[Bugs Bunny: What’s up doc? What’s cookin?]
Elsa Silberstein: Hello! You are listening to What’s up Doc, my name’s Elsa and this is the podcast that gets you in the know in the time that it takes you to walk from the business school to Winthrop Hall and back. We’re at UWA and there is just so much knowledge here and so little time! So, each episode we’ll be chatting to a pro at the university to help us debunk some academia. Today my guest is Dr. Tauel Harper, he’s a lecturer in media and communication, and he’s currently writing a book called Humans Versus Zombies. Today we’re talking about big data, and how that shapes cultural production. Dr. Tauel Harper, welcome! Let’s get started with some integral personal questions.
Tauel Harper: Yeah sure.
ES: Salt or Pepper?
ES: Club or bar?
ES: Chocolate or vanilla?
ES: Stripes or dots?
ES: Watermelon or pineapple?
ES: Maths or English?
ES: Pink or green?
ES: Sweet or savoury?
ES: HUMANS VERSUS ZOMBIES, WHO WINS?
TH: [nonchalantly] Zombies win.
ES: Okay. Let’s start this conversation, I wanna ask you what on earth is cultural production?
TH: Cultural production is a particular approach to understanding culture, where you understand culture as a particular kind of ecosystem, and you understand culture as arising from the tools of production. So different tools of production give rise to different forms of culture. So the Bible for instance, gives rise to a particular, in terms of media and communication, having the written word and in the Bible produces a particular culture as opposed to an oral culture where communication is all about engagement and relationality, like the very very different cultures that arise from very different media technologies or communication technologies.
ES: Is it a bit of a chicken and egg situation? Because I would put an oral culture or the technologies that are used in a culture [as opposed] to what the culture actually was, and then that gave rise to the type of media they use. So you’re saying it’s the other way around?
TH: It tends to happen that certain forms of technologies spread, I mean, it is to a certain extent, the social shaping of technology, right? That technologies do appropriate the particular technologies that work for them, but, generally, look at the internet, right? You have no choice, now the internet is there, everybody is using it. Same thing with print. Once everybody saw what print could do, because it basically enabled for incredible reproduction and profit, it spreads. It spreads, it becomes quite ubiquitous and therefore the cultural change follows, as well.
ES: Big data, what’s that?
TH: The proliferation of information. There are much more narrow definitions of big data, usually pursued by physicists or scientists, but for me I think its most useful to think about big data as just ‘the proliferation of information.’
ES: So, what’s your perspective in this? What have you looked at and what are your findings?
TH: [I] adopted a position that’s opposite to the orthodoxy in my field, and the orthodoxy in my field has been very much that we live in a world of filter bubbles and echo chambers, where the media that you consume is increasingly a subjective decision. We now can find whatever we want on the internet, and so the argument goes, we find only the things we’re already interested in, and this creates these filter bubbles or echo chambers, that allow you to just see information and perspective that confirms your own pre-existing knowledge and beliefs. Now that’s the orthodoxy, and I have done an article recently that describes the fact that big data doesn’t really lead to the development of information silos, but rather a massively overlapping information environment where everybody is actually exposed more and more to the most popular forms of media and the most popular messages in media, as opposed to it being an increasingly niche market, its actually an increasingly broad media ecosystem.
ES: We saw from the Cambridge Analytica scandal recently a bit of a #DeleteFacebook movement which is, a bit ironic in itself because it was a social media movement [laughs]. Do you think that had any weight to it, do you think people are thinking about a backlash?
TH: I don’t think that people are necessarily that critical because it’s an instant gratification thing, people use social media exclusively, well, not exclusively but for the most part because they’re lacking that form of connection in their real lives, you know, in our contemporary environment and that’s not gonna change. But that’s part of our ecology, that’s part of the status of our cultural production that if we don’t engage online, we just don’t engage. So, there is a need for something like Facebook that won’t just dissipate, that will remain until we change the way that we relate to each other which isn’t gonna happen soon. But I do think if somebody like the Electronic Freedom Foundation or Mozilla came out and said here’s an open source, absolutely ethical version of Facebook where we won’t mine your data and we’ll only try and make sure you’re aware of everything, I think a lot of people would be interested in that. That’s a huge opportunity that exists right now for somebody to say “look, we’re gonna do Facebook, we’re gonna do it well” instead of making it profitable.
