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Why artists matter to technology

Technology may create new markets, but artists change the way we think about the world.


July 1, 2011  


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In May of this year, British art-rock superstar Kate Bush released Director’s Cut, a significant reworking of 11 songs from two previously released albums. As I listened to it I was struck by just how visionary Bush was, on one tune in particular.

Deeper Understanding was from The Sensual World. The song describes the relationship between people and technology, specifically, technology’s ability to become a substitute for relationships between real people. For those unfamiliar with Deeper Understanding, it begins…

“As the people here grow colder / I turn to my computer / And spend my evenings with it / Like a friend.”

Sound familiar? What is remarkable is that this song was originally released in October 1989. Think about that for a minute. MS-DOS 4.0 was a year old. Intel had just released the 486DX processor. Windows 3.0 was still in the future, as were search engines, iPods and other portable music players, smart phones and digital wireless networks. In fact, Tim Berners-Lee would not propose hypertext (http) coding until 1990 and would not introduce the world to the World Wide Web until August of 1991.

Facebook’s founder, Mark Zuckerberg, was all of five years old.

Yet, here is an artist that, in 1989, predicted more and more of us would spend more and more time interacting with technology and she did so with an astonishing degree of accuracy.

Obviously, artists do not get it right 100% of the time. Not even close. And most artists would probably be appalled if they did. But that is not the point.

Disruptive technology: Artists bring many values to society. We tend to think of artists as entertainers and they do entertain us. But artists are trained to critically examine our world and question convention, and the talented ones help us all to do the same. Artists are, in a sense, the flesh and blood equivalent of disruptive technology.

Whereas such technologies change a product or service in a way that creates new markets, artists change the way we think about the world in a way that helps fashion our society.

Increasingly, the ICT sector recognizes this. One of the most interesting aspects of attending Canada 3.0 (www.canada30.com) the past two years is the fact that unlike many tech conferences, this one brings together those with engineering and science degrees and those from liberal and fine arts backgrounds.

It is an excellent mash-up of ideas and perspectives, bringing those who enable technology together with those who are naturally innovative thinkers.

Creative people are embracing technology, of that there is no doubt. Look at the program guide for OCAD University (www.ocad.ca) and you’ll find the Graduate Program in Digital Futures, the Master of Design in Inclusive Design, and the Master of Design in Strategic Foresight and Innovation program guides.

Programs such as these bring together artists, designers, business people and engineers to address a question that can be boiled down to, “Where are we going from here?”

Other academic institutions offer similar cross-disciplinary programs. And graduates of such programs are the kind of creative thinkers from whom all companies developing or using technology could benefit.

And so could Canada. In its ongoing report “How Canada Performs,” the Conference Board of Canada (www.conferenceboard.ca) ranked our country 14 out of 17, and warned that our economy remains below average in its capacity to innovate.

The report notes that Canadian businesses have been slow to adopt leading-edge technologies.

Since these technologies are there for the taking, I would suggest that the problem is in part, anyway, a lack of vision about how these technologies can be used coupled with an aversion to risk-taking.

These are both qualities that artists bring to the table. If you develop technology, bring that talent into the process at the start of the project not just at the end to design the box it ships in. And if your business uses technology, find out more about programs like those offered at OCAD University, and how your company can get involved.

In the meantime, give Kate Bush another listen.

One final note: The sharp-eyed reader will note this edition of my column strays from strictly wireless subjects. When I wrote my first column for this magazine back in 2002, wireless still operated very much in its own silo. Today, that is no longer the case:

The demarcation lines between technologies have shifted, blurred or disappeared entirely. I have always written about how we use technology and how technology affects us, and your editor and I have agreed it is time this column reflect this with a broader mandate. We hope you agree. CNS

Trevor Marshall is a Toronto-based reporter, writer and observer of the Canadian technology sector. He can be reached (on his mobile) at 416-878-7730 or at trevor@wordstm.com.