The digital revolution will not be televised – to the contrary, is it possible that no artist or medium can be said to have adequately addressed the information age?

Zizek once sumerised Marx as having said that the invention of steam engine caused more social change than any revolution ever would. Marx himself doesn’t seem to have provided a useful soundbite to this effect (at least not one that I can find though Google), so I’m afraid it will have to remain second hand. It’s a powerful sentiment, whoever originated it – which philosopher’s views cannot be analyzed as the product of the social and technological novelties of his day?

It’s easy to see that the technology that is most salient in our age is the internet, which has been made possible by consumer electronics. Have our philosophers stepped forward to engage with the latest technological crop?

Moving on from philosophers, what of our artists? Will Gompertz recently posted to share an apparently widely held view that no piece of art has yet spoken eloquently from or about the internet. He cites Turner prize winning Jeremy Deller describing “a post-warholian” era, presumably indicating that Warhol was last person to adequately reference technological change in the guise of mass production. I wonder if the Saatchi-fueled infloresence has also captured something of marketing-led landscape we currently live in, but whatever the last sufficient reflection on cultural change afforded by art was, I think we may be on safe ground in stating that the first widely accepted visual aperçus of the digital era is still to come.

Which is some surprise when you consider, for example, how engaged the news agenda is with technology: I was amazed to see that Google’s Wave technology (still barely incipient) got substantial coverage on BBC news.

With my employment centering on the web, and my pretensions at cultural engagement, this weekend I visited the Kinetica Art Fair. Kinetica is a museum which aims to ‘encourage convergence of art and technology’. The fair certainly captured one aspect of contemporary mood – a very reasonably priced bar was a welcome response to our collective financial deficit.

Standout pieces included a cleverly designed mechanical system for tracing the contours of plaster bust onto a piece of paper and a strangely terrifying triangular mirror with mechanically operated metal rods. It looked like a Buck Rogers inspired torture device designed to inflict pain by a method so awful that you’d have to see it in operation before its evil would be comprehensible. The other works included a urinal which provided an opportunity for punters to simulate pan-global urination (sadly not with real urine) by providing a jet of water and a globe in a urinal. I would defy anyone not to be entertained by spending time wondering round the the fair.

However, Will Gompertz’s challenge was not answered at Kinetica – the essence of the technological modernity was distilled into any of work – not even slightly.

I’ve been mulling over various possible reasons for this failure, and quite a few suggestions spring to mind. Do computers naturally alienate artists? Is information technology to visually banal to be characterised succinctly?

I’d like to suggest that its the transitory nature of our electronic lives that makes them so hard to pin down. Mobile phones, web sites, computers and opperating systems from a decade ago all look ludicrously dated – it’s almost impossible to capture the platonic form of these items because they have so little essential similarity. Moreover, their form is almost an accident, and not connected with their more profound meaning in any way. The boats of the merchantile age and the smoke stacks of the industrial age all seem to denote something broader – how can communism be separated from its tractors? Yet the form factor of my computer is trivial. Form and functional significance are of necessity separated by digital goods, their flexibility is the source of their power.

In someway I think films give us tacit acknowledgment of the contingent nature of the digital environment that we spend much of our lives in: no protagonist is ever seen using Windows on their computer, in films computer’s interfaces are always generic. When we see a Mac in a film it impossible to see it as anything other than product placement.

So, the Kinetica Art Fair may not have been able to help society understand its relationship with technology, but actually, despite their rhetoric, I think it was a little unfair to expect it to. Really the fair was about works facilitated by technology, rather than about it.

But, in case you think I’ve picked a straw man in Kentica, let me say that the V&As ongoing exhibition Decode really does no better, though its failures and successes are another topic.

Whatever we end up using the web for, don’t the world’s citizens lead more equal lives if they are all mediated by the same technology?

The queen tweets. She’s commissioned a special jewel embossed netbook and a bespoke Twitter client with skinned with ermine and sable.

I made that up. For starters, she hasn’t actually started tweeting – there is a generic royal feed which announces the various visits and condescensions of Britain’s feudal anachronism, but nothing from miss fancy hat herself. Perhaps royal protocol means she can only use it if her followers can find a way of curtsying in 140 characters?

The feed does give an insight into how boring the Royal’s lives might actually be – opening wards and meeting factory workers – when they aren’t having a bloody good time shooting and riding. However, as a PR initiative it breaks the rule that states for a Twitter account to be of any interest then tweets must emanate from the relevant horse’s mouth, if you’ll forgive the chimerical metaphor. If you can’t have the lady herself, I don’t really think there is much point in bothering. But that’s not the point I’m here to make.

I’m more interested in the fact that, should any of us choose to, Bill Gates, Sir Ranulph Twisleton-Wykeham-Fiennes, 3rd Baronet OBE, Osama Bin Laden and I will have exactly the same experience when we use Twitter (assuming it’s available in the relevant language).

