Thinking Digitally: How The Social Web Is Changing Arts, Culture, Politics & Economics

Data Visualization graphic from The Minnesota Evaluation Studies Institute (MESI)

When I posted my “Year End Orphans” article in December 2012, one of the questions I asked was, “Does the rise of a technocratic class point to a possible third way, a new era in imagining America? Can we move the ever-evolving dream of America fully into the information age? Can we change the conversation from a binary and inherently regressive framework to one that is multipoint, nuanced and future-facing?” Who knew that in less than three months this would become a hot topic? A recent article on Wired.com noted a proliferation of socialist memes at a recent TED Conference and a recent report on WNYC’s Morning Edition talked about the increasing influence of NYC’s tech sector on the upcoming mayoral race.

When I ran for Mayor as a performance project back in 2005, part of my platform (as founder and sole member of The Blog Party) was free, citywide, public wifi and in-home broadband Internet as a public utility like water, gas, etc. Neither of those things has happened yet. But I also promised more transparency, accountability and access by increasing mayoral use of the Internet as a communications platform, open data sharing including budget numbers and insight into the workings of government. To give credit where credit is due, between 311, the highly functional and easy-to-use NYC.gov, the NYC Open Data site, My Money NYC and Chief Digital Officer Rachel Sterne Haot‘s twitter feed, Michael Bloomberg has done a hell of a job as the city’s first 21st Century Mayor.

In 2005 social media as we know it had really just started to emerge.  Friendster had been around a few years but hadn’t gotten much traction, MySpace was starting to make noise and Facebook was still only for college kids, I think. But blogging and the democratization of content creation was already pointing the way to the profound cultural changes that social networking would bring. In 2013 the convergence of the explosive growth in social media with the proliferation of mobile platform combined with the increased processor speed allowing us to analyze big data have altered our behavior patterns and interactions, our very perceptions of how we move through the world on a daily basis. This new, hyper-networked world is changing our understanding of time, space, attention and relationships; we are renegotiating the meaning of “public” and moving ever forward to increasing complexity.

As we more fully integrate the behavioral and cognitive patterns of the social web into our daily lives, it is not surprising that we see people revisiting socialist ideas. This is not from a historic ideological perspective so much as an intuitive leap to alternative frameworks for envisioning social organization in a networked world. From Napster to YouTube to Facebook to Twitter, Foursquare, Instagram, Vine and whatever this week’s hot new app is, the mobile, social web has made available to the masses the means of production and distribution for creative products and ideas. Decentralized distributive networks are the norm, not the exception. And the “flat” world, or more accurately the world as we experience it through the horizontal platform of the mobile, social web, lends itself to socialist language. We “share” items all the time, we crowdsource funding, we do our jobs in virtual collaborative workspaces, even tech terms like “distributive” echo old socialist terms like “redistribution”.  So is it possible to redeem the good ideas of socialism from its tarnished bloody history in the 20th Century? I think so. And it is the tech sector that can do it.

Innovative thinkers in the tech sector have an incentive to be platform-agnostic in their engagement with government and politics by looking at current structures through the lens of systems analysis: what is government meant to do, does it do it well and can we improve it through innovation? How do politics support or impede government? The tech sector consists, generally, of ardent capitalists, frequently of a libertarian bent. Is there an opportunity here to reframe the conversation on government in an integrative rather than oppositional way, where the nexus of socialism, capitalism, libertarianism and technology creates a viable model for 21st century democracy? If you step back and look at it, it is absurd that we are still using a government structure that was first designed in the 1770’s. The American Experiment as I understand it was about enacting and refining the ideas of The Age of Enlightenment, which seem to have held up pretty well, all things considered. But the actual framework of the government currently in use was designed prior to The Industrial Revolution! That’s insane. To continue the tech metaphor, we have to redesign the operating system of American Government for the 21st Century. Wouldn’t that be a fun project?!

Unfortunately the national conversation has devolved to the point where the very mention of the word “socialist” will get you branded as a loony, left wing freak and the term “capitalism” implies an evil rapacious, heartless corporate titan savaging the 99% at every turn. The Right has staked out a position where all government is bad and has embarked on a campaign to destroy it. The Left has been unable to articulate a new vision of government, unwisely retaining the language of Big Government that is loathed by many voters. We’re at an impasse. How is it even possible that in the 21st Century we are still dealing with such a fantastically simplistic and unproductive linear “left/right”, “black and white” approach to solving the most complicated issues of our times and possibly in human history? When we step back and look at it objectively, Democrats and Republicans actually share many values and ambitions. I think both sides are in favor of fiscal responsibility for the government and individuals, living within our means and cutting the debt, the value of small business and entrepreneurship, investing In innovation and growing the economy, keeping America moving forward with a lean, nimble, effective, manageable government.

