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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Open Culture was founded by Dan Colman.