I suppose Bin Laden might have quite a slow connection in Tora Bora, and probably Bill Gates has something faster than Tiscali’s 2meg package. Details aside, everyone is doing the same thing.

Actually, not only will we be using the same website, we’ll be using very similar devices. Bill probably doesn’t have a Mac like me (he may be the richest man in the world, he can still envy me one thing), but all our computers will be very similar.

The reason for this is that for both websites and computer technology have very high development costs, and low marginal costs per user. Even the Queen can’t afford to develop an iPhone, but everyone can afford to buy one.

If a lot of your life is mediated by technology then this is going to be very important to you. While there is healthy debate about the web’s democratisation of publishing, I think we might reasonably add to the web’s egalitarian reputation its ability to give people of disparate incomes identical online experiences.

That doesn’t sound like a blow against inequality and tyranny in all its forms – but none the less I think its important . Even people using OLPC computers [low priced laptops aimed at the third world] have basically the same experience of the internet as you or I. That’s to say Uruguayan children will quite possibly spend a good part of their day doing exactly the same things as New York’s office workers and Korea’s pensioners. When you consider that only very recently there were probably no major similarities in these disparate lives I think it does constitute a significant development.

Of course, for all I know a line of luxury websites will come along and exclude some strata of the social pile. In a way it’s already happened – we’ve seen the thousand dollar iPhone app – but its hard to see this one off as part of a pattern. This is not to say that the ‘freemium’ business model [basic website for free, pay to get the premium version] couldn’t exclude certain people, it’s more that this model can only exist when there isn’t much pressure for a free version. At the moment, there aren’t any widely used web applications that aren’t available at zero cost – of course this may change if your audience is sufficiently well off to attract paid advertising, but there again it may not.

This is a phenomena that’s been observed before: technology tends to eliminate differences between cultures. It’s been termed the Apparatgeist, and has been developed as a concept in response to the observation that mobile phone habits, one differentiated locally, are now more or less identical in all developed economies. As a concept it surely applies equally as well to class and income – leaving us us in a more equal experiential world. And perhaps also a monoculture – but then isn’t that entailed in the new equalities that so many internet optimists evangelise?

Do people live their lives differently to fulfill their obligations to writing? Is contriving you life to be Tweetable acceptable?

Mathew Paris’s melodic voice was easily called to mind as I read his recent article in The Spectator. In his soft-spoken lilt he detailed a moment of pique on the London Underground, the subject of his ire TfL’s decision to close the connection between Bank and Moment stations in one direction, a rule enforced by an escalator that conveys passengers up but not down.

Our protagonist struck a blow against the system by refusing to return to street level to make the connection, as those without Mr Paris’ anguished relationship with public transport might, instead dashing down the escalator the wrong way. Paris may have stood on the right previously, but on this occasion commuters must have been surprised to see him descend on the left.
I had imagined that he may have struggled to make the distance, fooled by his soft voice and gentle demeanour; I now discover he is in fact the fastest living marathon runner to have sat as an MP. He was, he stated, fuelled by a burning sense of injustice.

But I think he was also fueled by something else – the need to write an article for The Spectator. It would be too much to imply that petty rule breaking is the only means for a man with Paris’ talents to conjure an article, at the same time I don’t doubt that the same journalistic bent must have automatically packaged this handy anecdote into 800 words as he battled against the receding treads.

Without conferring the pejorative term annecdotalist on anyone these types of stories are the meat and potatoes of much journalistic writing – no news there. Having to come up with a bite sized morsel of zeitgeist on a regular basis must cause one to be constantly alive to the possibility that your weekly topic lurks in the article you are reading, the post office queue you are in or a conversation you had at the school gates. You must, I would suggest, encourage journalisable events to occur, at least on a subconscious level.

And surely, if this is the case, as more and more people have a quota of written output to fulfil, more and more people will live their lives in this way. I’m not referring to an increase in the number of professional writers, which certainly isn’t on the cards, but many people have a responsibility to a Twitter account, a regime of Facebook updates to keep up or even a full blown blog to maintain.

Next time you see an unreasonable argument in a restaurant, a petty provocation of social norms or perhaps even a novel act of kindness then you may be witnessing the need to construct a life makes good reading. Now Virgin Trains have introduced WiFi on trains perhaps we will all have something sensational to read on them. And there again, perhaps not.

Ian Pearson is a professional future gazer for BT. I interveiewed him for the thing is…

Life expectancy has grown at a fairly regular rate for about 150 years now, do you think there is any chance of a significant deviation from this pattern in the next 50 years?

Nobody knows how much life expectancy can be expected to grow, some people think that the limit will be about 130 years, with quite a lot of people living to 100.

