Digital Culture: Liberation that was not meant to be


Richard Volkman (USA)


In a 1997 article in Wired magazine, Jon Katz proclaims, “The world’s information is being liberated, and so, as a consequence, are we.”1 Katz argues that information technology transforms our cultural circumstance to such a degree that the old dogmas and traditions that have bound our thinking no longer have power over us. We have been liberated from the effects of tired ideology and the authority of leaders, and we have consequently discovered in the information age a new age of freedom.

I will argue that digital culture does transform our cultural circumstances in ways that are liberating. The processes of creation, distribution, and consumption of artifacts of digital culture are all fundamentally different from these process in the days of broadcast and print culture, and these changes each tend towards the liberation of individuals from the authority of leaders, gatekeepers, and corporate power. I will demonstrate this through an analysis of such disparate artifacts as movies, news services, creative writing, and video games. In the information age, the creators of cultural artifacts are not in control of the meaning of their works. The meaning of a work in digital culture is distributed across the Net in the minds of what used to be called consumers, and that meaning is subject to constant reinterpretation and evolution.

This transformation is perhaps most obvious in the case of video games, which are perhaps the purest form of digital culture. In this medium, which could not exist were it not for technology, the actual meaning of the artifact and its cultural significance does not come from the message its creator intends to convey, but from the interaction it invites from its users. It is not up to the producers of digital artifacts to send simple messages about what it means to be a boy or a girl in this or that cultural circumstance because one does not read the messages of video games. One literally plays with them.

To take a concrete example, consider the Pokemon series of video games and movies. As the father of a five-year-old, I am an unwitting expert with respect to this genre. As anyone who has watched one of the cartoons or played one of the games can attest, these characters and their settings are distinctly ambiguous in race, blending Japanese and American traits until it is impossible to tell which was intended. In fact, this ambiguity itself is almost certainly intended, but not to send any particular message. Rather, Nintendo recognizes the value of letting American kids interpret Ash one way, while Japanese kids can read him differently. In order to reach the widest possible market, and perhaps for more artistic reasons as well, the creators have found it desirable to let kids read their own messages into these characters. This kind of stylized racial ambiguity is not confined to the Pokemon series. Indeed, it is one of the hallmarks of the Anime or Japanimation scene, and finds expression in countless other artifacts of digital culture. On the Internet, no one knows you’re a dog. 2

Artifacts of digital culture get their meaning from the interaction of consumers with the artifacts, and this fact extends beyond the “pure” digital artifacts and into more traditional media, such as writing and visual arts. Hypertext offers one common example of this, since the ability to click around to other sources in the context of reading a work can transform the meaning of the work. Consider, for example, a web site of Nietzsche’s works hyperlinked to relevant passages of the Bible or Koran. Surely such a juxtaposition is pregnant with meanings that Nietzsche did not intend. Indeed, the line between creator and consumer of messages–so important to broadcast culture–is blurred or even obliterated.

This obliteration is perhaps best exemplified in the chat rooms, bulletin boards, and self-organizing communities that spring up online. I will illustrate the point by examining web sites like Slashdot3, in which the reading community, the writing community, and the reviewing community are entirely merged. Through an invisible-hand process involving moderation, feedback, and revision, better and better cultural artifacts emerge. It is like they are organically grown in an environment carefully designed to permit only the best to survive. There are analogies here to biological evolution, but it is crucial to recognize the crucial differences between these communities and actual biological systems, especially with respect to the design of the environment itself and the sorts of artifacts that can be expected to flourish in that environment. Not coincidentally, the values fostered by the Slashdot environment are strikingly similar to those of the Open Source software movement, the free market in goods and services, and the scientific community at large. In every case, the core value is freedom.

Drawing from these examples and others, I will to offer an analysis of the sort of freedom that is at stake in the assertion that we are liberated by the liberation of information. While this is not a new sort of freedom, it is clear that its pervasiveness in digital culture will hearken to a very new sort of culture.


[1] Jon Katz, “Birth of a Digital Nation,” Wired 5.04 (1997):

[2] Peter Steiner, untitled cartoon, The New Yorker 69, no. 20(1993). The cartoon can be seen online at