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.

Radio Lab: A Great Science Podcast

RadioLab, a science radio show created by WNYC in New York, is a little unusual for a public radio show. It comes out in short seasons of about five episodes. Each episode addresses a particular question in science through a wide lens–I found their most recently podcast show, on Morality, to be particularly fascinating. We’re adding the new show to our collection of Science Podcasts. Check it out for yourself!

RadioLab (Site, iTunes, Feed)

The Future of the Internet: A New Stanford Course

Here is a new and free course to come out of a Stanford University program that (full disclosure) I help organize. It’s called The Future of the Internet: Architecture and Policy (iTunes), and it’s taught by Ramesh Johari. The course, designed for non-techies, gets into the important question of whether the internet will remain “neutral” and freely available to you and me. This course will appeal to anyone who has ever liked the work of Lawrence Lessig. (Please note that we’ll be rolling out a couple more lectures in this course on a rolling basis.)

Check out the complete course description below (and click here for many more free university courses):

“The Internet today has evolved a long way from its humble beginnings as a federally funded research project. As a society, we find ourselves increasingly dependent on the Internet for our daily routine; and yet, the future of the Internet remains a matter of vigorous political, economic, and academic debate. This debate centers around ownership: who will own the infrastructure, and who will own the content that the network delivers? Unfortunately, most of this debate does not involve a substantive discussion of the “architecture” of the network, or the role that architectural design will play in shaping the ownership of the future global network.

This course provides a non-technical introduction to the architecture of the Internet, present and future. Students will be taken on a tour through the inner workings of the network, with a view toward how these details inform the current debate about “network neutrality” and the ownership of the future Internet.”

Weekly Wrap – July 15

It’s a wrap for the week. Here is what we served up:

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The Cult of the Amateur: A Short Review (and a Free Book)

New rule: Books that are short on good ideas should only get short reviews. And so that’s what we’re serving up today — a short review of Andrew Keen’s The Cult of the Amateur: How the Democratization of the Digital World is Assaulting Our Culture.

Keen’s argument can essentially be boiled down to this: Web 2.0 has brought us blogs, Youtube-style video, Wikipedia and other platforms that promote user-generated content, and it’s all killing our Culture. Hacks are now cranking out “an endless digital forest of mediocrity;” “the professional is being replaced by the amateur… the Harvard professor by the unschooled populace;” “kids can’t tell the difference between credible news by objective professional journalists and what they read on;” “every posting is just another person’s version of the truth;” with the net result being that in “today’s culture of the amateur, the monkeys are running the show.” Using his own words, that’s the gist of Keen’s argument.

You’d think that by positioning himself as the defender of high culture and cultural authority, Keen would uphold his end of the bargain. That is, you’d expect him to offer us a nuanced, carefully-crafted look at the uses and abuses of Web 2.0. But that is not what you get here. Missing the mark, The Cult of the Amateur is long on hyperbolic rhetoric (see above) and short on subtle thinking and balance. It stretches out arguments that ought to fill a 15 page article to 215 pages, and reiterates the same points again and again. (Although targeted to the business community, the book places no premium on efficiency.) And then you have sprinkled in various dilettantish references to philosophers (Marx, Rousseau, Habermas, etc.), coupled with sloppy readings of other contemporary media observers.

The ultimate irony is that Keen’s polemic against amateur content comes off as strangely amateurish. It’s mostly operating at the same level as the very blogosphere he’s attacking. And this impression only gets confirmed by his admission in the acknowledgments: “I confess that, as a writer, I remain a bit of an amateur. This is my first book, and I’m still learning the craft of this complex business.” Apparently, the divide between traditional media and digital media, between high culture and low culture, is not as real and impermeable as Keen would have us believe.

If anyone wants my copy of Keen’s book, just let me know. I will send it anywhere in the US at book rate. But be warned that it has some illegible marginalia, and my kid doodled on one page (page 40), unbeknownst to me. But think of it this way: You get what you don’t pay for. Our email address is in the banner above. First come, first served.

The Decline and Fall of the Roman (and American?) Empire: A Free Audiobook

Edward Gibbon’s The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire — It’s a major work of the Enlightenment, a book that shaped how we moderns write history (and, for that matter, how we aspire to write in the English language), and it’s now available as a free podcast thanks to Librivox. Or at least Volume 1 is. With a runtime of almost 20 hours, this audiobook — click to access individual files or the full zip file — will make it so that you’re not looking for the remaining volumes any time soon. But don’t worry they’re eventually coming.

Published first in 1776, just as the US declared its independence from England, Gibbon’s Decline and Fall looked to offer an empirical explanation for why Ancient Rome fell as a power, and he generally pointed to a decline in civic virtue among its citizenry (why bother fighting the Empire’s wars when you can get mercenaries to do it?) and to the rise of Christianity (why worry about Rome when a better life, an eternal afterlife, awaits you?).

In part, Gibbon’s work has endured because it speaks to questions that modern powers have on their minds. What brings Empires down, and what (implicitly) allows them to endure? These questions have a certain amount of relevance these days in an anxious US. And indeed Gibbon’s name was immediately invoked in a recent podcast that asked whether America, today’s empire, is on the brink. (Click to listen.) The parallels between Gibbon’s Rome and the contemporary United States have also been directly explored by the prolific, young Harvard historian, Niall Ferguson. You may want to check out his October 2006 piece in Vanity Fair, Empire Falls. And depending on what you think, you can give time to his two books on Empire — the first (and better) one focuses on the British Empire, and a second one devotes itself to the US.

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Elvis Costello: The First Ten Years Podcast

A quick heads up for Elvis Costello fans: In this ten-part podcast (iTunesFeedWeb Site), Elvis reflects on the first 10 years of his career, taking listeners on a tour that looks back at “his childhood, musical influences, singing, songwriting, changing his name, recording, Nick Lowe, the Attractions, the hits, the misses, getting arrested and much more.” So far, 4 of the 10 segments have been released; the others will be rolled out over the remainder of the summer.For more podcasts along these lines, check out our Music Podcast Collection as well as our Arts & Culture Podcast Collection.

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Ten Podcasts to Build Your Vocabulary

Recently Merriam-Webster announced that they’re adding “ginormous,” “speed dating” and a few other gems to the latest edition of their dictionary. In their honor, we present ten podcasts to help you expand your vocabulary. Enjoy!

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Open Culture was founded by Dan Colman.