You’ve predicted a decline in manual jobs, which isn’t much of a surprise. You’ve also predicted that technology could reproduce the skills of footballers, TV presenters and experts who rely on experience to make judgments. If I want a job that isn’t going to be automated, where should I look?

The idea of a job for life is already history. People in the future will have multiple careers over a lifetime. The average time that people spend with one company decreases every year, and over the last 20 years most jobs have changed beyond recognition. The idea of picking one job for life is a thing of the past.

I think in the information economy jobs that require intelligence can largely be automated. Administrative jobs can quite easily be automated, and the industrial sector robotics will be able to replace people. What’s left are jobs that require human contact, emotional, caring roles, and these are the things that people will largely be doing in 20-30 years time. We’re not talking about people having their jobs wiped out, but they will be focused more on the people issue.

And you’ve said that you think creativity could go that way too?

I think so. Already computers are creative in any sense that you choose to define it. Computers can already produce art, write poetry and things like that. The quality isn’t very good, but when you think that a supercomputer isn’t as powerful as the human brain yet that isn’t entirely surprising. As we get better AI we will start to see computer enhanced creativity. I don’t see it as a threat to human creativity, it will allow us to indulge our creativity.

I compose music, but I’m not very good at it. If I had machine creativity at my disposal all I would have to do is give a few hints about what I wanted and it would help me to compose something that Mozart would have been proud of.

Do you think all this means we can expect to enjoy more leisure time?

People in the past have predicted that we will have much more leisure time because machines would automate a lot of the work. That has happened, but instead of taking more leisure time we’ve decide to go for a much, much higher standard of living. Because I can get a job working 55 hours a week I work 55 hours a week and have a high standard of living compared to my parents or grandparents. If I was prepared to accept the same standard of living as my grandfather then I could work 10 hours a week, but do I really want to live in a very basic house with a 14” TV?

On the other had we do see a phenomena of downshifting at the moment. People opting out of the rat race and the materialistic life style and deciding to concentrate on their quality of life. Its impossible to predict how common this will become.

We often hear about the knowledge economy, and certainly it is the case that many more people have degrees in the UK than used to. Do you think it would be prudent to think a bit more about a masters or PhD to compete with future generations?

I think being highly qualified will be useful for the next 10-15 years at most. For the early part of your career it’s probably a good idea to have good qualifications to set yourself apart from everybody else. But in the long term the qualification stands for diddly-squat because if we believe that we are moving towards an economy where all the intelligent work will be done by machines then a PhD is of no commercial value whatever.

What counts are things like emotional and interpersonal skills, having a nice personality and being good at meeting people. For my 13 year old daughter’s generation I think qualifications will be irrelevant.

When I speak to education conferences I say that most of the useful stuff that kids are learning in school is on the playground not in the classroom. Learning to motivate and empathize is not on the curriculum in most schools. The popular guy who sits at the back of the class and messes about is actually likely to be in a much better position in 30 years time than you are working really hard.

Do you detect and increase in the rate of change of technology?

Change is accelerating, there’s no doubt about that. When I first started this job in the early 1990s I could keep up with technological change relatively easily. Now I can’t: it’s a positive feedback system where every new wave of technology helps to make the next wave even faster. For example bio-technologists might discover a new protein which can be used for organic computing, and the faster computers that result from that could in turn be used to better understand proteins. This leads to a phenomena known as a singularity, where the rate of change as shown on the graph would be essentially vertical. This will be probably happen around 2025, and the pace of change will be similar to ET landing and giving us all the technology from his space ship.

Obviously we perceive technology’s march, but is there a way of putting a number on the rate of change in technology?

There probably is, although I’ve never tried it. If you look at the number of patents filed each year there’s likely to be an exponential rise. There’s also an exponential rise in the quantity of information in the world. 30 years ago the amount of information in the world doubled every 10 years, now it doubles every year. Its quite exciting to think that every year half of the information in the world is new – almost everything we know we’ve only just discovered.

The might of countries like China and India is increasing at the moment. Do you think these countries will come to dominate the west, and if so will we notice a big difference in our everyday lives? Historically these things have been cyclical. If you look to the distant past China has been responsible for a lot of technology, and India has also been through a phase of being very powerful. Europe has gone past its peak and America has enjoyed the international lead for quite a long time, although it’s slipping fast, with China and India catching up, with China very much further ahead than India.

 

It’s no big surprise — China has a quarter of the worlds population, so on a level playing field you would expect it to dominate. Meanwhile Europe has an aging population and a lot of our young people are not very well educated. In 30 years’ time Europe will be an also-ran on the world stage.

True so. One last question — why is the future always depicted as a dystopia?

People aren’t interested in the nice side of things, they are only interested in things they have to worry about. In evolutionary terms people have always had to be on the look out for predators, in the same way people naturally look for threats when discussing the future, rather than seeing the opportunities. I don’t lose any sleep over the future – at the end of the day I believe that we’ll muddle through because we always do.