Thinking Out Loud: Technology and the Arts

Look me in the eye

For the last three years I’ve held a seminar for the students on the ‘Experience’ Module of the MA Arts & Cultural Management at King’s College London, where we consider the development and likely future of digital media and how cultural managers can encompass the new possibilities in their practice.

The session is an attempt to look at the technology that’s out there and help students think about how you can thrive when everything seems digital, and how you can do this in a way that keeps the art and culture at the heart of your activities and planning.

I thought it might be useful to publish it here.

To Begin

If the world was simpler I’d be able to see a straight line and point you there, but there’s no hope of that. Things change in unexpected ways and the future is more like a superposition of wave states that will collapse into an experienced reality as we live through it.

So let’s begin by acknowledging that the revolution happened a while ago, while the attention of most people was elsewhere. We live in its aftermath. Let’s be inspired instead by the tropes of design fiction: “what role could we have in a world where…”

In that light, here are some of my thoughts about a range of wheres that you might entertain as you move forward. And, just for today, let’s assume we don’t end up in a grim meathook future, a Riddley Walker world of lost language and dimly remembered customs, abandoned cities and feral dogs, and the Ardship of Cambry blessing our puppet shows.

A final note – some people talk about the importance of ‘digital strategies’ and ‘digital content’. Well I don’t want to talk about DIGITAL and I don’t want to talk about CONTENT.

Neither word has any value – digital because it no longer makes a useful distinction, content because it debases everything it is used to describe, turning the highest forms of artisitic or cultural expression into a product that can be marketed, sold, distributed, repackaged and diminished.

So I shall try to avoid those words.


New technologies are disrupting the arts and cultural landscape.

Arts and cultural organisations can make effective use of online tools, media and services.

The online aspects are no longer complementary to anything else, or replacements for older ways of doing things, of working or reaching people. The world has been remade. They are simply the ways things work in the modern world; their affordances are the space within which we operate; their capabilities affect everyone- even those who may never connect to the network or use a smartphone.

So I want to look at the technology that’s out there and help you think about how you can thrive when everything seems digital, and how you can do this in a way that keeps your supporters at the heart of your activities and planning.

But remember:

The future is not digital

The future just is

We still live and love in the real world

And I want to explore these a little further.

A Little History

Cast your minds back, those of you who are old enough.

When I first used the net, in 1984, there were a few hundred thousand of us sharing files, writing notes on something called USENET and sending text-only emails. It was the start of the revolution.

When I first used the Web in 1994 it was a revelation.

I was a freelance journalist with a day job, writing for The Guardian, New Statesman, Computing magazine, and working for a company called PIPEX.

PIPEX was the UK’s first commercial Internet Service Provider. I’d started there setting up its training division, but as the Internet business had grown I’d moved into the office of the Managing Director as the company’s ‘Internet Ambassador’.

My job was to ‘do cool stuff’.

It wasn’t hard – people were just beginning to realise that the Web was a radical new medium, and PIPEX had the technology, the people and the will to help a range of organisations do stuff online for the first time.

My team built a website for Anne Campbell, MP for Cambridge – the first for any European politician

We put the 1994 Edinburgh Fringe online, at the ‘Fringeweb’, with a cybercafe in the Pleasant Courtyard, online reviews and all of The Guardian/Observer coverage of the fringe on the web – the first UK national newspaper to try something online.

We built websites for Cambridge Folk Festival, Red Nose Day, and the Treasury.

The Hybrid World

We are living in a world that is as dependent on access to and engagement with computers, data and fast networks as the one I grew up in was on electricity and the one before it on oil (and yes, we still are. Dependencies seem to accumulate).

The patterns of my daily life are increasingly defined by the capabilities of the network-based tools I engage with and I am increasingly reliant on internet access and my smartphone as I negotiate home, work, family, friends and my engagement with culture at all levels.

Of course this is not a ‘digital world’ and we should not pretend it ever will be. Physical reality will not vanish into the hard drives of our super-intelligent computers, and we will never simply plug ourselves into the machines in order to acquire knowledge and skills, so teachers and educators need not worry that they are to be replaced by machines.

And nobody is born knowing how to survive in this new world – navigating the liminal space, like reading, is something that must be taught. There are NO digital natives, only digital naives.

We have made a ‘hybrid’ world in which physical experience, analogue culture and electronic technologies co-exist, an Age of Electronics, not an Age of Bits, and within it we will see many network cultures, just as the early scholars with access to printers and codices and postal systems created the print cultures that we all know so well.

The mobile phone is becoming a companion device, and if the most important screen is the one you’re looking at – just like the best camera is the one you’re holding in your hand – then what’s on the screen of your cellphone is soon going to matter more than what’s on TV.

And the audience is now elsewhere.

