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    Digital Culture Notes: Part Two

    E-Books, iPads and Digital Things

    Much has been made of the iPad’s possible influence on the future of reading and writing. Many of the fears about the disappearance of physical books are justified just as the worries about the future of newspapers needs to be taken very seriously. There is no doubt that we have entered an unstable period of change as various traditional forms of media shift to accommodate the impact of the Internet and digital culture in general.

    However, the idea that books will disappear or that newspapers will lose their relevance because they may have to shift to devices like the iPad is naïve at best and alarmist. After all, books are really just pages and pages of discourse sometimes fictional, often not. All the genres that make up what we call the modern novel are not dependent on the physical boundaries established by traditional book production. In fact, an argument can be made that the process through which books have been brought to the attention of the reading public (ads, publicity campaigns and so on) are more in danger of dying than the books themselves. There is only one way in which books will die, and that is if we cease to speak or if we shift so dramatically to an oral culture that the written word becomes redundant.

    An argument could be made that people inundated by many different forms of media expression will relegate books to the attics in their homes and in their minds. And a further argument could be made that the decline of reading has been happening for some time, if we look at the number of books sold over the last decade. There is a real danger that books and the reading public will shrink even further.

    Nevertheless, my sense is that reading has morphed onto the Web and other media and that reading is more about glances and headlines than in-depth absorption of texts. We now have a multimedia space that links all manner of images with texts and vice-versa. The nature of content is shifting as are the venues in which that content can be read. The design of graphical spaces is often more important than words. Texts on the iPad can be embedded with moving images and sounds and so on, in much the same manner as we now do with web pages. However, this phantasmagoria of elements is still governed by language, discourse and expression.

    Matt Richtel has an article in the New York Times that examines the interaction of all of these divergent media on users. “At home, people consume 12 hours of media a day on average, when an hour spent with, say, the Internet and TV simultaneously counts as two hours. That compares with five hours in 1960, say researchers at the University of California, San Diego. Computer users visit an average of 40 Web sites a day, according to research by RescueTime, which offers time-management tools.” Richtel suggests that the intensity of these activities and the need to multitask are rewiring the human brain. I am not able to judge whether that is true or not, but irrespective it would be foolhardy not to recognize that all of this activity increases the speed of interaction. Clearly, reading a non-fiction book is not about speed and books in general cannot be read in the same way as we read web pages, especially if we are looking at book content on mobile phones.

    The same can be said for newspapers, which over the years have been designed to entice readers into reading their pages through headlines in order to slow down the tendency to glance or scan. This tells us something about the challenges of print. We tend to assume that the existence of a newspaper means that it is read. But, there has always been a problem with attention spans. Newspapers are as much about a quick read, as are web pages. Newspapers are generally read in a short time, on buses or trains — talk about multitasking.

    As it turns out this is very much the same for many genres of the novel from thrillers to the millions of potboilers that people read and that are not generally counted when reference is made to the reading public. In fact, the speed of reading has accelerated over the last hundred years in large measure because of the increased amount of information that has become available and the need to keep up.

    This is where e-books and the iPad come in. E-books are an amazing extension of books in general, another and important vehicle for the spread of ideas. The iPad will make it possible (if authors so desire) to extend their use of words into new realms. Remember, when the cinema was invented in 1895 among the very first comments in the British Parliament was that moving images would destroy theatre, books and music. Instead, the cinema has extended the role of all of these forms either through adaptation or integration. Writers remain integral to all media.



    Chevalier of Arts and Letters: Acceptance Speech - Ron Burnett

    Vancouver, Canada, June 3, 2010

    M. Garcia, Consul-General of France

    Distinguished guests

    Ladies and Gentlemen

    Good evening and, thank-you so much for coming!!

    I stand here tonight feeling both proud and humbled. Proud because so much about culture and creativity is affirmed by this honour, and humbled because I have been chosen to receive this prestigious award from the French government.

    Mes premiers mots seront pour exprimer mes sincère remerciements
    au gouvernement français, à l'ancienne ministre de la culture et de la communication Madame Christine Albanel, au ministre de la culture et de la communication Monsieur Frédéric Mitterand, à l'Ambassadeur de la France à Ottawa, Monsieur François Delattre, au Consul de la France à Vancouver, Monsieur Alexandre Garcia et à son Attaché Culturel, Monsieur Hadrian Laroche.

