On Not Being Born Digital…

Yesterday, I spoke at Audiences Yorkshire’s CEO Symposium which this year was titled “On Not Being Born Digital”.

Following are an edited version of what I hope might be the most interesting bits. Your contributions and comments are most welcome…

I’m an artist. I make new work in collaboration with other artists – actors, writers, designers, musicians, technicians and in recent years scientists.

I am also a bit of a geek, an early adopter. I’m an associate of the Quantum Information Science Group at the University of Leeds. I like shiny gadgets and computers. When I was ten years old my dad bought us a Dragon 32 computer which me and my brother used to program with ‘games’ written in C Basic ( I think) that we copied out of the back of magazines. Twenty five years later, I own a mobile phone that contains more computing power than was used to put the first manned mission on the moon.

I am not an ‘expert’ on new technology, social media or Web 2.0 (whatever that term means) – but I use all those things all the time.

I’m here to offer a perspective. Some opinions from my experience as an artist who has worked in a world in which the internet has always existed and has, over the thirteen years that I’ve been working professionally, radically changed the way that we all interact with each other as human beings.

As students at the University of Leeds in the mid 90’s we’d all had email and internet accounts that we and no-one else that we knew ever used. When we formalised our company in 1997 we received an offer to participate in a scheme that I think was an Arts Council initiative to bring Yorkshire companies and artists online. But I was pretty much the only one of us who ever used it – email back in 1997 was for us still kind of a miracle. I vividly remember one of Unlimited’s founding members Paul coming in one morning and asking “Has the email postman been yet?” because he thought that like regular post, email was delivered just once a day.

Faxes were still totally ubiquitous – Chris came up with an idea that he was convinced would be his “killer app” and send him into the Sunday Times rich list – the wipe clean fax header.

Now, we regularly post videos online that allow our audiences and our collaborators, any of whom might live on a different continent, to share and contribute to our creative processes. And it works for us. And we’re only a very small organisation – but we have regular conversations by email, on Twitter, on YouTube with people from all over the world.

Our most viewed video online is called Superposition. It was filmed in my garden shed and was essentially a first draft of our attempt to explain how it is possible for a single object to be in a minimum of two different places at the same moment in time.

We posted at the time simply to allow the quantum physicist we were working with (who lived several hundred miles away) to hear and see what we were doing so he could tell us whether it was accurate or not. It has since been viewed 50000 times and has hundred of comments qualifying it as “popular” and therefore has been offered the opportunity to earn (a very small amount) of money through Google advertising.

One of our other most popular videos online was filmed on my mobile phone during rehearsals when we were trying to work out how to make the scene changes in a new show more dynamic. It’s of my good very friend and colleague Chris, who is one of the smartest most gifted people that I have ever met. And he’s stuck inside a stool.

When we’ve ever made and posted a more… ‘standard’, quote quoting, shiny piece of marketing…… no-one watches it.

People like and are interested in (I think) personal, funny, sincerely made information that gives them access to the personalities, the attitudes, the value systems of the people they’re going to invest their time and their money in. Audiences are increasingly, incredibly smart at ignoring disconnected “marketing”. Unless you’ve got a container ship full of money and can completely saturate your market with familiar faces and images, of course. But I would suggest that that’s no way to build loyalty which is, I think (?), what most of us value above all else.

We are a relatively small organisation. We do our best with the resources we have and they’re not many. We didn’t foresee the changes that were coming – we weren’t blazing a path. I mean for fucks sake, we invented the wipe clean fax header! But we’ve always been interested and want to stayed up to speed with what the trailblazers in this field were doing and we’ve always been curious – we like and we invite conversations. And we’ll always have a go. Our work has always been and continues to be sincerely interested in what it’s relationship is, and can be, with it’s audience.

Part of my job as the leader of our organisation is to continue to remind us that

there is always the possibility for transformation…

In our roles as producers with our responsibility to nurture and promote creativity, we should celebrate the creativity of our audiences – even the most mediocre and as one of the earlier keynote speakers Andrew Keen would term “amateur” attempts.

