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25th Anniversary series: Technology and the Arts and Media World to 2040

September 16, 2015

Technology has re-shaped the arts and media world dramatically over the last 10-15 years.  It seems inevitable that many more fundamental changes will occur by 2040.

Probably the two most significant developments have been:

  • Enabling greater, more selective choice: search engines allow us to consume news without buying the whole newspaper, Amazon allows us to select any one of millions of books or videos, Spotify gets us to stream single tracks, “catch-up” TV means we can watch what we want whenever we want to.
  • Enabling wider creativity and involvement: the democratisation of artistic creation, challenging the power of newspaper editors, record companies and broadcasters . Anyone can write a blog, upload new music, or create a YouTube video.

As far back as 1972 Marshall McLuhan and Barrington Nevitt suggested that with electric technology, the consumer would become a producer. In the 1980 book, The Third Wave, futurologist Alvin Toffler coined the term “prosumer” when he predicted that the role of producers and consumer would begin to blur and merge.

Yet the creation of so much more content has led to two countervailing reactions:

  • Finding what is interesting becomes more challenging, so there is in fact an increasing need to rely on trusted “curators”, be they editors, DJs or simply what is trending on Twitter, Facebook etc.
  • “Events” become more important whether they are the finals of Strictly or Bake-off,  sports (winning the Ashes!!), or live concerts and book signings, and continue to provide the “water-cooler” moments of common experience.

Content has also generally become delivered in shorter pieces, and the delivery of it ever more mobile.  The trend in LPs (remember them?) from collections of singles to vast, operatic concept albums like Journey to the Centre of the Earth or War of the  Worlds has been completely reversed and buying an “album” is no longer the way music is consumed.  Feature-length films may also be under threat from YouTube and the “micro-film” phenomenon sweeping China.

Classical arts have not been immune either, though their live nature generally gives them some protection:

  • relays from Covent Garden or the Albert Hall are shown in cinemas across the country
  • authors have to do live book-signings and Q&As

Looking forward, it seems to me that the next major revolution will involve interactivity, extending the notion of what today we consider to be “games”.  Already traditional art forms are experimenting with interactivity:

  • many art installations have moved well beyond visual art and simple performance art to interactive art – Carsten Höller’s “Decision” at the Hayward Gallery immerses visitors in a series of explorations of perception and decision making, “hoping to induce hallucinations, in the widest sense”
  • “immersive theatre” , where the audience chooses which character to follow (as in a production of Alice in Wonderland at Waterloo), or chooses an ending; or where the performance takes place in more than one venue and is streamed between them.
  • In cinema we have had “singalong Sound of Music”, where the audience typically dress up as Nazis or nuns
  • “Messiah from Scratch” held annually at the Royal Albert Hall now attracts more than 3000 singers each year who just turn up and sing.

Virtual reality and artificial intelligence will redefine immersion, and the next generation will look back at today’s games with amusement and derision.

With high quality virtual reality, you move from being an observer to a participant. This could be something simple like seeing what it is like to face Jimmy Anderson’s bowling (available at the lunch interval at Lord’s); the VR is built into your cricket helmet, so the sensation is very real, and you could actually learn real skills. Or you could be the detective in a who-dunnit, choosing what questions to ask, what lines to pursue, again perhaps as a police training course.  Flight simulators for pilot training are already commonplace.

It won’t end with visual immersion. We’ve had SurroundSound cinemas, and even those with seats that shake.  New technology will create a completely sensory experience:  an explosion on screen will lead to a vibration in your pocket and a sudden heating-up of your back; “Smello-vision” may come from directly stimulating brain patterns.

Artificial intelligence will create cleverer opponents that respond and react to your strategies, just as your tennis opponent would.  Or you could be the Field-Marshal strategically directing her troops, who are capable of independently responding to threats and adapting to changing conditions – for good or ill –  just as real armies do.

And increasingly rapid connectivity enables the prospect of far more multi-player “games”.  Rather than just playing the AI chess opponent, my bridge partner and I can take on an AI pair. Even back in 2000 there were massively multi-player games where squadrons of WWII bombers assembled to fly over occupied Europe.  Speed of connectivity may be a challenge but it could improve sufficiently to allow the creation of a virtual band playing together remotely, or for me to sing Nessun Dorma  as a hologram with a live orchestra in front of an adoring audience (with my voice that would probably have to be virtual too!).

With such technology, the boundaries between entertainment and education break down even further, and many commercial practices will also be challenged.

But are there limits?  What are the societal effects?  There seems to me to be two strong behavioural factors which act as constraints:

  • passivity: we don’t all always want to be actively participating, and often just want someone to entertain us  – couch potatoes aren’t going away.  Too much choice can be tiring – as the famously lazy cat Garfield in one cartoon said “Interactive TV … what a stupid idea”.
  • communal events have a power of their own – being part of a partisan crowd at a football match is quite different from and generally superior to watching on TV, even though the latter gives you a better view and action replays; being at Glastonbury is so much more than listening to some music.

Once again all we know for certain is that the future will be different from and the same as the present in surprising ways.

Written by SAMI Principal Huw Williams.

There are many excellent guides to major trends that will affect us all over the next decades. For guidance, see . What we have tried to do in this blog sequence is to highlight a specific emerging change from the many, and to explore some of the potential impacts.  We welcome thoughts on other drivers of change or more impacts of the ones we have highlighted

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