    Merci pour tout ce que vous avez fait pour rendre possible cette grande distinction.

    C’est un honneur d’avoir été reconnu et accepté à l ordre — un ordre qui est unique en caractère et objectif parmi les démocraties occidentales.

    Let me express my profound thanks to the French government, the former Minister of Culture and Communication, La Ministre, Christine Albanel, the Minister, M. Frederic Mitterand, the French Ambassador in Ottawa, M. François Delattre, and M Alexandre Garcia the Consul in Vancouver and his Cultural Attaché, M Hadrien LAROCHE. Thank-you for making this award possible and thank-you for the recognition and for supporting awards of this kind, which are unique in character and purpose in Western democracies. My deepest thanks also to my wife Martha and my two daughters, Maija and Katie for their support and love.

    One of the central purposes of French government cultural policy in the international arena is the promotion of cultural diversity among all nations. This policy is also at the heart of UNESCO’s cultural platform. 93 nations signed an agreement to promote cultural diversity, including Canada. France led this effort, and among the policy’s key statements are the following:

    **Affirming** that cultural diversity is a defining characteristic of humanity;

    **Conscious** that cultural diversity forms a common heritage of humanity and should be cherished and preserved for the benefit of all;

    **Being aware** that cultural diversity creates a rich and varied world, which increases the range of choices and nurtures human capacities and values, and therefore is a mainspring for sustainable development for communities, peoples and nations;

    and finally,

    **Recalling** that cultural diversity, flourishing within a framework of democracy, tolerance, social justice and mutual respect between peoples and cultures, is indispensable for peace and security at the local, national and international levels.

    These statements and the values they put forward are in many respects, at the heart of my career and articulate far better than I ever could what has motivated me to spend a lifetime creating, promoting and defending culture in all its manifestations and forms.

    I was born in London, England in a difficult post-war period of deprivation and familial challenge. My family and I immigrated to Canada in 1952 during a time of economic difficulty for all countries. The struggle of immigrants to find their place has only accelerated since then, not only because of the increasing movement of peoples across many societies, but also because so many cultures have faced immense and sometime insurmountable struggles to survive. Disaporic experiences were fundamental features of the 20th century and will continue to determine the direction of the 21st century.

    My career is built upon and is a reflection of what I learned during that formative and early period of my life as we struggled to adapt to living in Montreal.

    Over the last forty years, I have worked at a number of positions including a wonderful period at McGill University and five years in Australia at LaTrobe University. During my tenure as the President of Emily Carr University I have learned more than I could ever have imagined when I took the position fourteen years ago.

    Seamus Heany, the great Irish poet, credits poetry for teaching him to “walk on air against your better judgment.”

    Albert Camus, whom I read in my teens and who had a formative impact on my life, said, “The artist forges himself midway between the beauty he cannot do without and the community he cannot tear himself away from.” “Et celui qui, souvent, a choisi son destin d'artiste parce qu'il se sentait différent apprend bien vite qu'il ne nourrira son art, et sa différence, qu'en avouant sa ressemblance avec tous.”

    When you walk on air, life is a continuous adventure. And, when you immerse yourself in beauty, even the saddest moments are learning experiences. Learning is at the heart of what I do everyday. It is only possible to learn if one remains open, open to change, open to insights, open to difference. Even in this historical period characterized by many difficult challenges, I continue to believe that it is possible to walk on air.

    I am privileged everyday at Emily Carr to be among wonderful people and to experience their passionate excitement about creativity, invention and innovation — their extraordinary commitment to the materials of art, to the crafts of making and to the challenges of living and learning about the creative life, their passion for aesthetics, for colour and for form, their intense desire to produce meaning and communicate it, all of this has not only taught me a great deal, but also given me a profound insight into the potential and importance of the creative process.

    So, this award means the world to me because it also acknowledges the values of that creative life and the importance of sustaining creativity in every aspect of what we do everyday of our lives.

    The other great intellectual mentor in my life is Claude Lévi-Strauss. His work brings together all of my interests in anthropology, sign systems, linguistics and images. It is therefore not without some sense of the ironies of history that we find ourselves today amidst a renaissance in First Nations culture and cultural production.