ES: Bringing the conversation back to culture, so, we live in a globalized world, are you now looking at, with the advent of social media, Western culture, human culture, Australian culture?
TH: Looking at all of it, it goes big scale down to little scale because obviously again, we’re finding now [that] our communication tools are ubiquitous, they’re spreading globally so you can’t just say “ok, I’m only looking at this” and I have to say one of the claims that I make in that article about big data is that the nation state is going to become increasingly irrelevant. Generally when you’re talking to somebody who is of the social media generation, the things that they get passionate about are not necessarily national causes or national issues but things like Black Lives Matter or something going on in Syria, but increasingly the salience of national issues there’s not the technology supporting that anymore unless you listen to the ABC [radio].
ES: So things that we would say that are fundamentally part of Australian culture, sausage sizzles, watching the footy with your mates, stuff like playing cricket on the beach, is that in your conversation of what culture is and how culture will change?
TH: Uh, it is. It’s speculative, right? So it’s not the stuff you tend to focus on but of course yes, I mean look at Halloween for instance, that has become a huge thing here. Watching the Super Bowl is now a thing that Australians do. Watching, if you like, the Daily Show, or you know, being exposed to whatever’s being produced in American or mainstream culture is something we do now, which is not something that we did twenty years ago or thirty years ago. We would have to wait for that show to get syndicated, something like Seinfeld or the Simpsons was out in America for years before it came here. And you imagine that fifty years ago, we may never have got it. So all of a sudden there’s a much more cosmopolitan, well a better word is a much more global apparatus of cultural production where, you look at Game of Thrones or the Walking Dead, these series are the most watched television shows of all time right? Because all of a sudden they’ve got a global audience, its not just America, its not just Australia, its everyone. So we now have media, even though there’s this kind of argument that we should have niche audiences, and there should be more Australian production or we should be more interested in Australian production, that’s not true. We’re more interested in what everybody else in the world is looking at because that’s what our Instagram heroes are talking about. And again those things aren’t national anymore, its much more fluid. There is a hegemony there, there is a power structure, but it’s a very different power structure to the one that we were used to.
ES: So it’s not along political nation lines, like you wouldn’t say that American cultural influence is more potent?
TH: I would say that American cultural influence is potent because they came up with this idea of capitalism and materialism that has become globally hegemonic at the time at which we’ve also got this global media device that is digital media and the internet. So Chinese middle class are copying what America does now, they’re not pursuing a Chinese vision of the perfect identity or the perfect communist party existence, they’re copying what America does cause that is the dominant [ideology], it comes down to epistemology and ontology, what matters is what you can buy and what you can show and how you appear and nothing else, that has become ubiquitous and hegemonic, and it is American to a certain extent.
ES: Would you say that’s a reflection of what human nature is? Like that obsession with image, is that because we just find that too, uh tempting to resist?
TH: Yeah, uh that’s a large part of it. We suffer from a lot of stimulus response right, which again is the zombie thing, that’s inability to control agency and say that bit of clickbait is bad for me, it’s not gonna be any good it’s just gonna be a dopamine hit. It goes right back to kind of brain psychology that we have a predilection towards those kind of satisfactions that doesn’t necessarily make us more human, I don’t think its necessary but it is in some sense a bit of a crisis.
ES: I actually think I get a lot of meaning from finding out the 7 top toast spreads to toast on my Sunday afternoon.
TH: Yeah, absolutely.
ES: But, it does seem to be so sexy: capitalism, ego. You don’t have to think about things very much like it’s so… pervasive.
