photo: Jason Michael, flickr, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 licence

V as in Version

BY Mirek Filiciak / Alek Tarkowski

New culture, to an even greater extent than before, is a culture of versions. And it’s not just thanks to the term ‘culture 2.0’, although the label itself is not without meaning

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Versions have been a part of culture since the dawn of time, thanks to endless variations on a single theme, numerous interpretation of musical pieces and drama, as well as the practice of collective authorship. Historically speaking, versions are the norm rather than the exception — a fact we easily lose sight of as a result of our faith in the value of the original, authentic version.

New culture, to an even greater extent than before, is a culture of versions. And it’s not just thanks to the term “culture 2.0”, although the label itself is not without meaning.

The letter “v.” — used to identify the endless updates, changes, and patches to software — has led us from a world in which versions were described by names and words (author, director, live performance, radio performance, instrumental version) to a world where the versions are so numerous that, for the sake of order, we must resort to numbering them (this article was written on computers with a version 10.5.8 operating system; our browsers are currently at versions 3.5.4 and 4.0.4, and each of our collaborative drafts was labelled as v.1, v.2, v.3, and so on).

Software — that imperceptible yet increasingly important part that regulates how the modern world runs — constantly changes. It used to be that new versions were no longer developed once a product hit the store shelves. Today, neither the software nor the hardware we use at home is likely to be exactly the same as what we bought at the store. After unpacking the product, we install all the updates released since the product was manufactured. Operating systems are updated every few weeks, and the results of such changes are apparent in the software found in gaming consoles, whose functions can change rather radically after a few updates.

In a world as dependent on software as ours, the unity and integrity of a creative work is an illusory concept. Furthermore, most of the text we encounter nowadays is hypertext — potential text that requires us to actualise it by making a series of minor choices that usually involve clicking on a link. The variability of contemporary culture doesn’t merely stem from the pervasiveness of remixing and transformation: it is an inherent quality of our culture, one of the fundamental attributes of text itself. Just like media based on technical reproduction spelled the demise of the very concept of the “original” (prints cannot be more or less original), so have digital media made every text a version in itself, one of many possible interpretations, while also making it impossible to determine which is “proper” or the “original”.

In the general sense, cultural texts are also variations on earlier texts, and serve as starting points for future texts — a phenomenon that likely has as much to do with computers as it does with the postmodern belief in the exhaustion of culture, and with the idea that we are simply destined to produce new versions of old stories.

Versions are also a product of the multimedia nature of culture, in which content appears in more than one form. The Doll is more than just a novel by Bolesław Prus; it is a film by Wojciech Has, a mini-series by Ryszard Ber, and a study guide written on the “Polski na 5” site by Anna Kozioł (not to mention a YouTube video titled “Lalka – Śladami Wokulskiego – Powiśle – Part 1”. Traditional culture, which differentiates between the original and the study guide — recognises the primacy of the novel. But from the new perspective, both versions are clearly different, yet none can be said to have primacy over the others; The Doll is in fact a network, a cloud, a family of elements. According to Mizuko Ito, the so-called “media mix” — a collection of diverse content united under a common brand — is now becoming the basic unit of culture. All the great hits of pop culture, such as Star Wars, Mickey Mouse, The Matrix, Lost, and The Witcher, are examples of media mixes. Each unit of content is modified through spin-offs in the form of films, games, comic books, t-shirts, books, and Lego sets.

There are numerous examples. Every significant musical recording is released in several versions, each tailored to specific needs, tastes, and price levels. Beck’s 2005 record Geuro was released as a 13-song CD, a special CD/DVD edition with bonus tracks and videos for each song, and as a set of remixes intended to be freely swapped online. The CD includes a set of stickers that allows the owner to create their own original version of the cover. Six years later, every significant song is expected to be released with a whole web of official remixes, soon followed by unofficial versions published online.

What this shows us is that culture functions in an perpetual transitional phase between one change and the next. It is in this sense that new culture is also a beta version of culture. Programmers use the term “beta” to describe the second test release of a software package, one more polished than the alpha version, but still buggy enough that it was traditionally released to a limited group of “beta testers”. According to Gina Neff and David Stark, websites (and the companies behind them) function as perpetual beta versions. The rate at which the needs and tastes of internet users change often make the creation of a polished final product impractical. Website are launched while still in beta, and remain in that stage through inertia; new functions are constantly added, and the design and layout are changed on a regular basis. The owners of these sites accept the inherent risk involved in this practice: changes made on a living online organism can sometimes turn out to be mistakes. Facebook was faced with just such a problem in early 2010, when users protested against changes they perceived as infringing upon their privacy. The company had no choice but to back out of the changes after two weeks. Wikipedia provides another lesson on how there is no single, final, and correct version. The more sensitive an issue addressed in an article, the more likely the text is to oscillate between several versions, rather than remain static. Versions can be frozen through a conscious decision on the part of an administrator, who can step in to prevent what is known as an “edit war”. Such moves can spark controversy, and are often viewed as borderline censorship.

Experiences learned from websites translate into culture as a whole, where growing areas are beginning to function as perpetual beta versions. Obviously, there is no point in fetishising change; there is still room for constant and immutable elements in culture (although guaranteeing this status, not unlike attempts to freeze edits on Wikipedia, require a growing effort).

Culture 2.0 itself is not a radical departure from existing culture — it is simply a newer version. This one is built of existing blocks, or — as Bruce Sterling puts it — it is a new layer on the cultural compost heap that we’ve been building for years.

translated by Arthur Barys