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The BBC’s virtual revolution series: an anthropological note

February 22, 2010

I have thoroughly enjoyed the BBC’s brand new mini-series, The Virtual Revolution (subtitled: How 20 Years of the Web has Reshaped Our Lives), a series I intend to use in future teaching.  It is informative, educational, visually striking, and thought-provoking. However, this would hardly be a blog if I merely sang its praises, would it?

I’m normally quite good at switching off my critical faculties when watching television – years of practice growing up in a televisual culture have seen to that. In this case, though, I couldn’t but notice one or two things:

1. This was a familiar heroic tale of technological progress told by some of its more famous protagonists (Tim Berners-Lee,  Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg…) with an equally familiar open end: who knows where we’re going with the Web? It’s up to us – and our visionaries – to meet the many challenges that lie ahead and chart the right course. Missing from this Great Web Tradition, though, were the numerous little web traditions of ordinary people around the globe.

2. Some countries (notably South Korea) were presented as being ahead of the rest of us, offering us a glimpse of our collective Web future, e.g. of the dangers (Web addiction) and opportunities (a universal mind) of the Web. This portrayal had me troubled, not because I reject the notion of relative technological advancement (I don’t)  but because it seems to overlooks the huge cultural differences that exist between countries.  It seems highly probable that South Korea (like Brazil, Finland, Ghana, etc.) will continue along its own paths of socio-technological change shaped by its unique history, geopolitics and culture. I can see no signs of South Korea heading for cultural convergence with Senegal, Belize or Taiwan any time soon.

But perhaps I’m falling into the Avatar trap: expecting too much from an audiovisual text whose rationale and aims are not my own. This was, after all, a television programme, not a media anthropological study.

5 Comments leave one →
  1. February 23, 2010 12:31 pm

    See also David Chapman ‘s views on this series here:

  2. February 23, 2010 2:27 pm

    Yes, perhaps over-expectations are unreasonable. Recalling the words of the classic British poets Jagger and Richards, “it’s only rock and roll.” Same applies here. It’s only a TV show, with entertainment not education as its objective.

    Interesting to note, though, that you categorize “a universal mind” as an opportunity, rather than a danger. A universal mind doesn’t seem at all like an opportunity to me.

  3. February 23, 2010 5:32 pm

    Thanks Richard. Oh no, in that passage I was only trying to sum up how the future of the web was presented in the final episode, with South Korea as the example chosen by the series writers themselves, not my own views on the matter.

    I can’t really imagine – and it wasn’t made clear in the series – what such a universal mind would look like but it seems like a very far-fetched idea.

    I would add, though, that the web seems to contribute to our increasing ability as a species, led by our news media agenda-setters, to talk about the same ‘global event’ for a short while before moving on: Chinese earthquake, Obama, Michael Jackson, Iran, Avatar, Haiti…


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