    Because, it was Lévi-Strauss who brought Pacific Northwest native culture into French consciousness and did more than many to signal to Westerners the importance of culture to this extraordinary area of the world. And, it is not without irony that in one of his last books, brilliantly titled, Look, Listen, Read (Regarder, Ecouter, Lire) that Levi-Strauss celebrated the craft of basket weaving so integral to First Nations culture. He talks of craft in relation to myth and of the integrated nature of making, thinking and living. For me, making, thinking and creative engagement are at the core of what I do and how I live.

    I will leave it to my other great intellectual hero, Michel Serres to complete these remarks. In speaking about the social and cultural context that we now share, Serres mentions the endless noise of modern life, the sharp points of despair at the edge of chaos, and he contrasts this with art as the means through which we build society, create vision and make peace with each other and with the world we live in. And then, in talking about Lévi-Strauss, he says, Levi-Strauss helps us see what we can’t see, and through his stories he helps us understand the strange and beautiful social forms that surround us. Cheers to that and cheers to you all!! Et Merci encore à vous tous.







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    Digital Culture Notes (First of a series)

    Recently, I have been thinking about the material nature of digital culture, perhaps best exemplified by the Web and its intensely spatial nature. The Internet is often understood by imagining or visualizing a vast lattice of lines connecting across the globe. Of course, lattice works are by their very nature architectural, points in space connected by technologies, the built environment. At the same time as it creates the possibility of virtual interaction, the Internet is also very material. This materiality comes from the wires, servers, buildings and routers that form and shape the experiences of interaction without being in the foreground.

    Web pages are designed using boxes for texts and images. The underlying HTML code for the Web is hidden but the manner in which a web page draws content from servers is visible every time we click. Writing for web pages is a material practice. The immateriality of computer screens is offset by the concrete nature of keyboards and mice. The iPad for example, is an object, although probably one of the most powerful objects I have ever held. The iPad hovers between its physical presence and the intense manner in which one’s eyes are drawn into its images, into the screen based worlds of games and photographs. Apps reach out from the screen into our daily lives either organizing our time or allowing us to write on glass enclosures. Software is written and tested within a material universe of employment and job pressures including sometimes unreasonable expectations of productivity.

    The aerials that make Wi-Fi possible are produced in factories as are Apple computers. The assembly line in a computer factory looks like something out of the 19th century. Some of the most exotic minerals in the world are needed to make our computers and their screens work correctly. Many of those minerals are found in China and Africa. More often than not the working conditions for extraction and processing are terrible.

    Materiality is not something that disappears because we now have so ways in which to experience the world through virtual means. One of the criticisms about human relations on the Internet is that because distance plays a significant role, it is likely that there is something very superficial about the communications process. It is true that the Internet makes communications across varying distances not only possible, but as with Facebook, promotes interactions that are not face to face. And, there are dangers in living a life in front of a screen. Just as there were dangers in spending too much time on the telephone or watching too much television. There is nothing inherent to the technology that sustains the manner in which it is used. There is something in the technology that attracts use from that material universe of people and communities.

    The environments we share have never been pristine and civilizations have been built on the interactions between humans and their technologies.

    Part Two...




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    Lost and Popular Culture (A guest article by Katie Burnett)

    Before there was Lost, there was the original Beverly Hills, 90210.

    First day of school, West Beverly High, 1990: Brenda and Brandon Walsh from the television show 90210 transplants from Random Town, Minnesota have no idea what they will be up against in Beverly Hills. Ten years later, the show ends with two beloved characters getting married which sweetly ties up the show in an unpretentious manner.

    I found the show less interesting after high school graduation, because I only cared about Brenda and Kelly Taylor, as evidenced by my Brenda and [Kelly Barbie dolls](, bought in the 90's in Florida. When Brenda and Kelly chopped their hair off, I chopped off their Barbie's hair, making them hideous and completely un-sellable should I ever choose to part with them (if I could find them — I suspect they're with my Babysitters Club collection "in the basement".)

    I really loved Beverly Hills 90210, yet for a million dollars I can't remember the character that Tiffany Amber Thiessen played (OK I just looked it up — it was Valerie Malone — phew). I believe what [IMDB]( says since I have no memory of people calling out "Valerie". But I was completely wrapped up in that show. Ironically and to my surprise, I cannot name one secondary character.

