Chance Encounters and the Digitalization of Cultural Experience


Serendipity has always characterized the way we discovered music. Up until the advent of the Internet and social media, our exposure to new (or relatively new) artists, hits or genres was often left to chance – tuning in to the radio, strolling into your favorite record shop, even by word-of-mouth. The scope in which we encountered original forms of music was defined by our (then) limited social interaction and access to contemporary media.

Fast-forward to 2012 and things could not be more different. While serendipity may still play a role in the initiation of cultural experiences, technological advancement and the rapid expansion of our social web have fundamentally transformed the way we produce, distribute, and consume culture. Nowadays, anything and everything is just one click away.

At the inaugural lecture of CreativeMornings Amsterdam (14 September 2012), cultural entrepreneur Juha van ‘t Zelfde shed some light on this phenomenon, sharing his personal experiences on cultural acceleration. As both analyst and curator of ubiquitous culture,[1] Van ‘t Zelfde explores a cavalcade of themes, including the viral dissemination of new music through autonomous, mesh networks. Entitled Viral Radio, his talk centered on his chance encounter with the musical genre, dubstep and the radical impact of social media on his (sub) cultural immersion.

After a series of unfortunate events, Van ‘t Zelfde found himself in the heart of Brixton, South London in 2006 amidst the massive sounds and deep bass of one of dubstep’s most influential club nights, DMZ. At the time, the electronic beat was still relegated to the underground dance scene, circulated on the web via online forums, file sharing networks and the ever-popular MySpace. Needless to say, access to dubstep –the music, the scene, and the artists– was both laggard and limited, requiring a lot more research and personal engagement on behalf of the avid listener.

Longing to share his newfound passion, Van ‘t Zelfde established Viral Radio – an independent network and music vehicle dedicated to the propagation of experimental sounds. Since dubstep was still in its infancy, his immersion into the burgeoning subculture was facilitated by visits to DMZ, listening to online pirate radio (Rinse en React FM) and chatting with various artists on MSN or AIM. At the same time, dubstep was slowly spreading beyond the local scene, adopting the Internet as its mechanism for growth. As technology quickly progressed over the next 6 years, so too did the electronic genre.

Nowadays, not only is it possible to search, select and enjoy even the most eccentric of musical styles, these experiences can also be shared in real time. “Social media is changing how we discover culture,” says Van ‘t Zelfde. What was once the sole domain of cultural institutions can now be simulated (and manipulated) over the World Wide Web. Access has become more democratic and instantaneous, challenging the traditional models of cultural experience.[2]

Nevertheless, the speed at which culture is encountered, evaluated then shared on social networks is a cause for concern. Although the availability of information has never been more immediate, the original value and impact of the overall experience is depreciated by its digitalization. Simply put, there is a stark contrast between attending a concert in person and streaming it online. The investigative efforts on the part of a pre-Twitter dubstep fan, for example, illustrate how culture was not simply taken at face value. That being said, at no point in time will “Likes” ever equate to knowledge and understanding.

While Van t’ Zelfde agrees that the excessive use of social media can potentially lead to cultural retardation, he insists that the opposite also holds true. Access to information increases both visibility and awareness, shaping the way our society values culture. Despite the fact that there is no substituting an aesthetic experience, the Internet can provide a remote alternative. As a result, the opportunity to discover culture has become less dependent on chance and more determined by choice. ✌

[1] Among his many other cultural endeavors, Juha van ‘t Zelfde is the founder of Non-fiction, VURB and Viral Radio.

[2] i.e. Reading a book, visiting a museum, attending a concert, etc.✍

☞ For more information on Juha van ‘t Zelfde, CreativeMornings Amsterdam and CreativeMornings™, visit the websites listed below:

Juha van ‘t Zelfde

CreativeMorings | Amsterdam and CreativeMornings™

Follow CreativeMornings Amsterdam on Twitter for more information


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