Digital Technology and Teaching American Culture

Article excerpt

Popular Culture is the voice of this world, spoken in a thousand languages. Popular Culture Studies are therefore the New Humanities, intended to take up all the subjects singly and collectively and bring some order and understanding to the seeming chaos . . . we must of course study the Humanities internationally and comparatively. No longer is American scholarship defensibly a continent mentality. It is a world mentality.

(Ray B. Browne, "The Theory-Methodology Complex" 149)

We are global. We are digital. These forces feed and grow off one another. In the twenty-first century it seems almost old-fashioned to think anything less. The statistical evidence supporting the ubiquity of digital technology is staggering. One group calculates that total worldwide Internet growth has increased some 445 percent from 2000 to 2010, encompassing nearly two billion users globally (Miniwatts). Another popular indicator of the digital present and future is the seemingly ever-increasing size of Facebook's population, which reportedly exceeds five hundred million active users, who spend seven hundred billion minutes per month on the site ("Statistics").

There is no doubt that digital technology is a critical component of popular culture, weaving its way through virtually every aspect of society. Indeed, no aspect of mass communications is left unaffected by the rush toward digitalization. What is less clear, however, is the cumulative outcome that all-pervasive digital culture is having on teaching American culture studies. Much of the evidence is anecdotal, whether one stands for or against the Web and electronic technology as it pertains to how people think and learn (Johnson 9-14).

This essay combines a broad array of electronic threads to reveal a new way of looking at teaching American culture in the digital age. What quickly becomes apparent is that the US role as the world's innovation hub fuels much of its continuing leadership in digital technology, thus propelling a vision of America worldwide. In other words, the nation's culture (both real and imagined) seeps into the products of its technology exporters, such as Apple, Microsoft, and Google.

In addition, America serves as the epicenter of mass media globally, whether streaming from the film and television studios in Hollywood or the countless journalists who dominate the multitude of channels that feed the nation's seemingly insatiable appetite for news and entertainment. In this instance, one could point to Disney's ability to export both its traditional animated characters and teen stars globally (such as Miley Cyrus) as a model for how a particular view of America is presented overseas.

From a historic viewpoint, American culture has dominated global popular culture based on its technological leadership of Web-based and consumer technology (Ashby 512-17). As these innovations are adopted outside the United States, they actually become less American and more global. Technologist James W. Cortada explains, "Collaborative behavior, rather than just adversarial actions, has been increasing thanks to the nature of IT; indeed, the technology itself has conversely been molded in service to make collaboration more possible than in any time in human history, to the extent that today it involves billions of people" (252). In other words, as American Web sites, applications, high-tech gadgets, and consumer goods disperse globally and gain market share, they simultaneously become less US-centric, even as they remain influenced by American culture.

Specifically analyzing Facebook and Apple (in terms of iPod, iPhone, and iPad ubiquity), for example, one sees these technologies as distinctly part of American culture, but worldwide adoption causes them to be simultaneously less American. In one sense, then, they are casting a wider net for American culture, while also watering down their "Americanness." Scholar Joachim K. Rennstich finds the global environment increasingly complex, explaining "individuals and organizations [are] sponsoring and advancing innovation that results in the strengthening of the global layers of interactions" (199). …