    OK, so the show started twenty years ago and ended in 2000 (apparently my family let an eight year old watch this show). Whose memory is that good, especially with respect to television?

    I have found that when a show ends no one is ever pleased and most of our questions remain unanswered. In some ways, that's half the fun — we're left to discuss and wonder for years about our favorite characters what they did with their lives and where would they be now if a pathetic attempt at a reboot of the show were attempted? (e.g., the present day version of 90210).

    By comparison, if I can't name every single character on Lost ten years from now then I will deem myself a failure as an observer of popular culture. And while the original 90210 can't be compared to Lost, it was an iconic show that I, and millions of other young people watched in its entirety for the duration of its run.

    Shows come and go, but Lost is different. To me it stands out. The show practically cured me of my fear of flying — OK, a crash wouldn't be ideal but if it got me to the Island and if it got me to Jack/Sawyer/Desmond, well, I wouldn't complain. And a mango diet sounds good right about now.

    Lost started as a "what if" — what if people crashed on an island that was a little different, a little weird? I wasn't hooked until the second season. I was in a hotel room waiting for a flight from London to Vancouver and there was an episode on one of the four British channels. Its title was "The Other 47 days". I have a strange thing about TV shows — I don't like the introduction of new characters.

    I inevitably don't love them as much as the original characters. I'm bitter towards them, defiant, wondering why they were suddenly brought into *my* show. Well, as a good Lost lover would know, "The Other 47 days" involved only new characters — and yet I was transfixed. It never occurred to me that there were other survivors of the crash, and I had no idea what their experiences would be like. I went back to Vancouver thinking, "I should get back into Lost". Coincidentally, I was completely jet lagged and staying at my parent's house. My parents had taped the Season 2 finale. I decided, in the middle of the night to just watch it — why not? I didn't understand a thing but between this new hot Scottish fellow and some random button-hatch-thing, I decided I was completely back on the Lost train and immediately bought Season 2 in its entirety and watched it over a very short period.

    What other show has had the courage to play with plot lines and characters like this one? If someone had suggested that one of the key locales for the show would be a hatch with a man inside pressing a button every few minutes in order to save the world, I would have laughed. Yet we (most of us?) accepted this reality once we start watching, and I think we (all of us?) fell wholeheartedly for Desmond as a result (male or female, who DOESN'T like Desmond? Definitely the most likeable guy on the planet). And, was Desmond part of the original cast? No. Do I have unwavering love for him? Yes. Does this mean I should accept new characters into my life on TV shows? I guess (grumble grumble.)

    The series finale ended six years of turbulence. I've been on 14 hour flights, and even a few minutes drives me nuts. Lost has been a turbulent experience. Lost is about stress and anxiety and it has made me scream and cry and wish I had never started watching it. I don't know what the Island is, but I think I know what it means to me, and it's not just a meeting place of attractive, shirtless men.

    I have watched many people I love on the show die: Charlie, Daniel Faraday, Charlotte, Alex — even Juliet, whom I was adamantly against for so many years. I hated her even more when she shacked up with Sawyer, yet she wasn't worried because she knew I would love her eventually. And I did; and I cried when a) I thought she was dead at the end of Season 5 and b) when she did die at the beginning of Season 6. I don't even want to touch on Jack's death because I am in denial. Maybe one day, but not today. Complete and utter denial.

    I had so many questions I assumed would get answered in the final season until I realized I didn't really need answers. Carlton Cuse and Damon Lindeloff, the writers of the show want us to keep the questions coming. They want us to debate the show and its outcome for years, if possible. They want to leave us with question marks surrounding all the mysterious elements that made up the show.

    Once you accept Lost, once you know that there is a Smoke Monster, polar bears, a giant wheel that can hide the Island and also allow people to escape it you give yourself the freedom to simply enjoy the world created by the writers and director. How and why would Daniel Faraday's mother kill him in the past? Well, I was never going to get an answer to that. Is Richard Alpert finally mortal now that he has a gray hair? How could I have hated Ben so much and by the end love him like a dear old friend?

    But these are just questions, and they have allowed me to think about so many possible outcomes to the story. And Lost is about the debate between outcomes, reality and myth. The frustration we feel is also part of the joy that the story has brought us. We will always have so many questions, but isn't that the point? To question everything around us, to question each other? What other (network) show has brought up up so many different ideas and points of view and left so many stories dangling?