The context within which every arts and cultural organisation exists has changed, and you’re like the managers of scriptoria, when a printing press arrives in town.

Arts. Network.

In 2008 I was one of the curators of The Pixel Palace, a conference and art programme at Tyneside Cinema in Newcastle. The objective was to explore the role of a building in a networked world, to ask what can be done in large darkened rooms with good sound systems and one white wall – and the work continues.

In 2012 I worked at the BBC on a project called The Space (

The Space was an online arts channel that showcases a range of screen-based art commissioned by Arts Council England and other national arts councils, alongside digitised film archive from the British Film Institute and material submitted by other cultural organisations. It can be viewed on a variety of devices including laptops, desktop computers, smartphones, tablets and connected television provided they support current standards for displaying web pages and video. It was not television, though some of the things that appear were TV-shaped.

The Space was in many ways an action research project, an attempt to discover what level of support arts organisations and funding agencies need in order to engage fully with the potential of screen-based delivery of art, whether TV-shaped (the Globe Shakespeare), multimedia (The Listening Machine) or an interactive online game (Blast Theory).

The results should worry those who rely on TV to deliver audiences and experiences, because it shows that another way is possible.

Consider the extended work of art that is Pokemon Go…

La Lutte Continue

Even those who are at the leading edge in technical innovation are going to be challenged in the near future. The sorts of technological innovation I’m talking about include computers in every pocket – masquerading as phones or maybe not bothering to pretend. And computers on every wrist or every headset of course.

After all we’ve gone from telephones with separate batteries[1] to today’s smartphones in less than 40 years. Whether it’s an iPhone running iOS, a one of the wide range of Android phones out there- or a dumb Nokia with a greyscale screen – most of the world now has access to a powerful communications device that can be used for voice or data and, increasingly, web surfing or running tailored applications or ‘apps’.

We even see, according to the latest edition of the Game of Phones Survey, released by the Technology, Media and Telecommunications (TMT) industry unit at Deloitte, that the adoption of smartphones outside the industrialised countries follows the same pattern.

The devices are only going to get faster, with more storage, either locally or remotely in cloud services, better screens, better connectivity and more capabilities.

Smartphones are the logical and predictable outcome of decades of development of mobile phones, PDAs (personal data assistants), laptops and tablets

We can see where things are going because so much effort is going into making phones smaller, faster and more connected. We can even anticipate handheld supercomputers and multi-terabyte storage on our phones.

There’s some work going on into atomic-level storage but before then we’ll see cloud storage become seamlessly integrated into the phone operating system so that services like iCloud and Google Drive– and Dropbox and other third party services – are simply there, offering effectively unlimited data storage to the user and giving access to libraries of music, video and data.

In the immediate future voice recognition systems like Apple’s Siri and Google Voice will allow some forms of interaction to made much simpler. Voice activation is now in the home, and living rooms contain always-on systems listening out for the word ‘Alexa’ or ‘OK, Google’.

These services rely on ‘cloud computing’, taking the spoken command and sending it over the network to powerful server computers that do the hard work of analysing the signal.

The Apple Watch and voice-control may – or may not – transform the environment, but something will disrupt current practice. It always does.

Screens, displays and other ways to bring the online and offline together into a new hybrid space that blurs the boundary. You’ll have heard of Google Glass, but the guy who is working on that is really planning to build laser contact lenses that draw directly on your retina. Meanwhile the Microsoft Hololens and other AR/VR headsets are entering the market.

A lot of this stuff is in the labs already, and the techniques will make their way into things we start using in 5-10 years. We have to imagine wave after wave of disruptive cool new stuff emerging – assuming that climate change, plague or revolution don’t break things for good.

And, crucially, we are seeing machine intelligence move into the mainstream, whether it’s Google Translate, photo tagging or augmented systems that support complex decision making. The next wave of automation will replace lawyers, bankers and perhaps even many reporters.

New and Creative Ways to Work

In this age of electronics new possibilities present themselves and all of you should understand what they are, what they offer and what dangers they present.

With the network, new forms of engagement become possible, going beyond broadcast

Look at #bbcqt – not an interactive show, but one that provides a nucleus for engagement.


Liminal spaces emerge, neither offline nor online but somewhere between, and CR needs to operate in them

Where is Twitter? It’s where the phone calls take place.. but where is that? What does Twitter sound like? Where does a Snapchat happen?


The net is not an unadulterated force for good. For an arts organisation argue that moving from a broadcast/performance/exhibition model to an interactive, engaged, screen-based model is equally problematic at an ethical level, and we’re a long way from taking the issue seriously.

Let me explain.

Once upon a time life was simple. When the BBC was a broadcaster, using modulated radio waves to transmit sound and image to devices dedicated to the task of receiving, decoding and playing them to an eager audience in their homes, then every innovation was a GOOD THING.

