This piece originally appeared in the Joong-Ang Ilbo on 26 May 2013.
Earlier this spring, a young music teacher from Seoul named Luna Lee became an Internet sensation when her recording of the Jimi Hendrix classic, “Voodoo Chile,” went viral on YouTube. Many aspiring guitarists have tried, with mixed results, to cover this song but what sets Lee’s rendition apart is that she plays it not on a Stratocaster but on a gayageum, a traditional Korean string instrument which dates to the sixth century.
Lee’s display of musical ingenuity offers fun aplenty, but her videos also reveal an important truth about the changing nature of culture in the 21st century. For decades, critics of globalization have been sounding the death knell for the world’s local cultures, charging the “McWorld” behemoth of Hollywood and Madison Avenue with the destruction of traditional literature, music and cinema. The result, they allege, has been less diversity from one country to the next.
To be sure, one would be hard-pressed to argue that the cultures of Native Americans or of Polynesians, for example, are more vibrant today than in centuries past. The traditional arts of these societies have been undeniably swamped, first by brute colonial force and, more recently, by efficient global supply chains and the wham-bang action of Hollywood blockbusters.
“The standardization of world culture, with local popular or traditional forms driven out or dumbed down to make way for American television, American music, food, clothes and films, has been seen by many as the very heart of globalization,” wrote American literary critic Frederic Jameson in 2000.
Governments have responded by attempting to shield their traditional cultures from the invasive influences of global pop culture. French law, for instance, requires that 40 percent of all songs on the radio be in the French language. South Korea places content requirements on the nation’s cinemas, mandating that Korean-language films be screened for a minimum number of days each year. Television broadcasters in Canada, Australia and the Philippines - among many others - are required to air a certain percentage of local content.
Yet, while fears about cultural change are to some extent understandable, and while one may rightly lament a particular society’s loss of cultural dynamism, perhaps this focus on national - or even regional - cultures misses an important insight.
As U.S. economist Tyler Cowen has noted, “diversity across societies is to some extent a collectivist concept. The metric compares one society to another, or one country to another, instead of comparing one individual to another, or instead of looking at the choices faced by an individual.”
Herein lies the rub: individuals like Luna Lee are no longer constrained by the narrow definitions of culture granted them by Disney, MTV, or the Ministry of Culture. To compare Korean society of the present to that of the past, and then bemoan the lost “authenticity,” is to miss the point entirely in an age when the Luna Lees of the world can consume bits and bytes of myriad cultural products - ancient Korean music, Texas blues, Hendrix’s psychedelia - and then mix and match these pieces into something that leaves content czars scrambling for definitions.
The Internet, in tandem with cheap software for creating and editing content, has enabled amateurs to produce content of a quality once attainable only by major media juggernauts. Nowadays, anyone with a few thousand dollars to invest in decent hardware can enter the entertainment industry, distributing their content at a marginal cost close to zero. Culture, in other words, is ceasing to be the possession of a nation or region and is, instead, becoming unique to each individual. This should, but likely will not, come as welcome news to the professional hand-wringers who fret about the reach and dominance of McCulture.
Government bureaucrats, who wield power through their ability to hand out favors, are troubled. This borderless online universe is quickly rendering cultural content quotas - imposed not to meet consumer demand but rather to appease powerful industry lobbies - irrelevant. After all, when music fans no longer need the radio to get their tunes, and when any film in the history of cinema is available with the click of a mouse, does it really matter what the local radio or TV stations are forced to play?
Corporate control, which requires those state favors, is therefore dwindling. Thanks to Bit Torrent and a host of ways to strip digital rights management restrictions from music, movies, and books, intellectual property laws are becoming unenforceable. Individual content creators are quickly liberating themselves from elite, state and corporate strictures about what constitutes “culture.”
Not so long ago, if a person wanted music, her choices were limited to whatever the recording industry saw fit to release and whatever government censors permitted into the marketplace. Those days are gone. Luna Lee is in charge now.
Welcome to the future.