What happens when we get to peak digital?

“There is a crack, a crack, in everything.
That’s how the light gets in.” Leonard Cohen

The current emphasis in analysing the creative industries is to focus on digital tech. For the near-future timescale this is fine, as there are still innovations yet to be fully utlised – exploited – such as the internet of things, artificial intelligence and robotics, and driverless vehicles.

However, digital tech will not be the key driver of change for ever. In the 1600s the new printing presses were revolutionary to culture and to national power across Europe. As was steam power in the late 1700s. Oil was the economic sin qua non of the 1900s. And for the early 2000s we have digital tech.

So, looking ahead beyond the near-future we need to begin to discuss what peak digital might seem like, and what creativity might do to create it and what it might do in response to it.

In exploring this point, we need to understand that creativity in not limited to being the content, such as new music sequences or film, within a digital tech channel. Creativity will apply to the channel itself as well. And channels are designed as much by ambient culture as by R&D effort in engineering labs. Consider the channel of television. The linear broadcast model of television is accessed less and less frequently especially by younger people; which is not about how up-to-date the technology is (answer is, very), but about the wider cultural attractions around on demand viewing.

Thinking further back, we can also consider the channel of pamphlets. In their day, printed pamphlets were a key driver in social and political change. They sat alongside newspapers, speeches at public meetings and rallies, and demonstrations. The technology to produce pamphlets has probably never been easier to use, yet as a type of channel its use today is almost zero.

One analysis of these changes in channels over time is to focus on convenience – it is more convenient to choose when to watch a TV programme; it is more convenient to email a pdf file than to print and then distribute a pamphlet. Which is true as far as it goes. Another analysis is to focus on the cost to a business, such as it being cheaper to send a digital movie file to a machine than to courrier reels of film to a person.

Sometimes these forces reinforce each other, sometimes they are in tension such as reducing business costs by passing some business tasks back to the customer.
So as with print, steam and oil, there will be a lasting role for digital, but creativity beyond the near-future will come from today’s early-career researchers and their peers in the wider community. In this scenario, it is the creative culture (or not) of that wider community that will influence such development and growth, thus being a place specific factor.

Manchester was a creative city long before digital tech arrived, from the new politics of universal suffrage, international trade and anti-slavery in the 1800s, through the suffragettes and Rochdale co-ops, first trades union congress, the largest LGBT+ public demonstration in the UK in the 1980s, to a city which re-invented modern urban living entwined with popular youth culture. If any city was wanted as an exemplar of the Prof Richard Florida thesis that diversity, tolerance and progressive politics enables creativity which in turn enables growth, Manchester would be such a case study.

So, if any place is likely to make sense first of what peak digital entails then there are strong historic reasons to suggest that Manchester is a strong contender for that role, not least because the Manchester culture is comfortable with change and with looking forward.

Many would agree with the proposition that sustainable living is our unsolved challenge, and as climate change advances globally along with resource shortages and increasing pollution, the time remaining to create solutions is rapidly diminishing. Crucially, fundamental changes must take place within the lifespans of younger people now living to avoid catastrophic rather than incremental damage. Digital tech has a role to play here, for example when overcoming distances without the need to travel, but it requires a huge supply of mined and quarried rocks to be processed for their rare metals and then has a manufacturing footprint so it isn’t without its own detriment.

One possibility is that peak digital is just a point at which we start to use less all round, to walk with a lighter tread. Who knows? But as a possibility it feels better to me than waiting for the next new shiny thing to save us from our perenial desire for ever-more new shiny things.

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