I Say “Digital!”, You Say “Culture!”

There has been quite a flurry of announcements and papers and policies about “digital culture” in the last ten days.


Taken collectively, these documents indicate a direction of travel for digital arts policy. There’s a palpable enthusiasm for populist arts broadcasting, which stands out amid a more general confusion with the ubiquity of and implications of technology.  A generous analysis is that the emphasis on broadcast and reach is timely when a value-for-money ethos is sweeping through government; a not-so generous one would see the prominence of broadcast as seizing on a known and understandable quantity.

There is also a crisis of vocabulary. Most of these documents are haunted by the idea of broadcast, which becomes reinterpreted as “simulcast”, “live streaming” and “digital distribution”. “Digital” and “technology” become interchangeable, and “data” equates to marketing information about audiences.

This lack of fixed terminology allows non-specific innovation speak to creep in: The Space will be “even more innovative, dynamic and interactive”; in 2.6.1 of the R&D report, the cloud is credited with “improving accuracy” (although the organisation quoted seem to say it’s the data-management tool, rather than the means of storage, that is responsible for the change). Section 2.2 of the same report states “the distinctions between born digital and digital distribution are necessarily imprecise, with the phenomenon of streaming live performances online and into cinemas leading in some cases to new works created specifically for this channel” and the strategic framework promises to “respond to new ways of working, such as creating new digital services, involving communities and assisting digital users” (pp. 55-6). Meanwhile, the PDF of the strategic framework is illustrated by both an infographic and a trailer, but there isn’t a searchable summary, and a whole new bit of jargon – “cultural digerati” – has been coined to describe those organisations who use like to do stuff online.

The emphasis on broadcast is particularly surprising given the evidence of the R&D report: only 15% of the surveyed organisations currently offer live streaming or cinema broadcasts, and there is an obvious bias towards the performing arts. It is also surprising that cinema broadcast is repeatedly referred to as “new technology” when, according to Wikipedia, the first “live television” event was in 1929 and Regent Street cinema showed its first films in 1896.  Whole new art forms, such as contemporary dance and performance art, have been accepted into the canonical idea of “art” during the same period, yet “things on screens” retain an air of novelty and innovation.

Another recurring theme is the idea that operations and content creation are natural bedfellows. In a physical venue, it would be pretty unlikely that the facilities manager would also be the artistic director, but the lack of nuance in the use of “digital” and “technology” makes it unclear where the responsibility to ensure organisation-wide data-protection compliance ends and creative digital programming begins. And the notion that a live stream of a performance is “born digital” is sophistry; like saying Strictly Come Dancing is “born digital” because analogue television no longer exists.

Most unusual is that the term “digital distribution” relates to sending filmed content pinging off satellites, rather than to making sure every funded body has a working, maintainable website.

A relatively small amount of the millions spent creating “new kinds of digital art” could be redirected towards useful cost-saving and sustainability measures: perhaps a shared infrastructure to provide reliable, scaleable ticketing systems, non-proprietary CRM and DAMS, or a set of repurposable templates to serve the ten most common use cases. Some policy directives could be introduced: perhaps making all publicly funded software open source would allow a small gallery to reuse the Tate’s codebase, or a commissioning framework that could help arts organisations work productively with small creative businesses.  The intention of this is not to create a new level of bureaucracy, but to share the relatively meagre resources more efficiently, and to create a minimal viable digital arts product – taking inspiration from Government Digital Service to deliver not just financial savings but an exponential increase in the quality of service.

Our funded arts organisations should be equipped with the tools to respond to the modern world. The Tate collections data is available on GitHub and there are 42,000 ebooks on Project Gutenberg, yet the opportunities of networked culture are barely understood. Digital staff shouldn’t need to reinvent the wheel every time a “donate here” button is added to a web site and we shouldn’t assume that every audience member wants to eat popcorn while they watch a former Doctor Who perform Shakespeare. There’s a whole new adventure to be had, and a strong Arts Council digital strategy could help the cultural sector to lead the exploration.


4 thoughts on “I Say “Digital!”, You Say “Culture!”

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