“Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”
Arthur C. Clarke, Hazards of Prophecy: The Failure of Imagination
My day used to start with a knife.
The post came early.
Each morning, after pleasantries, my knife tore through envelopes to their joyful interiors. And each adventure delivered a new actor, a new script, a conversation.
My first proper job in the arts, in that first office, saw my first collision with Microsoft. The beige hulk had Windows 95 at its core. It was basically a glorified typewriter (with mail merge), and that was pretty much all we used it for. It was, however, the dawn of a new way of working: the beginning of digital inflation – a process of unstoppable, exponential digital growth.
Some years later, in the office of a friend, I looked lustfully at his Mac Pro, an elegant aluminum tower white-light-winking at me, and he laughed, “I use it for checking email, writing letters and playing music. Like driving a Ferrari and never leaving first gear.”
Skip forward to 2011, my first day in a new job, and I walk in to find a grey lump running Windows 2000. I passed on that, put my MacBook on the server and started my day. Now each day has an electronic ritual: first thing, check email on phone; get to the office, open laptop and start typing. Most of my day will be in dialogue with a screen; back then it was with people.
I have escaped the technological first gear (and sometimes I even make top) but in many places I have worked, the capacities of our technologies and how and why we deploy them are simply a prettier version of my first encounter. Across any arts organization there will be a diversity of digital talent, and a diversity of technologies; the one certainty is that this is the way of life. Our digital, our personal and our professional suffuse to make a “new,” as it does in our audiences who offer us a huge number of digital engagement routes to them, and them to us. This “new” holds opportunity and peril, but I am certain that hiding from it is not the solution. The “magic” will be different and in constant change; it will be worth it, and the opportunities are boundless.
So, to begin the conversation, I have a couple of questions: firstly, with the rabid expansion of digital inflation on your heels, is it possible to keep up, both personally and more so as an organization? Do you need to? I overheard a great conversation in an AT&T shop recently, in which an older customer was telling the adolescent service advisor he wants a phone to “just be a phone, to, you know, call people.” The AT&T guy was selling the joys of the new Samsung wonder-phone with its myriad opportunities of unbounded connectivity. “It goes up to 11,” I told him, “that’s why it is better.” And here, in that moment, you can see the challenge. Actually the Samsung wonder-thingy is also a phone, exactly what this guy wanted, but it didn’t look or feel or work like a phone, and on top of this, it wasn’t being sold as a phone. In your IT refit, you just want your mail, Microsoft Suite and connection to the printer, right? You just want what you need right now, all the bonus stuff is just that: a bonus, which develops faster than your needs, and belies your financial ability to keep up.
Eventually you are left with the awful dilemma that some “bonus” items must expire, an idea that is made harder for non-digital natives. My parents’ generation bought something, and it stayed bought until you didn’t need it anymore. Your iron ironed, your turntable turned. And here sits the problem: technology is a physical demonstration of the flux we all live in. We need a mentality shift, from viewing technology as an extraneous bonus to viewing it as a consumable asset. The money you spend on a computer and the hard/software that drives it, like the cheese in your fridge, needs to assume a use-by date where it is no longer a useful tool of communication.
Secondly, so much of our digital behavior is driven by lust. We WANT, and we work out function and application later. I wonder, if conversations were led by usage and functionality first, what would we ask our technology to do? We know we need and rely on fluid integrated technology; we know when it doesn’t work, we know when we are out of our depth but, for the most part, we just want it to work. Like our cars, we want to turn the key and go; the rest is under the hood. The problem is that our individual demands of technology, and the ways we engage with it, are varied and complex. Speed and new sometimes isn’t all we need. The reward for creating the fastest computer ever is simply the demand for something even faster.
As Seth Godin outlines for us, a major hindrance is that it’s scary to throw away functioning technology; it costs money, and makes us vulnerable to change. In and around these flatter, lighter, faster options, what we really need is a navigator to help us know what is for disposal, and what is upgradable. We need someone to point us in the right direction, set it up and step away; the rest is under the hood.
In this age of tech, touch, click, stroke have you noticed with all these labor-saving devices how much free time you have? Me neither. More efficient? Getting more done? Certainly I am communicating more freely and easily with people all over the world, and I love that. Am I really getting more done? Not so sure. My issue is depth: the quality and concentration of the work is diffused by the multiple signals arriving ad infinitum all day. Returning to the headline, we are so busy doing our day-to-day, have we lost a sense of magic? Has this digital world simply become an arms race for the sexiest, fastest, thinnest, longest-battery-life marvel?
We consume, we are consumed. Do we engage? Open up to the possibilities and move your computer out of first gear.