The Cultural Iconography

Of Music, Technology and Memory

Of all the cultural triggers that bring back memories which mark milestones in our lives; technology and music are likely to be high on the list. Beyond nostalgia the two combine the two to create a powerful time machine that can take you back, (and forward if you care to extrapolate), into something much more concrete, where the technological iconography can be used to throw a light on the culture and behaviours of that time. So if any future (cultural) historians require a snapshot of the late 20th/early 21st century the three videos below offer a distinct narrative.

We start c. 35 years ago with the Buggles Video Killed the Radio Star. This was the original video, a historic document, first broadcast on Top of The Pops in 1979, which also claimed a second first, in being the music video chosen to kick off MTV, on August 1st. 1981. It introduces the recurring symbols of youth, femininity against a backdrop of generic sci-fi imagery and emerging music technology. Digital life as we know it, was still a very long way off.

Its combination of a memorable, catchy tune, and a tranche of easily re-mixable lyrics, made it inevitable that Video killed….. would propagate other works — as, does most great art. Although each of its subsequent videos might initially be though of as parody of it , their references and observations clearly make a . In the second, we move on a couple of decades as Mark Cohn and the BroadBand create a paean dedicated to computers and the Internet, as it comes of age at the turn of the millennium. Using hard edged iconography it captures the consumer tech zeitgeist including the imminent bursting of the dotcom bubble and the demise of Napster, (later to re-emerged as a hamstrung online music store). If you were around, it will all undoubtedly seem very familiar.

Finally we are now brought right into the 21st Century and Amy Burvall brings the theme right up to date with Digital Life, a superb remix created for the E-Learning and Digital Cultures MOOC #edcmooc. Shot using an iPhone with it takes us through the personal affordances of our personal tech whilst giving Amy the opportunity to fulfil her ambitions to become a YouTube star.

When I first came across Amy’s digital artefact on EDMOOC, it was soon apparent, this was more than course-work in the generally accepted sense. It had taken on a life of its own beyond the course, as an entity in its own right. This got me thinking — shouldn’t much more of the work done by our students in our schools and colleges be visible and make a useful contribution, no matter how small? They have all this easily accessible and usable technology for making, they are now being taught coding skills, they are ideally placed to create and share openly, if their institutions will let them.

Any of the above videos would make an interesting course text raising lots of questions and avenues for exploration, across many subject strands. This is exactly why I included the BroadBand video as a text when I developed and taught the Digital Media Foundation course at the University of Hull in 2007. If I were to re-create the course I would now include all three.

All three videos document the changes in information and media around us they ask questions and offer us insights into how we use them. The more you watch and listen, the more subtleties and nuances you can pick up, whilst alienation may be just around the corner, they observe, commentate; but without the technology based moral panics so often promoted by mainstream media.

Who will now build on Digital Life, what will their artefacts tell us?