Improved cameras and microphones, more powerful transmitters, radios that could receive multiple bands, stereo sound, more lines, colour.. whatever the BBC’s engineers could invent smoothed the process of bringing the best of everything to everyone and supported the BBC’s mission – to inform, educate, and entertain.

This truth does not hold in the age of the network. The technologies that make the Internet possible and deliver services like email, chat, webpages and the panoply of online activities that occupy much of our waking time are far from being unqualified benefits to those who use them.

The BBC, still at heart a broadcaster with a nice website and a streaming service attached, has no mechanism to cope with this change and lacks the ethical framework that would be necessary even to frame the questions raised by web trackers, surveillance tools, attention sinks, dark patterns in user interfaces, data leakage to third parties and the rest of the capabilities routinely deployed online by commercial services.  And nor do you.

Every time you send an audience member to Facebook, or suggest they Tweet, or invite them to sign up for Snapchat or YouTube, you betray their trust. We offer them access to extras, or the opportunity to engage with stars they admire or find out things they want to know, in return for handing over their personal information to corporations whose entire business model is built around surveillance, tracking and selling. And we don’t even get much back in return – certainly not enough to justify this cavalier disregard for the duty of care we are supposed to value so much.

We all do this for the best of motives, and the result is the worst of outcomes. Not only do our listeners and viewers and audience members give away their personal data and offer their lives up to be tradable eyeballs for corporate profit, we make it harder and harder for them to imagine that there could be another way, and therefore harder for us to justify the energy and investment needed to shape the internet to serve the wider public interest.

Some have even invested in building their own surveillance system, modelled on the dominant online models, and hope that calling it ‘personalisation’ or ‘tailoring’ will hide the fact that we are in fact just using it to advertise our own stuff instead of other people’s.

Creative destruction happens everywhere.

It will happen to you – the growth of other arts organisations and new ways of reaching audiences will challenge the places you work to stay contemporary and stay current.

These are not yet mainstream, but you need to be aware of them for when they become the new model. Or worse, when the old model goes away before you’re prepared for it.

However there are serious concerns:

You can’t afford to tie yourselves too closely to the old empire. Do what is effective for you, not what your partners want or expect you to do.

You can’t trust the providers. Facebook and Twitter are not there to serve you. Facebook’s algorithm is there to serve FB’s advertisers, Twitter does not care about your artistic integrity or economic welfare except where it is useful to them.

Online is as real as the real

The online aspects are no longer complementary to anything else, or replacements for older ways of doing things, of working or reaching people. The world has been remade. They are simply the ways things work in the modern world; their affordances are the space within which we operate; their capabilities affect everyone- even those who may never connect to the network or use a smartphone

Online can

Raise awareness

Enhance engagement

Provide deep information – slow reveal [iBeacons?]

Support calls for immediate action [don’t abuse]

What Next?

Being asked to find ‘new and creative ways to work’ is easy. Finding them is hard. Let me offer some suggestions that might help.

Build Your Own

According to George Santayana ‘those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.’ The claim rings true because our dependence on the past is both absolute and contingent, since our past experiences must be responsible for everything that we are, but we constantly seek to transcend the past and escape its influence.

A disruptive technology is so called because it appears to break the line between past and present and open up a previously unimagined future, and offers the threat and the promise of a release from that dependency, but such a break is, of course, always an illusion. The past is always with us.

As we build the global network society we will rely more and more on the things that networked computers can do. The ‘affordances’ of new technologies – the things that they make possible – and the ‘externalities’ of these same technologies – the unexpected impact they have on the wider world and the costs that they make others bear – will be as important to the shape of our future lives as older technologies like television, telephones, printing and money have been so far.

Santayana talked of the past, but it is also true that that ‘those who don’t shape the future are condemned to endure it’. So my first piece of advice is that it is much better to build your own future than to live in someone else’s. It might seem intimidating, but you have all managed to change the world, so you know how it works.

Act Before You Have To

Second, it is better to cannibalise your own models and challenge your own audiences and roll up your own networks than it is to leave it to nimbler competitors and new entrants without the weight of history weighing down on them.

Seek Transformation

Third, look for the things that will transform the lives of the people you are trying to reach, and consider how you can enchance their potential to do so.

This might be something like supporting projects around open data that might provide a different way to think about audiences and work. We will see entrepreneurial classes focusing on apps and services that solve rich people’s problems rather than those of the poor and disenfranchised – but you all want to reach those people.

Stay True

But whatever you do, don’t do anything that compromises your core values and betrays your mission, however desperate you might get. In the end, if you don’t keep your art and culture at the heart of your activities and planning you might as well not be there at all.

Thank you