TH: Yeah, I mean look, this is getting into more personal philosophy stuff but the only reason that it fails is because it never actually satisfies anyone. Nobody has ever clicked on that thing and gone, oh that’s it I feel good about that. Well this is what the book’s about, and obviously I have young children as well, and I know the world that they’re growing up in and there has been no study that suggests that social media use correlates positively with mental health, everything suggests that the more social media you consume, the more depressed and anxious you become. EVERY study. Do you know what I mean? So, I’m concerned about that because it does arise from this difference between dopamine hit and oxytocin, where you can feel good about yourself because you’ve achieved something because you’ve challenged yourself, that’s a different mental stimulant to dopamine which is like, I wanted to scratch that itch and I scratched it. Uh, so I’m researching all of this stuff at the moment [and] its incredibly concerning.
ES: Do you have Facebook?
TH: Yeah I do. I don’t really use it. That makes me kind of a stalker, I guess.
TH: Yeah, I think that Facebook is an impoverished form of self-expression, right. But more importantly its an impoverished form of relating to one another.
ES: What do you do if you know this, you’ve been told this, you’ve also been told that the reason for the demise of my generation is because we’re always on our phones BUT so much of our world depends on me having Facebook, Instagram, Twitter. What do you do in that conundrum?
TH: Yeah I think it’s about, [like] anything with mental health, its about exercising the parts of your soul or person and your mind that actually give you positive energy. And make sure that you keep in mind that that’s part of your mental health plan, like, take care of your mental health as well as you might take care of your physical health, and go, look I’m gonna suspend myself from engaging with social media to do something I find challenging but rewarding instead of that [social media] like reading a book or having a conversation with friends. You know, all of that stuff we still do, its part of our culture and so its not necessarily like we’re all online now, so I think there’s still plenty of time for people to recognize that and change their behavior and its prolly part of growing up to do so.
ES: You said earlier, in a fight between humans and zombies, zombies win. Is that what you see happening in the future?
TH: Its hard to be optimistic when you know, for instance, the Jenners are the biggest social media [personalities], they’re the biggest celebrities in the world and/or Kim Kardashian despite the fact that they’ve never done or said anything interesting or had a positive contribution to make to the world.
ES: But they have great BUTTS! [laughs]
TH: They do have great butts, right. And so that’s the dopamine thing, I love looking at their butts. And I’m just gonna keep looking at it and gonna click on that link rather than investigate what’s going on in Syria or anything like that. Yeah so it’s hard to be optimistic but at the same time I think there’s just an inherent truth to the fact that that stuff isn’t actually satisfying, so people will always be fond of, like this is the whole thing about being a human, we are always looking to make meaning with another and social media is just the easiest way and most efficient way for us to do that. Now there are problems with the way we address ease and efficiency as being inherent goods in every aspect of our culture, but it’s a particular problem with communication because generally when you do something worthwhile, it’s because it’s hard. When you have a positive experience in your life it’s because you overcame a challenge, its not because you did something that was easy.
ES: You said it’s hard to be optimistic about the future because it’s sort of impossible that we won’t stop being addicted to social media but it’s also hard to imagine that we will stop having conversations and relationships.
TH: Exactly. And they’re inherently positive. And like I say, this is from Hannah Arendt: “the act of giving birth to another human makes you not just care about yourself or your own feeling but also the world in which they are coming into.” So that kind of recreates itself everyday thousands of times where human relationships are really important and we gotta end that zombie behavior so there is kind of like these natural, implicitly unavoidable positive forces as well.
ES: Dr. Tauel Harper, thank you so much for joining me and I feel like your final message was ”go have babies everyone.”
ES: UWA students, keep reproducing. [laughs]
TH: Um, safely, consensually. Have conversations. Avoid LCS, come to class. Engage with people in real human life cause, you know, Lecture Capture System is part of this process of catering to efficiency and ease. It produces a fundamentally different student to one that comes into university and engages with other students, and so that’s just an example, it’s happening everywhere, resist that. Take part, enjoy, engage in reality and enjoy difficult things.
[Looney Tunes credits outro]
ES: Hey if you have suggestions about academia you want deciphered or an awesome professor who’s just waiting to be interviewed, email us: [email protected]. Thanks for listening.
[Bugs Bunny: That’s all folks!]
Transcribed by Xander Camit