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Labun Jordan: Collective Culture

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http://www.vpr.net//audio/programs/56/2013/03/Jordan-0313 Collective Culture_031313_Helen Labun-Jordan.mp3

(Host) Technology writer and commentator Helen Labun Jordan recalls that when she was a kid, everyone had the same short list of radio stations to listen to, and watched the three TV networks, or PBS, in prime time. Now, there are limitless choices - and some people are wondering whether that's the end of shared popular culture.

(Labun Jordan) I've started doing something I swore I'd never, ever do - walking around town, running errands, while listening to my iPod.

It seems so rude to plug into your own private sound track and turn the rest of the world into background noise. The thing is, though, I've got all these radio shows I want to hear . . . and I'd rather listen while moving around outside than be stuck inside doing something like washing dishes.So I've made an informed decision to be - well - rude. And to keep the volume low.

But it still drives me crazy to see other people doing the same thing that I'm doing. Maybe it's because I suspect that what I'm listening to is more worthwhile than what they're listening to,but maybe it's just that I can't tell. That's part of a real cultural debate right now - what happens now that technology lets us take in media content in complete isolation from each other?

We aren't hearing the same top ten hits on the car radio or watching the same TV programs during prime time any more. We're choosing when prime time is for us and what content we want to put there. The risk is that we'll listen only to the opinions that fit our worldview, we'll discover only the music that our friends listen to, we'll never step outside what's familiar. In the end our culture would be fragmented into millions of different silos. I have an image of everyone wandering around town listening to their earbuds and bumping into each other.

Or maybe, without anything forcing us into common cultural reference points, we'll start to invent our own frameworks for shared experiences.We seem to be moving in that direction.

I recently sat in a room of 300 people for two days of very, very dull lectures on federal grants management. Occasionally, a murmur of excitement would ripple through the crowd, then disappear, until finally the speaker at the podium held up his smartphone and said I can get the Radio Free Europe feed too, should I just give the World Cup updates as they come in? At which point we looked sheepish, then paused to get a full-room update.

Somethings become a common experience because they need to be seen in real time. If you didn't watch Felix Baumgartner taking his sky dive from the stratosphere as it happened, then the drama was pretty much lost.

On the opposite end we also make events that accommodate people watching programs at a different pace, like the roaring twenties themed parties attended by devoted Downton Abbey viewers.

We have an instinct towards fellowship that can be as simple as Tweeting with other fans during the Superbowl or being the billionth person to watch the same cute cat video.

So yes, technology allows a future of plugging into our own media world and ignoring the rest, but I don't really believe it's the one we're going to choose.