Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Cultural change accelerates

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As years reach their calendar end, columnists and pundits regularly try to draw themes from the past 12 months. What can we deduce about the current state of the American psyche from popular films? Where is Canadian theatre going? What do the latest song cycles from Arcade Fire and Broken Social Scene say about our country, and so on?

These pieces often make highly entertaining and interesting essays. You can look at director Christopher Nolan's blockbuster movie Inception and writer Aaron Sorkin's highly articulate The Social Network and see a preoccupation with how technology is changing the way we live and think, but how do you fit a breakout indie film like The Kids Are All Right into that mix?

Given how easy it is to stretch facts to fit a theme for the year or simply to be wrong, it is with some trepidation that I enter the fray. But as I look at changes that took place in culture and business during 2010, I am struck by the feeling that the year will go down as a watershed in the development of what has become known as the digital economy. The changes that took place are, in my view, just the start of developments that are altering our lives so fast it's hard to keep track of what's happening.

We have become so used to fast-moving technological change that major developments no longer have the shock of the new that they once had. Let's start with a development that is not really new at all: it's a catch-up. At long last, The Beatles music is on iTunes. The Beatles music had not been available on the widespread digital download system because of a long-running legal dispute over the use of the "Apple" trademark, which both The Beatles and the Macintosh computer maker claimed. The instant The Beatles music became available, it hit the Top Ten of iTunes' download list.

This time last year, The Beatles were selling one of the last big CD releases of all time -- the remastered and boxed set of their albums. Now that the same works are available for download, the switch of music from store sales to the Internet is complete.

The switch in the way we purchase and listen to music was the first big effect of the Internet on popular culture. As home computers have increasingly been able to download bigger and bigger files, music has been followed by television programs and films. The convergence that was promised a decade ago of telephone, computer and television screen was slow to take hold, but is now proceeding apace.

As a result, last year saw the Canadian cable company Shaw Communications take over the former Winnipeg-based Canwest television network to form the new Shaw Media, and BCE, the holding company for Bell Telephone, decided for the second time to purchase Canada's largest private network, CTV.

Those corporate moves were in response to changes wrought by computers and the Internet. Now that audiences can watch anything on any platform at any time, the cable and phone companies are moving to take control of content in any way they can.

Apple's new iPhone 4 allowed mobile users to see each other as they speak, just as science-fiction imagined 50 years ago. Books, which had seemed a bastion of old-style print-based reading, switched almost overnight to downloads on eReaders sold by Amazon, Apple and the Canadian bookseller Chapters Indigo.

To cap it all, the WikiLeaks phenomenon underlined the huge shift going on in our culture. The widespread release of the United States' private diplomatic communications may be irresponsible -- it is certainly entertaining. Its importance, though, is its reflection of the power of the Internet as a disseminator of unfiltered material.

The year 2010 put the digital revolution into a new gear. Its best cultural reflection may be the film The Social Network. It's the fictionalized account of the creation of Facebook, written as a thriller. The movie begins with a student prank at Harvard in the fall of 2003. Nothing speaks of the speed of change more than that. Seven years later, social media are more prevalent than McDonald's.

Nicholas Hirst is CEO of Winnipeg-based television and film producer Original Pictures Inc.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition December 23, 2010 A11

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