But despite the shared goals of the “right” and the “left” they can’t have a meaningful conversation and the citizenry has become understandably hostile to a system that seems so intractable and rigged. The government has grown so byzantine and impenetrable that it feels inaccessible. The corrupting influence of unfettered cash flowing into the system by special interests has increased that inaccessibility by establishing a “pay to play” mindset in government from local to national levels that borders on – and probably is – criminal. It is my understanding that American democracy is meant to be by, for and of the people; it is government by consent of the governed to provide for the common welfare. It is my understanding that government’s function in a democracy is to provide the advantage of scale, allowing individuals in a society to come together to undertake and achieve projects that require resources beyond their capacity. This isn’t Socialism – it is the foundation of why we have democracy in the first place.

Even from the perspective of the most ardent free-market capitalist, this should make sense. Just looking back at recent history would seem to suggest that a productive free-market economy flourishes most in a stable society. To extrapolate from my lived experience (flawed methodology, I admit), I would suggest that a stable environment is a prerequisite for innovation and entrepreneurship, whether for an individual or a corporation. But on the individual level, if you know where your next meal is coming from and that the rent is going to be paid, if you live in a neighborhood free of drugs, violence, pollution and disease, you have that much more mental capacity to think about other things. If young people have stability in their lives and access to daily meals, good, safe schools with a minimum of bullies, good teachers and reasonable class sizes, they’re more likely to focus on learning and apply that education to making the most of their lives. If you have some financial security after you graduate college and you’re not wracked with debt, you have more freedom to risk new ventures and try new things. If you have a great idea for a business or project, you are much more likely to succeed if you have access to capital. And if innovation happens mostly in small start-ups, then directing the flow of moderate amounts of capital to a wider field of smaller, nimble ventures will probably yield greater results than huge investments in monolithic institutions.

It seems that the best way to have a flourishing, vibrant, productive capitalist economy is to provide support for the largest number of people to actively participate in that economy, not just as workers or consumers but as wealth and value generators. I’m not an economist but my lived experience (same caveat as before) includes 8 years of Reagan, 4 years of Bush I and 8 years of Bush II and from what I’ve seen – and what many, many people have said before me – “trickle down economics” doesn’t work. I look at it this way. If we imagine the country as a living organism with money as its lifeblood, then one can infer that this blood has got to move unimpeded through the circulatory system in order to distribute oxygen and nutrients to all the vital organs to keep the organism healthy. If you concentrate all the blood (money) in one place you could cause an aneurysm or stroke and kill it. Which kind of seems like what is happening now.

So if government’s essential function is to create stable conditions for a flourishing capitalist economy, it seems that it would need to monitor and regulate the flow of capital through the system. In this scenario the question is not BIG government vs. SMALL government (as we keep hearing) but how much government do we need to create stability? What conditions need to exist to insure a stable society where capitalism can work best? How does government foster those conditions and how much infrastructure does it take to accomplish? How can government be scalable/adaptable to achieve that in different iterations at different time and in different places?

In my previous essay I floated a few “blue sky” scenarios that, in this light, may not be as crazy as they sound, to wit:

Rebooting Representation: Imagine a representative democracy that uses big data to create alternate voter sets independent of place? A system that moves beyond the two party binary into either radical individual representation or alternate aggregation structures? Could this include a more complex but transparent system that balances place-based resource allocation and distribution systems with other criteria? What would digital demography and representative democracy actually look like? http://senseable.mit.edu/csa/

Rebooting Education: Imagine a federally funded and strategically developed K-12 MOOC that centralizes core curriculum but decentralizes place-based education. The MOOC offers a curriculum developed through strategic analysis of knowledge and skills required for maximum jobs and growth nationally. The curriculum is predicated on national standards and taught locally by nationally accredited teachers. Additional coursework, tailored to regional variance and cultural settings, can be implemented on the local level. This curriculum can be provided to home schoolers, self-aggregated small schools that would either hire an accredited teacher or become accredited themselves. Subsidy then becomes available for these smaller, independent classrooms and bricks and mortar schoolhouses become an option, not a necessity. Government scales back its involvement in the expensive business of maintaining bricks and mortar facilities and top-heavy, bloated administrative structures while guaranteeing access to education to all and insuring at least a minimum level of preparedness for students in the 21st Century.

