Bill Thompson: Shifting the Platform

This article was originally published on Bill Thompson’s website A Stick, a dog, and a box with something in it, and was based on the talk that Bill gave to the partners at the inaugural PLATFORM shift+ meeting in Winchester, UK.


PLATFORM  shift+ is an artistic network created to meet the new challenges of producing theatre for young people in the digital age, recognising the urgent need to engage with digital technology at a time when many young people move naturally between real and virtual worlds.

The network will  develop 40 theatre productions based on newly developed plays/concepts in order to connect theatre makers directly with young people in an artistic dialogue, with an activity programmed to encourage transnational exchanges of artists and their works.

On November 21 I talked to the first meeting of the network partners, in a hotel in Winchester, England.  This is what I wrote beforehand, pilfered from several different documents, notes and scraps of hard drive. It isn’t what I said, but it may be of interest.

The World is Not Digital

We are not living in a digital world.

We are not heading toward a ‘digital future’, whatever the current shorthand may be.

The physical world will not vanish, we will not be sublimed into the machines to live, Tron-like, under the control of the Master Control Program.

We remain meat, the product of chemistry. We remain embodied minds and always will.

There will be no singularity and no interfacing with consciousness.

But that doesn’t mean that the digital doesn’t matter. We now live in a liminal space world where physical experience, analogue culture and digital technologies co-exist, an Age of Electronics, not an Age of Bits.

In this new age we here in the privileged West with easy access to computers and smartphones and connectivity will develop a digital culture, just as the early scholars with access to printers and codices and postal systems created a print culture.

The Age of Electronics

The world has changed.

I can feel it in the wind

I can see it in the skies

And the context within which theatre is experienced has shifted

The thing that you do when you do theatre is not the same

The pattern of use of the word ‘theatre is not what it was

Perhaps you are playing a different language game

I’m reminded of the work of McTaggart in the 1920’s when he concluded that the only way to resolve the many contradictions between A time and B time was to reject the idea that time ‘flowed’, that time present and time past were both time present, and that all time existed at once, with the illusion of its flow an artefact of consciousness.

I’m not suggesting that theatre doesn’t exist but rather that the qualities of digital mean that many of the characteristics of theatrical production  are no longer valid, and that many of the assumptions you make as you work are either questionable or simply wrong.

This is not your fault.

The world changed when you weren’t paying attention.

For one thing we live in a world where most of the data we deal with, most of the time, has been stored or processed or transmitted or presented as binary digits – bits. And the key thing about a bit is that OLD BITS LOOK JUST LIKE NEW BITS and LIVE BITS LOOK JUST LIKE RECORDED BITS.

The pixels that display the words of this talk as I write it are not only similar to the pixels that display the image of a medieval manuscript or a live stream of Pilot Theatre’s production of Antigone, they are THE SAME PIXELS.

The screen neither knows nor cares if I am watching a broadcast or a recording.The screen is a palimpsest, constantly scraped clean and overwritten, whatever the provenance or value of the artefact displayed.

The Internet makes it impossible to maintain any boundaries around your craft or sullen art. It challenges the boundaries between artforms that many of you have grown up with and built into your work as a set of mostly unstated assumptions.

It also makes everyone a performer, though not necessarily a good one.

That is where you come in.

Young People and Technology

We should not blithely accept statements like this one, from your project description:

“Today’s young people are digital natives who move naturally between real and virtual worlds”

Let me refer you to p36 of Danah Boyd ‘It’s Complicated’:

Just because teens are comfortable using social media to hang out does not mean that they’re fluent in or with technology. Many teens are not nearly as digitally adept as the often-used assumption that they are “digital natives” would suggest. The teens I met knew how to get to Google but had little understanding about how to construct a query to get quality information from the popular search engine. They knew how to use Facebook, but their understanding of the site’s privacy settings did not mesh with the ways in which they configured their accounts. As sociologist Eszter Hargittai has quipped, many teens are more likely to be digital naives than digital natives.

The term digital native is a lightning rod for the endless hopes and fears that many adults attach to this new generation.

We need to be careful that we don’t make unwarranted assumptions that end up excluding many young people from engagement because so much digital fairy dust has been sprinkled over a production that it alienates them just as much as a traditional production of Shakespeare can.

You should also read the work from Stephen Carrick-Davies about the use of technology by looked-after young people in the UK in Munch, Poke Ping. It highlights the fact that desiging for digital too often means designing for the privileged and excluding those who might have great need for the art you are offering.

The Audience Have Left the Building

The internet also lays to rest the idea that there is such a thing as an ‘audience’. Audiences never really existed, although for many years our ability to engage the individual within the mass was so limited that we were forced to treat groups of people assembled in one place or sharing the same experience within a particular time frame as a single entity with a definable set of characteristics.

But every member of a group – such as the group listening to me- brings their own experience and desires to the event, and listens to me through the framework of their prior lfe and knowledge.

