Digimart and the Curse of the White Male

Posted by in Doc Side

digimart_en-2.jpgLast week I attended Digimart, the “Global Digital Distribution Summit,” here in Montreal. I went because, well, my research for both my current MA thesis and my (hopefully) future PhD thesis involves digital networks as the vehicle for delivering documentary film to movie theatres here in Canada. After shelling out 225 beans for my three day pass, (and after unsuccessfully begging for a “media pass”) I headed over to the marvellously fascistic (accoring to my colleague Brett, who I agree with on this one) Excentris theatre on St. Laurent to feast my senses on some wildly provocative presentations. What I got was a taste of perhaps the real digital revolution, that is, the embodiment of technology, capitalism, industrialism, knowledge, authority, and “cutting edge”: ladies, gentlemen and transgendered folk, I bring you the all-knowing, all-pervasive White Male.Digimart is no small affair: the Quebec government has doled out HUGE amounts of bucks for this annual conference that is organized by francophones but largely attended by (speakers and listeners) anglophones – an oddity you will be hard pressed to find anywhere else in this province for any other “cultural events.” Despite the massive amounts of money spent on airfare for speakers and tech crews that could blow up the Eifel tower and rebuild it in twenty minutes, it is a cozy affair. Events consisted of presentations, roundtables, keynotes and screenings, all in the Excentris. With titles like “The Democratization of Media,” “Supersize My Rights,” and “Future Theatres,” I had much cause for giddy anticipation. However, it was the opening keynote address given by the perhaps still-tipsy John Perry Barlow at 9:45 AM on Day 1 that typifies all that is wrong with “summits” like Digimart: the White Male. Now, myself being a White Male, I am spotted as one just as easily as I can spot others, and it isn’t by nature of being a White Male that I take issue, despite our legacy of harm to the planet and humanity we have left behind us and built ahead of us. No, I take issue with the fact that the keynote address for a summit on global digital distribution was unqualified under his seemingly qualifying skin colour. Barlow is indeed an incredibly charismatic character now as I’m sure he was back in the days he wrote lyrics for the Grateful Dead. But what’s he doing now kids? Well, it’s called the White Man’s Art: making bad business. Barlow, like many other presenters at Digimart, works with such digital democratizers as Diamond Technology Partners, Vanguard and Global Business Network. With a CV like that, I can see how big business would fight over this guy, but what merit does he have to keynote a digital cinema conference, other than, of course, being white?

I suppose I should say that he gave a good keynote and entertained the crowd, and maybe that’s the job of the keynote, but I’m only picking on Barlow here to illustrate the lack of diversity in this conference. Out of 37 speakers at this summit 4 were of colour, and 7 were women (two of whom were on the Digimart executive). Now deciding who’s “white” and who’s “of colour” is engaging in a narrow-minded racialized discourse if I don’t at least say that I recognize these terms are socially constructed and constestable, and in no way do the numbers above actually represent some kind of clinical accuracy. However, given the sheer ratio of my unqualified observation, one can sense the overall look and feel of the presenters at Digimart. I mean, if you’ve got an all male, all white (including the Brazillian) panel as was the case with “Future Theatres,” wouldn’t you as an organizer at least try and mix it up with a woman moderator? But hey, it’s just our world of the west I guess.

Despite Digimart being a homogenous digital utopia for “monetizers” and freelance capitalists with a soft heart for culture, it is by no means alone and is merely following the lead of the society around it. Look around at our media in this country (yes, including Quebec) and look for non-whites, look for representation of women in rational, authoritative positions, look at advertising, hell, look and listen to the CBC. It’s a white, white, and male world out there (as well as heterosexual), but for god’s sake, that’s not reality. Which is why it is most unfortunate that a summit that attempts to capture the zeitgeist and “cutting edge” of the messy convergence of culture and commerce simply goose steps behind every other hegemonic insitution and organization in this country.

It’s true that I found some of the presentations entertaining and engaging, most notably Cory Doctorow’s (of Boing Boing fame). And I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised that this “summit” was really another global locus for business to rub elbows and talk about that “culture thing.” And there were some interesting intersections between culture and commerce highlighted, as with the Rain Network of Brazil which was presented on, but there was little room for dissent, “pioneering voices,” or even dialogue. Mostly I just sat in an audience of extremely privileged and important people who could afford to be there, and listened to the same “digital revolution with profit” rhetoric that has been dominating this area of the culture industries since the Internet went “public.”

At one moment one dissenter, part of the actual on the ground “cutting edge” of mediamakers, summed up how I was feeling, and simultaneously I watched the woman in the seat in front of me photoshopping wrinkles off of her neck on her lap top. Yes, it was Arin Crumley of Four Eyed Monster success that grabbed the microphone and said to the panel: “It seems to me that you guys are just using the same old models, but with new technology.” And despite Arin being anothe White Male, perhaps I thought, it takes one to say things like that before the others listen.