The application of new technologies in the creation, presentation, and distribution of art works and productions will have momentous consequences for transnational cultural interactions, the conference attendees universally
acknowledged in the fourth thematic block of the conference.
New communications media can break down, or simply ignore, entrenched barriers to cultural exchange. On the one hand, they can circumvent nation state–based institutions and facilitate meaningful exchange without artists’ crossing national borders. On the other hand, new media offer a counterpoint to market-based mechanisms for sharing and valuing culture. As various speakers noted in their comments, digital platforms give voice to artists and connect noteworthy expressions to audiences and markets irrespective of their social or geographic origins. Moreover, technology is fueling novel collaborative mechanisms, articulating new economies, and giving rise to completely unprecedented conduits for creative engagement.
In the most abstract sense, technology is reframing our deepest understanding of art and society, obliterating inherited categories and uprooting expectations about creativity and learning. Given the all-permeating nature of technology, the discussions on this topic ranged broadly, from the immediate effects of social media during the Arab Spring, to the practical uses of digital tools in making art and executing programs and, ultimately, to almost metaphysical questions prompted by the proliferation of virtual technology in modern life.
Meeting in spring 2012, the participants of Seminar 490 were deeply influenced by the recent turmoil in the Middle East. Much has been imputed to technology in the Arab Spring—also dubbed “the Facebook revolution” in news reports. One stream of conversation focused on lessons learned for the advancement of cultural engagement in this historic episode. But while technology experts confirmed the catalytic role of new technology in cracking open closed societies, they also expressed tempered enthusiasm about new media’s potential for fomenting open cultural dialogue.
Digital tools are often mistakenly associated with grassroots transformation, a key- note speaker cautioned. More than half of the 1.5 million daily tweets during the Arab Spring, for example, issued from a small core group. Cultural advocates, another speaker suggested, need to be careful about “returning to the image of the ‘magic bullet’ theory” from the early days of radio and television, which pinned undue hopes and expectations on the emerging technologies of that era.
In fact, there is scant correlation between new-media penetration and social unrest. And state power is proving adept at exploiting digital media for its own ends. The largest group of Facebook users now hails from the far right, an East European cultural analyst added in this context. In the Middle East, we are currently witnessing a “cyber war about control of the narrative,” a speaker with close ties to the region noted. Cultural diplomacy in much of the Middle East region now has less to do with grass- roots exchange than with “multibillion-dollar cultural projects and purchased brands of museums and universities.”
For the sum of these reasons, Pollyannaish views on the impacts of technology on transnational exchange should be tempered with realism, the conference concluded. For some observers, the information age itself comes as a mixed blessing. One speaker lamented its “propensity toward consumerism and speed.” In the eyes of conservatives and progressives alike, digital technology can threaten local expressive ecosystems. Moreover, as an American participant warned, digital media have contributed to a “creativity gap” in many societies. Children, in particular, mesmerized by videos and computers, have “become passive consumers” of culture.
Seminar participants expressed a similarly tempered view of the uses of technology in the daily work of cultural exchange. An expert in public diplomacy and technology posed the question this way: “How do we let go of control and get to real models of collaboration?” Although we have been living through a period of technological effervescence, the speaker noted, the historical record shows that “each time a new technology was introduced, a drawbridge was let down and a new drawbridge was pulled up again.” The rapid proliferation and equally rapid commercialization of Facebook is just one recent example.
The problem is not just control and limits on free expression. Cultural institutions have, on the whole, been slow to exploit the potential of new technology. Many relegate digital-media initiatives to marketing departments, failing to see them as an intrinsic ingredient of arts management. A prominent museum expert suggested, “The average museum is not really using new media,” due to “the conservative view that museums are about objects, whereas digital technology is not about objects.” The conversations in Salzburg frequently noted the reluctance of cultural organizations to accept the kind of audience involvement that new technologies support and demand. “Collaborative curation does not necessarily mean giving up control to the audience,” a participant reminded the group.
Despite the acknowledged gaps and slowness in adaptation of new technologies, Salzburg participants were unified in the conviction that digital applications will broaden and deepen cultural engagement for the long term. Their contributions will be magnified in regions experiencing chronic inequality and injustice: “Tens of millions of people are generating shared content,” observed a close observer of the Arab Spring, with hopeful consequences for social, political, and cultural development.
Adept uses of new technology in other global realms offer some interesting comparisons. During the Arab Spring, for example, as one speaker described, the American University in Cairo ran a “virtual newsroom” in which the U.S. Department of State hosted a press conference for bloggers, complete with a virtual avatar for the U.S. Undersecretary for Diplomacy. Modern war is increasingly fought by robots, a futurist whose work spans space science and the arts pointed out. While cultural exchange could hardly be more distant in its aims and approaches from unmanned military drones, there is no denying that technology can be transformational. Kickstarter, the online crowd-sourcing site, is already raising more money for creative projects in the U.S. than the National Endowment for the Arts provides through its grant programs. Exploiting such capabilities will require a shift in attitude, however. “It’s not about the platform,” the futurist added, “it’s about the mindset—the ability to use technology creatively and expansively to find and interact with people.”
The most hopeful message about technology in Salzburg—echoing an overarching theme of the conference—concerned its role in “the creation of a ‘third space’ and a cosmopolitan spirit.” Digital tools are, in essence, about communication and sharing. Technology gives a boost to those who work on the frontlines of cultural engagement for a simple and obvious reason, one speaker noted: “Everything we do is based on friend- ship and personal connection—our capital is our network.”
Recommendations for Global Communications and the Rise of Social Media
– Provide stable funding for new-media projects to facilitate cultural engagement.
– Encourage entrepreneurial, public-private collaborations to exploit new technology in moving forward.
– Encourage uses of new technology applications to generate support and revenue.
– Expand training in arts management to focus more deeply on the uses of digital and social media in international cultural engagement.