You are all hearing me say something different, just as you hear the actors in a play say different things, because your lives are different from each other and from mine. A talk or a play or a TV show or a novel are all experiments in co-creation,  and instead of audiences we should treat each other as what we are – participant observers in a large-scale action research project that we call ‘culture’.

We only talk about audiences because we haven’t been able to identify the individuals who experience art and culture and so have been forced to talk about them en masse. Analytic tools, tracking and the techniques of big data mean that this is no longer the case – Facebook and Google don’t have an ‘audience’ because they know who you are.

Everything Changes. Nothing Has Changed

Producing and performing are happening in new contexts, increasingly screen-based, and writers, producers and actors need to understand those contexts if they are to thrive and find ways to reach people.

It’s like being a screenwriter in the late 1920s, as talkies come in – anyone who has seen the much-lauded modern silent film The Artist, and they will have noted its shallow characterisation and boringly linear plot. Once you have sound and dialogue the game is completely different and much more is possible. Old-style screenwriters faced a challenge, and it’s no surprise that Hollywood brought in the novelists to help.

A similar transition faced programmers as we moved from batch-processing mainframe systems which did one thing at a time to event-driven windowed environments and apps that require completely different programming models. It might all end up as lines of code, but the environment within which it is both written and experienced have changed completely.

Not everything will change. I think we’ll still have theatre, and that live performance of rehearsed activity in the physical presence of a group of people will remain an important way in which ideas are moved around in our culture.

But they will be written, rehearsed, performed and received in a completely different world, and it is one that you need to understand.

Coping and Thriving

I have two specific suggestions for things you can and should do for themselves, as a matter of urgency

Learn to Code (or at least embrace computational thinking)

Adopt the Maker Ethic: play with everything.

A great artist has the core skills – the craft skills- that underpin their work, and chooses whether or not to exercise them. Picasso could draw, and so can Tracy Emin. They both then have the freedom to experiment and to take their work into spaces that might look ‘easy’ or ‘obscure’ but which are grounded, like Mondrian’s grids, in a lifetime of artistic practice – the grids come from trees.

We can contrast that with Damien Hirst, whose work is ineffably shallow.

A playwright, producer or actor who does not understand the possibilities of hypermedia, online delivery, and apps denies themselves a range of opportunities which, even if they choose not to exercise them, should be understood.

Maker culture is the result of two separate movements that came together about a decade ago when we started putting electronics into almost every consumer durable: the hobbyists and the advocates free software.

The desire to know how things work is both a political and a practical one. If you can’t open it then you don’t really control it or own it – but you can’t fix it, tinker with it or use it for things it wasn’t intended for, either. Maker culture is about doing stuff that violates manufacturer warranties in ways that might shock you.

These two things will allow you to stop your work becoming mere content to be fed into the satanic mills of the production process, homogenised to pixels in a standard format on a ‘device’ makes them all the same. It will keep you from the grasp of Apple, Amazon and Google.


Final Thoughts

In the end every artistic director, producer and performer has to make their own choices and find their own way… but here are some thoughts.

Deliver to Everyone

Technology excludes as well as includes. But instead of thinking about ‘access’ at one end and ‘usability’ at another, we could attempt to cast our debate in terms of what technology does for all of us, not just those whose have ‘special’ requirements.

After all, technology is there to mediate between us and the world, and all technology is about changing, enhancing or correcting our bare capabilities to allow new things to be possible, transforming otherwise the otherwise inaccessible and unperceivable into sense data, or subjecting the physical world to the influence of enhanced motor skills.

How many of you can see the moons of Jupiter with your naked eye or run at eighty miles an hour?  The additive power of technology is as true of the telescope and the car as it is of the Internet.  Technologies sit between us and the world and allow us to perceive it more intimately, measure it more precisely, influence it with greater precision and scope, and reach out to others without concern for distance or – in many cases – language.

They do that for us all, irrespective of our capabilities.  But different technologies offer different affordances, depending on where we encounter them and – most importantly – our own capabilities.

We have too often been content to build technologies which only serve to enhance the capabilities of the ‘modally-abled’, those whose physical and cognitive abilities cluster around the modal value for modern humans.  We clearly disregard those whose abilities are much lower than the norm, but also tend to forget those who may be better – they tend to cope, of course, and do not usually ask for special attention.

Don’t Become Evil

Tracking people is not without its issues, and the same issues that were being faced by commercial organisations seeking to identify people in order to sell to them apply when it comes to cultural engagement. If we want to know which books the people who come to art galleries or theatres are reading then we can ask them – but they will only tell us if they trust us.

Remain Visible

Findability is vital since there is a real concern that work made by European artists would disappear in the mass of material online. Make yourself discoverable – look at models like Europeana, which catalogues digital cultural heritage. Where will we create a forward-looking catalogue newly created material.

Leave a Legacy

The performance is in the moment, but think about what is left behind. Within the EU we have something called the European Interoperability Framework. It’s written to apply to technical procurement but, I believe, equally applicable in the cultural sphere – if artists adhere to open standards and interoperable formats then their work will not be locked away and will remain accessible and also usable by others.

Thank you.