As a parent I don’t tell my four year old child that his drawing of a house is shit.
I ask him who’s inside the house, what they’re doing. I use his initial impulse, interest and desire to create, to develop a conversation with him – to find out what his interests and his concerns are. To develop a deeper understanding of who he is, to get to know him better so we can have a better shared understanding of the world.

I’m not going to commission him to paint his depiction of creation, the Downfall of Man and the Promise of Salvation through the prophets and Genealogy of Christ on my living room ceiling – but I might stick it up on the fridge, even just for a few days.

Our job is to create and commission the most excellent works of art that we can, in whichever mediums they are best suited to. That work can and should continue to happen in traditional forms and places and crucially with artists at the lead. But it would be naïve of us to think that we can continue to promote them to our audiences without heavily investing in an exploration of the new technologies and platforms available.

We can still curate, have an opinion on what is “excellent”, expect and demand a level of technical and creative expertise and brilliance from professional artists AND mix it up with other, less ‘accomplished’ but no less creative engagements from some of the people who have a particularly keen interest in our work. At the very least we can have a sincere, meaningful conversation with them about it. Because they can be our fiercest, most committed and most vocal supporters of our work.

And then we’ve done our research and earned the choice as to whether or not it might be interesting, or potentially brilliant for our audiences to have a more active part in their creation.

I would like to suggest that there has to be a massive, widespread, sincerely adopted development in our approach to engagement with audiences and artists that is as radical as the developments in the technologies that are now widely available – mostly for free.

Last week Chris and I were in Singapore doing my one man show about quantum physics and we met a scientist who is working on a technology that will allow us to produce a single photon of light at the literal press of a button. Within five years he reckons – they’re just waiting for the final developments in the technology to arrive.

And we’re still debating whether or not we should have a blog on our website and who should be writing it.

We cannot ignore these new technologies and opportunites, pass them off as a “fashion” or hope that by paying lip service to them, by asking someone in our marketing department to sign up to twitter, that we will be doing our bit.

Because regardless of any negative issues that the keynote Andrew Keen states against “Web 2.0” or the rise and the influence of the individual (which he’s wrong about by the way) – it isn’t going to go away. So we cannot NOT engage with it.

I then offered some examples of how we might choose to engage and ‘let go’ of control before ending with…

I was talking to a friend yesterday who has recently split up with his partner of 12 years – he told me “I blame Xbox and Facebook, she’s addicted to them, can’t get her away from them.”

A games console and a social networking platform that coupled with widespread and previously unimaginably fast broadband connection speeds have so radically altered his relationship with his long term partner that they felt they could no longer be together.

Now obviously this is an extreme example and of course there will be other factors at work here – but it’s undeniably a very real experience that would never have factored ten, five years ago.

The title for this symposium is “On Not Being Born Digital” with a chief concern in:

“providing an opportunity for cultural leaders to apply their own reality check to the virtual revolution that is being so much talked about these days… and how digital strategies and channels could be geared towards enriching the relationship between the artist, the arts organisation and the audience – or not.”

In a 2005 BBC survey 100% of 6-10 year olds, 97% of 11-15 year olds and 82% of 16-24 year olds describe themselves as regular video gamers. There is no not. We’ve gone native.

And I for one, don’t want to be in the same position as my mate Steve.


Katie Day

Thanks Jon, the blog made for interesting reading. I think you’re totally right about audiences not buying into the slick marketing stuff. If I think about the videos that I bother to watch (and enjoy) myself online, they are the personal quirky ones, not the shiny marketing ones. I found myself watching your rough little homage to Chris video filmed in Singapore the other day, and giggling to myself. http://www.vimeo.com/10387314. Its informal, its how we talk to our friends, and it makes us laugh. I learn more about what you care about as people, and I connect with that. Once we start engaging with technologies in a more central way to our lives and our work, rather than keeping them at arms length in the ‘marketing sphere’ (in both work and personal life – Facebook is mostly personal marketing isn’t it), then we open up space for the really interesting stuff to start.


Hey Katie –

Thanks for this. I agree 🙂

Pleased you giggled watching Chris. Makes me giggle too



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