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Cradle to Grave: The Untold Story of Digital Natives

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Kyle Bylin, Associate Editor

Among the population of youth born after 1980, much significance is placed on their “use” of digital technologies.  By doing so, we have, in turn, underestimated the major “role” in which a unique combination psychological and technological obsolescence has played in their daily lives.  All the while, it appears as though we’ve simply ignored how this abstract concept has become embedded into the very fabric of who these ‘Digital Natives’ are.
 
    We have yet to fully appreciate how this underlying aspect of living cradle to grave with obsolescence has shaped the peer culture in which they participate and forever changed their perspective of the world around them.  But, for those who grew up on this side of the participation gap within digital culture, another important shift is occurring.  What used to be a culture of innovation is transforming quickly into one based on fashion and disposability.

"they were likely to enter a culture
dominated by technological obsolescence..."
 

    For those who came of age in this environment a few years prior, they were likely to enter a culture dominated by technological obsolescence and only felt pressured to update once their technology was rendered obsolete by a significant improvement made in the newer model.  Such as, cell phones going from the green screen to that of the colored screen.  But, progressively, those who enter this culture today are pressured to keep up with the latest styles too.
 
    Sociologist Colin Campbell characterizes the individuals that engage in this type of consumerism as those who have such a high sensitivity to fashion that it goes onto create what he calls, “a rapidly changing and continuous sequence of new wants.”  Such a degree of hypersensitivity to the latest styles, he argues, is expected to initiate a high degree of want turn over.  Nowhere is this hypersensitivity to fashion more prevalent than among those born digital.
 
    In this case, the technology that a Digital Native uses has become a central part of their identity and even decisions as trivial as buying a cell phone become important if they believe that these decisions are revealing something significant about themselves.  When the different models of cell phones they could choose from became unlimited, consequentially, what choice they made became a reflection of themselves, their quality of taste and desire to fit in.
 
    Thus far, not only has the stylistic obsolescence of cell phones become accepted by the fashion-conscious young, but, often times, it is positively celebrated.  So to, living cradle to grave with digital technology, along with the shift from a traditional culture to that of one based on fashion and disposability, has not only habituated these Digital Natives to increasing levels of repetitive consumption but broadened the cultural acceptance of ‘the throwaway ethic.’

2.  Culture of Consumers

    At the turn of the twentieth century, Digital Natives only knew a well-developed consumer culture shaped by the means of MTV, commercial radio, and big-box retail outlets, based on a continual influx of new artists.  Many of who were designed to follow down the steadily declining path toward lowest-common-denominator standards and adhere to the mold of mass-marketing and traditional business thinking set forth by those within the Record Industry.

    By doing so, the quality of the music in that time period succumbed to the compromises necessary to make it appeal to everyone, which, in turn, meant that it would, “almost certainly not appeal perfectly to anyone.”  Popular music which was once seen as a running commentary on who we are and where we are as a society became no more than a escapist release within the context of a mass-culture that was dominated by throwaway singles and rapid obsolescence.

"media conglomerates increasingly focused on “least
objectionable programming,” content that would offend the
fewest people and cause the lowest rate of tune out."

    Within a few short years the culture of radio had deteriorated.  In the wake of wide-scale industry consolidation, the remaining media conglomerates increasingly focused on “least objectionable programming,” content that would offend the fewest people and cause the lowest rate of tune out.  Beyond this point, the songs that made the cut were essentially used to create a buffer.  Or, whatever could provide the most cushioning between two long advertisements.
 
    Total Request Live emerged as “the dead center of the music industry” and with it, MTV had its finger firmly placed on the pulse of American youth culture, which, simultaneously, created a feedback loop where executives researched teens for indications on what music they should play, while teens themselves scoured the network for models of new artists to imitate, the latest fashions to wear, and songs that would become the soundtracks to their lives.
 
    Due to the lucrative nature of CD's, big-box retail outlets leveraged their vast networks to command lower prices than that of their local competitors and used them as loss leaders in hopes that they could drive music fans towards their higher ticket items.  In doing so, they disconnected music from aesthetics of the local scene and single-handedly undermined the social network of record stores that spent years developing in order to meet the needs of their audience.

    Out of this chaos and transformation, an epidemic of file-sharing tipped within this culture of consumers, primarily, because it appealed to the deep seeded western values that had been instilled them since birth.  Like a credit card, file-sharing encouraged Digital Natives to consume more music than they could ever possibly afford without prompting them to think twice about how they could ever pay artists back for the songs that were now in their possession.

3.  The Sleeper Curve 

    As the Record Industry shifted its economic incentives from the long-term repetition and complexity of a bygone era to quick hits and blockbuster albums, a corresponding decrease in depth and quality ensued.  No longer did music consist of the kind of musical and lyrical complexity that rewarded repeat listening and greater scrutiny.  Instead it offered instant gratification, appealed to almost everyone, and never sought to challenge the minds of its listeners.

    Yet, lost in this account of the Record Industry and popular music’s trajectory towards simplicity and lowest-common-denominator standards is what Steven Johnson, author of Everything Bad Is Good For You, believed to be the most interesting trend of all:  that the popular culture, ranging from video games, television, movies, and the Internet, has been growing increasingly complex over the past few decades, exercising our minds in powerful new ways.

"the Record Industry focused on delivering “the masses” more
dumb and simple albums that would sell 3-4 million copies"

    According to Johnson, this is the landscape of The Sleeper Curve, wherein, more engaging and cognitively challenging forms of media appeared, not less.  Put differently, over the past decade, while the Record Industry focused on delivering “the masses” more dumb and simple albums that would sell 3-4 million copies, changes in the economics of the other cultural industries occurred that tried to encourage more repeat viewing and intellectual challenge.

    While the Record Industry likes to correlate every song shared across file-sharing networks as a lost sale, Technology Editor Charles Arthur suspects that an even more profound shift has taken place.  Since 1980, the starting point for this population of Digital Natives, five generations of video game consoles have been released, whose content, with every year, grew complex in a way that demanded ever-more participation, engagement, and in-depth group analysis.

    “So,” Arthur argues further, “the music industry's biggest enemy isn't file-sharing – it's the likes of Nintendo, Microsoft, and a zillion games publishers.”  And, if you think about it, from 1998-2001, while the Record Industry was busy creating the likes of Brittany Spears and the Boy Bands, titles like GoldenEye 007, Grand Theft Auto III, Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, Metal Gear Solid,  and Final Fantasy VII, revolutionized the culture of gaming.

    These titles, among others, upon their release, would come to be some of the most influential games of all time and galvanize interest in first-person shooters, sandbox-style action adventures, 3D platformers, stealth games, and role-playing games across generations.  This shift caused high amounts of discretionary spending to go towards purchasing these digital technologies and more cognitively challenging forms of media, while music was perceived as free.

4.  Conclusion – Perfect Hamony

    To bring this full circle, the iPod would do for digital music, what these titles did for gaming, radically evolving the relationship between fan and music.  Most importantly, it would become the focal point where the hypersensitivity and high rate of “want turn over” in Digital Natives converged with the rapid obsolescence of pop stars and throwaway singles, where technology adoption trends and a new breed of music consumerism interacted in unpredictable ways.

    Last, but not least, where the fashion and disposability of cell phones and the worldwide social impact of the iPod, would eventually come together in a perfect hamony to create the first iPhone.  And, “With the mobile application revolution in full swing,” Terry McBride of Nettwerk Music Group notes, “the need to own goes away, the need to access goes way up.”  Like the iPod before them, these applications will change the behavioral habits of how people consume music and have a profound effect on the digital youth that come after.

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