    Lost will live on as a show that divided people, but its true followers know that it's an exemplary show that took us far away from what we thought it would ever be when it began. If it had been a simple show about people crashing and trying to live together, without all of the supernatural forces in play, would the intrigue have lasted six brilliant seasons? Sure, I would have loved a few more episodes of the castaways just sitting around, cooking fish and rice, arguing, but Survivor got pretty old after a few seasons. We got more than we bargained for and for that I am grateful.

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    Are Social Media, Social? (Part Ten)

    The ties that bind are more often than not based on memories. Memories of events, people, relationships, daily life, and exceptional moments, both personal and historical. Our bodies are like scrapbooks. We write our memories all over our bodies in the course of a lifetime.

    We are in the early days of lives lived at the edges of the virtual and the real. Notwithstanding the power of the computer screens we hold in our hands or the larger screens that now broadcast to us, all screens are flat and in the case of the iPad thin and beautiful. These mediated instances bring us closer to the people we love (through Skype or Facebook) and distance us at the same time from the physical pain and joy of touch and embodied dialogue. So close and yet far away. As more information floods into our minds and bodies and as more and more of the communications process is governed by mediators of greater and greater complexity, we have to start asking some hard questions about the fragile nature of what we are doing.

    For example, much of the electronic information of the 1980’s is lost. More importantly, so much of the material produced during that era cannot be easily transferred from its original form into more contemporary technologies. In fact, how much of the massive exchange of information that we are now producing will still be around and accessible ten years from now? The pace of change means that even if the information is available, will we be able to realize its importance? What interpretive tools will we be able to apply to processes that appear and disappear so quickly? History may provide us with narratives, but personal memories are unstructured and thus for the most part forgotten. Many people now have thousands of photographs stored on computers and hard drives. The challenge is how to manage all of that data. The even greater challenge is to link memories to the images as the pictures proliferate.

    All of this is a round about way of saying that online communities of varying sorts are highly mediated not only by technology but by time. We tend to think of networks in spatial terms. Time is more difficult to picture because in the case of Internet time, it is non-linear.

    In other words, as we glance about picking this and that from the Twitter stream, or quickly reading a short piece on a web site and then just as quickly clicking through a series of links, we are creating a non-linear time line. The results are more like a montage, abstract and real at the same time. I find it amusing that the Twitter stream is timed according to date and time of entry. Add hash marks and we are speedily scrolling through a web of links, comments and further comments. Even if the streams were preserved, the context would be lost. Even if our memories were perfect, the cumulative effect cannot be contained.

    Non-linear processes are wonderful because they defy easy explanation. They cannot be packaged into neat or modular statements. So, the irony is that social media are drunk with the use of language and constrained by the fact that most of the discourse they produce is so specific to the moment, that it cannot last. I am not one to argue for the end of history, but our memories are normally fragmentary and even as we build narratives around those fragments, we lose far more than we retain. So, this raises the further point around the necessity of conversation through social media. Clearly, as an extension of existing friendships or as the base for building new ones, social media work. Conversations in this ever expanding universe are complex and of great utility to interlocutors. But, the intensity of fragmentation has also been accelerated and with it comes the dangers of even greater loss.

    Time is a strange creature. Virtual spaces make it seem as if time can be manipulated. (This is after all the central theme of William Gibson’s early work on cyberspace.) The interface of the real and the virtual makes it seem as if the preservation of memories can be achieved by archiving them. But no one anticipated the human obsession with data. How many of you would knowingly explore a three year-old website? It just doesn’t feel relevant.

    Social media are redefining this complex communications landscape. But what if that landscape has no solid geography? What if the history of its formation cannot be traced other than through a series of fragments that don’t connect? We are seeing the formation of a new kind of oral culture and as historians know, oral cultures retain the stories they want to hear and quickly dispense with everything else.

    This is the last entry of this series. Follow me on Twitter @ronburnett

    *Take a look at the video below*. The first cinematic encounter with wireless technologies from 1922!!

    " Two women walk towards the camera on a city street. They stop beside a fire hydrant (this is presumably the United States of America). C/U of the women winding a wire around the top of the fire hydrant. One of the women holds a small box."

    "It's Eve's portable wireless 'phone - in 1922." (from the Pathé archives)





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