Now, maybe these ideas are fantastically naive or just plain bad. But what we need now is MORE IDEAS not less. And there are people much smarter and knowledgeable than myself who could apply digital thinking to our seemingly insurmountable national problems and come up with innovative, scalable solutions if we could only have the conversation. But apparently we can’t because the amount of money at stake from lobbyists to politicians on both sides has destroyed any possibility of actual dialogue. So what are we to do? Let’s look at Mexico, for instance. When I saw Lagartijas Tiradas al Sol’s El Rumor del Incendio at the TBA Festival, they projected on screen a section of the Mexican constitution called “Second Title, Chapter I: Of National Sovereignty and of the Form of Government” which reads:

Article 39 – National sovereignty resides essentially and originally in the people. All public power comes from the people, and it is instituted for their benefit. The people have, at all times, the inalienable right to alter or modify the form of their government.

How amazing is that? Who knew? And while this is not as explicitly stated in the U.S. constitution as it is in Mexico’s, I think it is inferred. This is a democracy, the government is us, and we have a right to change it. And we should.

And what does this have to do with the performing arts? Everything.

Ancient Greece was the birthplace of both democracy and theater as we know it in The West. In this interview with Peter Burian, professor of classical studies and theater studies at Duke University, he says:

…participation of the audience in theater helped promote democratic life in Athens. The Athenian conception of democracy gave a central role to frank and open speech, and the theater was a privileged locus of such speech. The Greek theater’s democratic character is not so much a matter of taking ideological positions that are certifiably democratic, but of participating in a culture of democratic discourse and expanding it to make heard the voices of women, foreigners, and slaves who had no place in the political institutions of the polis — speech mediated of course by the fact that male citizens acted all the parts.  Greek drama includes a large number of powerful, dynamic and dangerous women!

When asked why this occurred in Athens when it did, he goes on to say:

The answer from my perspective is a sort of “perfect storm” at Athens in the fifth century BC: the swift and concurrent development of a democratic ideology based on ideas of freedom of speech for all citizens and equality of all citizens as (at least potential) participants in governance, the flowering of a theatrical practice that formed the centerpiece of a festival dedicated to the god Dionysus — associated in Greek belief with ides of breaking down boundaries, loosing of tongues and liberation in general — and one of the most important civic as well as religious occasions of the Athenian calendar.

And from what we understand of Ancient Greek theater, the performances were actually what today we might call “hybrid” or “multidisciplinary”. The poetic texts were sung as well as spoken and danced, the actors wore masks and cothurni, new technology was regularly introduced and implemented – have you ever heard of a deus ex machina? Not just a literary device, it was an actual machine! Also interesting is that performances of Ancient Greek theater were funded by the polis (state-sponsored arts festivals!) and, supposedly, they were only performed once – truly ephemeral art.

So theater, dance, music, poetry and the technology associated with staging performance have been intrinsic to democracy since its origins. As I wrote in my essay “Re-Framing The Critic for the 21st Century”:

… the arts – particularly the performing arts – provide a space to foster reflection, education and communication … the overall ecology of the arts, the “culture” sector, exists within a larger framework of Culture; it exists as a laboratory and an “auditorium” – place for people to be heard. The cultural sector exists as a place to engage with the ideas that shape our experiences of the world, to try and bridge the almost unfathomable gap between interiorities by making our inner lives manifest in the material world…

Today as much as in Ancient Greece, live performance can serve as a nexus for conversation and confrontation, for engaging with the big ideas and challenges of our times and of the human condition, for interrogating the world as it is and modeling the world as we imagine it could be. I return to Chaikin in The Presence Of The Actor:

I have a notion that what attracts people to the theater is a kind of discomfort with the limitations of life as it is lived, so we try to alter it through a model form. We present what we think is possible in society according to what is possible in the imagination. When the theater is limited to the socially possible, it is confined by the same forces which limit society.

