In the November 3 session of American University's School of Communication Faculty Forum Dr. Aram Sinnreich discussed the idea of Configurable Culture in his presentation “Ethics Evolved: An International Perspective on Copying in the Networked Age”. Configurable Culture, a term coined by Dr. Sinnreich, is a set of cultural forms and practices that allow people to manipulate cultural information in a new way.
Examples include mashups, memes, and machinima. Each time people enjoy memes featuring Lipton Tea and Kermit the Frog or listen to The Grey Album, they are consuming configurable culture.
A recent addition to the American University faculty, Dr. Sinnreich is an Associate Professor in the School of Communication and a Research Fellow for the Center for Media and Social Impact. He previously served as an Assistant Professor at Rutgers University's School of Communication and Information, the Director of the at Media Innovation Lab at OMD Ignition Factory, and Managing Partner of Media/Tech Consultancy at Radar Research. His research heavily focuses on the intersection of culture, law, and technology with emphasis on subjects such as emerging media and music. Dr. Sinnreich is the author of two pivotal books in the communication field, Mashed Up (2010) and The Piracy Crusade (2013). He has written for The New York Times, Billboard, and Wired.
Dr. Sinnreich first became fascinated with studying configurable culture during the early 2000s after encountering a mashup of Destiny Child’s “Bootylicious” and Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit”, comically titled, “Smells Like Booty”. After hearing the mashup, Dr. Sinnreich started researching and interviewing various mashup artists. He noticed that the traditional notions of consumption and production were breaking down and that the foundations of cultural understanding no longer apply to the set of modern cultural practices. According to Dr. Sinnreich, “Culture is always the leader of new social imaginaries. We get our understanding of who we are, how we relate to one another, how we fit together, what kinds of social organizations we should produce, what kinds of social institutions should have legitimacy from culture.” New cultural forms suggest new kinds of social organizations such as Anonymous, the Black Lives Matter movement, Occupy Wall Street, and Kopimism.
Using music as an entry point to the concept of Configurable Culture, Dr. Sinnreich explained that there are two sides in relation to music: consumption (consumers who listen to the music) and production (professionals who produce and record in studios). In old models, the consumer and producer were connected only through currency exchange. With new digital technology, new versions of pseudo-consumption and pseudo-production emerge. Dr. Sinnreich uses customizing a Pandora radio station and the software Garage Band as examples. Pandora customizing, curating a subset of cultural information (music) and customizing it to personal needs, is not considered traditional consuming rather “consumption adjacent”. The idea of “production adjacent” is displayed in Garage Band, where the consumer creates a musical production based on provided samples.
In his study of configurable culture, Dr. Sinnreich performed longitudinal studies on thousands of online, English-speaking adults from various countries to assess their awareness, consumption, and engagement in Photoshop, music mashups, mods, anime music videos, video remixes, and machinima. The results indicate enormous growth in widespread awareness of all cultural practices over the past 5 years. While from 2006 to 2010, there was significant but fairly feeble growth in awareness, from 2010 to 2014 awareness nearly doubled. Respondents who claimed no awareness decreased close to zero, implying that every online adult is aware of some form of configurable culture. An age gap is present with younger respondents more likely to claim awareness compared to the older respondents. Dr. Sinnreich suggested there will be a saturation point emerging in the near future, where the older generation will rank closer to the younger generation in awareness. The U.S. has displayed the fastest growth in awareness, rising from 31% to 77% of the overall population. Other surveyed countries reveal a less significant rise over time.
Dr. Sinnreich assessed personal use engagement in the various cultural forms and practices. The survey indicates that the Philippines is the most engaged in music and video compared to other countries and the U.S. shows the greatest growth in musical and video engagement overtime. From these studies, it is fair to conclude that most online adults in every country and of every age are now engaging in some form of configurable musical and video based culture- this is the foundational level of 2015 cultural engagement. There is an age gap between the 18-25 and 55+ age brackets in regards to specific engagement categories, as the younger bracket is more likely to engage than the older bracket.
To assess the opinions and feelings about configurative culture, Dr. Sinnreich posed a quantitative question in 2006: How do you feel about configurative culture? When someone remixes, is it original, sometimes original, or unoriginal? According to the results, the 18-25 age bracket are more likely to view fair use activities as always/sometimes original (77% of the overall population). In 2010, Dr. Sinnreich added a “no answer” category, the results leading to the realization that many respondents were not informed enough to form an opinion. Both younger and older respondents opted for the “no answer” category; however, the younger respondents are more likely to select originality/legitimacy when unsure compared to the older respondents. In 2014, amongst the younger and older respondents, there was an increase in the likelihood to always or sometimes see cultural forms as original and legitimate. Dr. Sinnreich posed the possibility that awareness, not age, truly influences the responses. With more awareness of cultural forms comes a more favorable view of the originality and legitimacy present in configurative culture. There is also a correlation between the lack of understanding and a non-trusting view of the cultural forms. People are more likely to be in agreement with a cultural form if they have the smallest bit of familiarity with it.
Configurable culture is constantly evolving. With the global increase of awareness, the consumption and engagement of cultural forms and practices spans across various countries and age groups. Because cultural forms and practices communicate and manipulate cultural information, individuals who are not involved in the emergence are left out. It is imperative for scholars, such as Dr. Sinnreich, to continue with trailblazing research that penetrates the sociocultural and technological barriers to promote equal growth over time.
Visit the American University School of Communication Faculty Forum website for more information on this and other Faculty Forum sessions.