to consumers, the “traditional” culture industries are desperately struggling to embrace new forms. The New York Times reviews videogames as well as plays, and just about every major media institution has launched some kind of blog, web video service or podcast so you can connect with the critics on whatever culturebox you prefer.

Culture served up on boxes is very different from public performance or ephemeral newsprint. We can save up hours and hours of it; we can carry it around or duplicate it. When we build up a library of music and videos, we own cultural objects in a way that was never really possible before, when the best we could do was own perishable physical media. We can replay, reformat, share and collate favorites, and we can use our rankings and ratings to find new works. A lot of the most exciting technical advances have had to do with connecting cultureboxes, but that so far that connectivity mostly goes to providing better culture for solo viewing. The three devices discussed here all hope to change that.

The reign of cultureboxes is in many ways the personal, digital version of something that happened in the late 18th century: The birth of the modern museum. The idea was to gather art, knowledge and history together and frame them appropriately—saving up culture for you in vast marble boxes. Today’s personal cultureboxes will never replace theater or museum-going, but they extend the same promise of cultural literacy (have you finished The Sopranos yet?). These days the promise is affiliated with brand name digital emporia.

Like the Xbox, Tivo, and iPhone, many of the first museums wanted to be everything for everybody, offering visitors historical relics, biological specimens and strange devices in a mishmash of art, science and hokum. No wonder the Xboxes are on the fritz: they’re trying to capture all our totally conflicted interests in just one device. Eventually we’ll figure out what digital content really belongs in our pocket on a two-inch screen, what needs to stay in the living room, and what to keep out of the box entirely. I should have some time to think about it while my Xbox gets repaired.


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