Postblack and Postdigital: Part 1

Is Your Agency Ready for Either Realm

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Eric Henderson Eric Henderson
This take on the intersection of race and digital media has nothing to do with any "digital divide." It's about convergence as we evolve in awareness and in the use of tools.

Despite contradictory events that will always be with us, the general trend still seems to be progress -- away from childish racism as well as its alter ego, colorblindness. The colorblind part of that is tricky. We're all versed in what's wrong with racism, but we don't have a universal handle on that idealistic metaphor "colorblindness." The Native Americans, Blacks and others who shared slave status in the 1600's New World might tell you that colorblindness was overrated. Yes, we get the sentiment: equality. But that's the cute version of it, not the one for grown folks.

I take a cue from Thelma Golden of The Studio Museum in Harlem to get us out of kindergarten. She once referred to a particular group of artists as "postblack... adamant about not being labeled 'black' artists, though their work was steeped, in fact deeply interested, in redefining complex notions of blackness."

Postblack embraces "black artist" but rejects it as a confine. That distinction is critical. Compare the frequently heard sentiment (keeping with the artist example): "I'm not a Black artist, but an artist who happens to be Black." Again, we get the idea: See me as a person, not an identity. But, the difference between that expression and postblack is that postblack does acknowledge race. It just doesn't worship it. That's a simply human approach. So, I think I can get with postblack and you being PostYou.

The first hammer was most likely a rock, though I hear what paleontologist Henry Gee says about how presumptuous we are with our neat, linear speculations about millions of years. Anyway let's say we put a handle on the rock, making a nice, force-amplifying hammer. Can you imagine the buzz? I bet they spent as much time talking about it as they did using it, making Tool Time just a redux. (We should ask Dave.)

The sum of digital media is our new hammer with a handle. Many who read this will disagree and say that it's just a normal tool, the way we do business now. That would make us post-digital. We're not. We still need a special edition of Ad Age, if only so we can try to learn out loud. It's not yet our everyday hammer.

But we're making progress. Take "Long tail" and "2.0" as recent cases in point: They survived a couple of years of fad use and continue to attract new thought as businesses search for viable aggregation models. Those concepts are valuable tools, frameworks for solutions.

We're getting close to the web becoming our everyday hammer, even if it's an unwieldy one that we use to bang on everything and even shamelessly use as a wrench sometimes. No matter: It's still Postdigital. In that environment, the computer-screen version of the web becomes just another spot on the full digital landscape.

For a real-life definition, I go to Hector Ayuso Ros, who educated me on this concept in 2005. Hector is the founder of OFFF: International Festival for Post-Digital Creation Culture. You gotta give it up to somebody who was on the postdigital road in the midst of digital madness. The first OFFF was held in 2001. His take on it is that "we have reached a position where the digital tools are just tools. They are not the reason for art, but the way some people make art." Importantly, Hector's postdigital also shares a sense of humor with postblack as the artist is serious, but doesn't take himself so seriously.

Even for folks who rightfully hate labels, postdigital seems a decent placeholder for our first steps out of fascination with the hammer itself and into a focus on what we can do with it.

For further proof, consider the strategy of some digital agencies, now aiming to own the core of the business plan and shunning "digital agency" labels. That makes sense in world where digital is an everyday tool. Too keep with the label would be nearly as odd as calling yourself a "magazine shop" because you know how to do print ads.

But simply being an "agency" -- with digital as part of the cellular makeup -- when there's so much work to be done (and money to be made) as a specialized digital shop isn't easy to pull off. And it's just that conundrum that might seem familiar to ethnic shops.

But you'll have to wait until tomorrow to see where I'm going with that.
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