But in order to do that effectively in contemporary society, the art has to be made with attention to and in the context of the conditions of contemporary cultural production. I’ve said before, what if we imagine artists as knowledge workers in an information economy, transforming ideas into experience? I return here to the conclusion of my essay “The Politics of Cultural Production in Theater“:

If art – particularly ephemeral art such as dance and theater – is meant to engage with our experience of the world as we live in it, and if the methods of production affect the received and perceived meanings of the art, then our production processes should reflect the dominant model of our times.

Earlier I proposed that contemporary artistic practice is characterized by adherence to two values: investigation and interrogation and that these values are inherent in “devised” or “experimental” theater. I would further suggest that these characteristics are central to the knowledge production industries that define the Information Age. Thus we can look to the knowledge production industries for relevant models and frameworks to adapt to cultural production.

While this would consist of an entire treatise unto itself, I would like to suggest the following frameworks as a starting point:

Iterative Processes: We have come to accept software development as an iterative process. Software is released in beta and is revised and updated over time. Every so often a new version comes out that is so significantly improved that it might require a new number or name, but the product itself is never really done. This is a useful framework for looking at the developmental process of theater – either a single show or the work of an artist over time. Rarely is a show every really done. Anyone who has worked in the theater knows how much a show changes from opening night to closing. With some shows that change can be astonishing as actors discover new moments and generate new material; as writers, directors and designers discover what works and what doesn’t. So too with artists – we should look at them as engaged in a long investigative arc and try and see each work both on its own and in the context of what came before.

Open Source: Open Source software development means that one person develops some code and gets it as far as they can on their own, then turns it over to a community of practice to revise, refine and improve the software. This framework is valuable both as a values system for collaborative creation on a single project and for the field at large. How can we look at what we do, as a field, as a collaborative process of imaginative investigation, of creating and re-mixing, sampling, revising and re-envisioning? How can we re-imagine our relationship to intellectual property and copyright?

Peer Review: Scientists regularly publish their research that is subject to peer review. The current theater ecology places the responsibility for reviewing productions with a third party, journalists, who are meant primarily to serve as advocates and advisors to the ticket-buying audience.  The arts sector – particularly theater – would be well served by vigorous, challenging, public review and critical discourse by peers. Audiences should be thought of not as mere consumers, but participants in a public conversation.

More than just re-imagining cultural production we must adopt new models for how we look for and generate content, identify “stories”, how we situate the work in the larger world beyond “the arts” and reassess how we define traditional ideas of artist and audience.

Usually when I hear people in the arts sector talk about “digital thinking” or technology they are either talking about how to use Twitter and Facebook to be a more effective marketer or they are talking about performances with a lot of video. Both of these are fundamental misunderstandings of what “digital thinking” is. Making and presenting art in the 21st century doesn’t require using Twitter or video or computers at all, the work can be completely analog for that matter.

Digital Thinking is about being in the world in a way that acknowledges the relational shifts engendered by our experience of networked society. It is about being more sophisticated in our engagement with complexity, moving away from binary oppositional structures to multipoint frameworks; it is about moving from verticality to horizontalism, working rhizomatically, or working hierarchically by intent rather than default.

This is an old example but most people’s music players have a “shuffle” function. Brahms may coexist next to Outkast, Metallica, Beastie Boys and Miles Davis; as you listen you may not know what’s coming next. In a world where people experience music this way, largely without prejudice, it behooves us to move beyond distinctions of high art vs. low art and develop alternate aesthetic criteria for evaluating creative work. This doesn’t mean you can no longer make an LP or a cassette that is listened to in sequence – or publish only sheet music, as Beck recently did – it simply means presenting your music in a way that is intentional, not a default predicated on a production model for 33rpm vinyl records.

Digital Thinking also means changing the criteria distinguishing professional from amateur, possibly erasing the distinction entirely. Since the digital revolution the means of creative production are readily available to a much wider swath of the public. Thus many more people are able to create work with higher production values and get it out into the public sphere. But they’re not all getting paid for it.

Most artists today have to work another job to subsidize their artistic practice. Current distinctions between “professional” and “amateur” seem to be predicated on whether you make a living from your art. But historically even great artists have always had “day jobs” or engaged in commercial applications of their creative talents to pay the bills. These days many artists work in what are now called “the creative industries”, their art practice is often related to, informed by or an extension of their livelihood. Should these people – and their artwork –be deemed “amateur” solely because it does not produce sufficient revenue to support their material needs? Recalibrating the valuation of “professional” and “amateur” doesn’t mean that we no longer distinguish artists of quality making good work from mediocre artists making bad work, it simply means that we needn’t use financial success, academic credentialing, or the critical approbation of traditional “cultural authorities” as the only measures of value.

