Technology Is Vital for Culture. Oversharing Isn’t

People glancing over this article’s title will assume that it’s been written by yet another Luddite who bemoans the new-fangled role of technology in modern culture. Yet another Grandpa Simpson yelling at the digital cloud, they’ll say.

On the contrary, I think that technology is a wonderful thing that has transformed culture for the better. Decades ago people would scour record shops to find that one obscure indie single, which they can now find in an instant on YouTube or Spotify. In the true spirit of the punk ethos, artists can upload their produces for a global audience – with some of them shifting from these independent platforms to cult status or stardom as a result. This ranges from Death Grips freely releasing their new album to a cult of braying fans, to Beyoncé breaking the internet by upholding hers to Tidal without warning.

I was born the 90s, but I’m still old enough to remember relying on renting out crackly VHS tapes to watch movies, with no actual guarantee of them being any good. Now I have access to an overwhelming amount of watchable content via Netflix. My only insight into newly released video games was screenshots in magazines, when now I can watch live streams of them being played.

Those of us of the millennial generations onwards might particularly take for granted how revolutionary the digital age is for both the production and consumption of the arts.

But at the risk of sounding like a curmudgeon, there is one misgiving about technology I do have which was also recently expressed by Adele during one of her concerts: “Could you stop filming me with that video camera? Because I’m really here in real life, you can enjoy it in real life rather than through your camera.”

Patti Smith, being less polite about the matter, made similar complaints - with a few expletives thrown in - towards fans filming her on their phones from the front row. A young Henry Rollins would have probably smashed them.

The late Prince banned phones from his gigs while Kate Bush requested that audiences refrained from using them during her comeback tour. Indie musicians like Jeff Magnum and Jack White have also enforced a no-filming policy. So has Bjork. All these of these artists are known for eccentricity, but nobody could accuse them of non-experimental closemindedness either.

Radiohead recently erased their website and social media presence, in doing so engineering attention onto their new album, A Moon Shaped Pool. But the band can hardly be considered antediluvian, given that they were livestreaming performances back in the mid-2000s.

we have all the tools to build and engage in culture more interesting and accessible than ever before

The spectacle of a live performance is in itself a unique creation and the newfound option to broadcast it is fantastic. But in terms of those actually attending in person? Unlike remotely witnessing a performance, I worry that gazing at one through a screen actually detaches the immersive connection between the performer and their audience. It has to be a two-way street; otherwise a vital dynamic is lost. The Yeah Yeah Yeahs also noted a more practical concern motivating them to ban filming: “Put that shit away as a courtesy to the person behind you.”

To be fair, we could make certain exceptions to this rule. Understandably, people will want take a photo or two of being at a gig by their favourite band, to share in the experience with friends not attending. But when it reaches the point of Benedict Cumberbatch having to plead that audience members don’t film him acting a Shakespeare play? The phenomenon gets peculiar to the point of being obstructive. Taking a photo of a painting is one thing, but filming the painter painting without asking might be a little rude.

A lot of us engage in nostalgia for earlier times, an example of which is the musical genre known as vaporwave, which has emerged since the turn of the 2010s. Vaporwave is an experimental form of music which derives creative inspiration from various forms of art from recent decades: ranging from science fiction, to 80s synthpop, 90s consumer culture and 16-bit video games. It has developed into a retro subculture with an air of esoteric weirdness and irony. While vaporwave might to an extent be a countercultural backlash against our newfound technological saturation of culture, it also ironically relies on the digital age for derivative appropriation of content, and for distribution of itself.

It exhibits that we have all the tools to build and engage in culture more interesting and accessible than ever before, which is indisputably positive. Artists should continue uploading, streaming, experimenting, cutting-up and parodying enthusiastically.

But while I don’t want to come off like a killjoy, we shouldn’t distract ourselves into missing our opportunities for a direct experience either. To quote Ian Brown of The Stone Roses: "If you put your cameras down you might be able to live in the moment. You have a memory there of something you've never lived."

More about the author

About the author

Jacob Richardson began his career with Disclaimer and writes on culture, politics and society. Politically he is a democratic socialist and Labour Party supporter. His other interests include cinema, psychoanalysis and professional wrestling.

Follow Jacob on Twitter.

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