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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Open Culture was founded by Dan Colman.