I’ve been asked to talk tomorrow at the Alphaville festival of post-digital culture, alongside Patrick Hussey from Arts and Business. I’m very flattered to have been invited, especially to be speaking with such an illustrious colleague. And since I was, I’ve started to think a bit about what ‘post-digital’ means. It’s a phrase you hear more and more often these days in geek circles.
I suppose I take ‘post-digital’ to mean the condition of being fully reconciled to the disruption brought about by digital technology, and in particular the Web. It is much the same, in that sense, as ‘Postmodernism’, which really means the condition of having overcome the ‘shock of the new’, the culture of high modernism, and having absorbed its lessons. Being post-digital, we are, to repeat my previous post, through the future-shock and over the nostalgia (largely – we can still be nostalgic, in increasingly kitsch ways, for modernism and for ‘digital’). ‘Digital’ in this sense, and lord knows it is rapidly becoming the most bandied-about and meaningless term in the dictionary, refers to the technologies that have disrupted our industries, our communications and our patterns of behaviour.
Being ‘post’ anything usually leads to a period of self-reflexivity and a prevailing irony about ‘progress’ that undercuts conscious artistic ambition. There’s a danger that this urge leads to a degeneration, a period in which the only statements are jokes, in which Rorty’s ‘contingency’ is so much to the fore that it is impossible to be naive. So, we look back on the period of disruption and shock and criticise it as an abnormal era, an era of extremes and wild hopes that could never be fulfilled, however deeply influential it really was (which we can only ascertain from a greater perspective, at a greater distance). This trend is evident already in many people’s analysis of the ‘digital’ era, and especially the so-called Web 2.0 period. I do it myself, all the time, pricking the bubble of technological utopianism that blew up in the early-mid naughties and whose chief inflaters were people like Kevin Kelly and Chris Anderson.
The fact is, that, insofar as it is meaningful to talk about the ‘digital’ in this way, we are still very much intellectually in its grip. And will be for at least the foreseeable future. But what is noticeable is that instead of simply evangelizing about the wonders of the Web or shying away from it, sticking our fingers in our ears and whistling and hoping it will all go away, the questions are getting much more sophisticated and more practical. Instead of asking what is an API and why do I need one? people are much more likely to be asking, what is the right way to build open APIs, how will the use of each social network help me to fulfil specific goals? and so on…
In other words this stuff is just normal now. It’s becoming just as much a part of the planning process as print marketing, or programming. Or, to put it more accurately, digital questions are being considered at the same time as, and alongside those other fundamental questions. They are intertwined with them. The process of entering the ‘post-digital’ realm then is really a process of acceptance and integration, or digestion. Something that was first viewed as radical, alien and even threatening has now been internalised. Nixon declared ‘we are all Keynesians now’ (would that we still were), but it seems more appropriate now to say that ‘we are all (whatever the collective noun for Vint Cerf’s disciples is) now’.
But in addition to this sense of being ‘okay’ with the arrival of disruptive technologies, I think the term ‘post-digital’ also implies a whole set of other attitudes and characteristics, largely born out of the rhetoric about ‘democratisation’ that has reared its head again since the Arab spring. Notions of real political progress and transparency have been elided with much more superficial ideas about the scalable nature of open platforms and widespread use of social networks in this catch-all term. Post-digital implies a certain allegiance to the ideas of openness, interconnectedness and community that sprang up in the early days of the Web.
It implies a lack of attachment to existing hierarchies and infrastructures that have defined 20th century industries and distribution systems, a capacity for being fleet-of-foot, nimble, interested in process and criticality as well as social engagement (from an artistic point of view), and, interestingly, multiple or collective authorship. It seems to be, at its most engaged, against, or rather critical of, the mass media, the production line, the institution. Yet it is still entranced or persuaded by long-cherished ideas of individual artistic genius and talent.
Anyway, this may all be navel-gazing, but it’s the stuff that’s swirling round in my brain at the moment, and some of it is probably likely to exit through my cake-hole tomorrow. So watch out.