Just as importantly, Digital Thinking doesn’t mean that all new performance has to be developed using technology or difficult to watch, either. Just because a performance has video, the Internet, cool gizmos and computer programming doesn’t make it contemporary or cutting edge. Almost by definition any show based on Facebook or using Twitter is going to be stupid and horrible, with the possible exception of Ivo Van Hove’s Roman Tragedies. Nor does it mean that these performances have to exist on the web or on mobile platforms or integrate these technologies at all.

What Digital Thinking does is ask us to interrogate our assumptions about our subject matter, what we’re making, how we’re making it and where we’re presenting it. Digital Thinking demands intentionality, attention to user experience and context; it asks us to start from a question rather than a statement and that the performance proceed as an investigation.

Far from being a limitation, this approach opens up a universe of new possibilities for both form and content while making performance available to limitless new audiences. For instance, imagine bringing together performance makers interested in social practice with the technologists from Code For America? Here’s what Code For America did in New Orleans:

The City of New Orleans wants to partner with Code for America to support and further legitimize the invaluable role neighborhood stakeholders continue to play in community revitalization. By developing a light-weight application to allow community stakeholders to submit bulk information to the city about their neighborhood, view existing relevant city data, and receive status for each of the on-going issues in their neighborhood, they will be better able to advocate and support their neighborhoods.

Performance-makers could work with the technologists and communities of Code For America, translating data into human interaction, identifying stories, creating interactive or participatory performances and/or installations responding to or incorporating the gathered information. Whether the performance happens in a traditional venue, a non-traditional venue or site-specifically in public space, whether it takes a familiar form or something entirely new, artists can bring their practice to bear on making thoughtful, meaningful, expansive, engaging experiences for a wide variety of publics.

The field of the Performing Arts in the 21st Century is going to be about supporting artists in dialogue with each other across disciplines and putting artists in meaningful collaborative dialogue with innovative thinkers in other sectors; it is going to be about supporting artists who move beyond the confines of traditional structures and into new ways of thinking and making. They may end up making a play or a dance for a stage, but it should be an intentional decision that the chosen platform is the best one for the project.

By situating cultural production in 21st Century frameworks, performance can serve as a vital platform for discourse in modern American Democracy just as it did in Ancient Greece. I will resist the impulse to call for more public funding, but I will propose that as government funding for the arts diminishes, non-arts funders could be engaged in supporting specific arts projects and initiatives. The performing arts have a unique ability to bring people offline and into real space, together. They facilitate transforming the soft ties of social media into the solid connections of social interaction.

And if you think the connection between the arts and technology is a bridge too far, I direct you to this interview with Flickr co-founder Caterina Fake by Alexis Madrigal in The Atlantic, talking about her new startup, Findery. She says:

I think we are gaining a new appreciation for the here and now, for the place we live, for the people in our neighborhood, for groundedness. This may be something that comes from social-media exhaustion. You see the early indications of a return to the local.

Then Madrigal asks her, “You are a longtime Internet person. Why do you care so much about sense of place?” She responds:

My background is in art. I was a painter and an occasional sculptor, and I really like materials–you know, stuff. Physical objects. The world and the trees and the sunshine and the flowers. And all of that doesn’t seem to really exist out in the ether of the Internet. Bringing people back into that actual, feel-able world is very important. My life project is humanizing technology: making technology more real and bringing it back into human interactions.

Times change and so do technologies. They inform and alter our perceptions of and interactions with the world around us. But the creative impulse is a constant that pervades all of human endeavor. Some people cultivate their creative capacities by becoming artists and some pursue other avenues. But it is that creative capacity, the desire to imagine the world as it might be and then work to make it so, that will determine our future. As the known world gives way to the unknown, as we move more fully from the age of industry to the age of information, we can endeavor to embrace new ways of thinking or we can cling to the cold comforts of old habits. We can enter into the future with despair and dire predictions or we can rise to the challenge of changing ourselves and our world to be more open, transparent, collaborative and free. It seems like an obvious choice to me.