Come The Digital Revolution
There was once a TV show, younger readers, called ‘Tomorrow’s World’, which showed what might be waiting for us around the corner. Except that for all its breathless excitement, it usually managed to emphasise the wrong things. The quiet, boring stuff to do with pipes and lenses was what really revolutionised the world, not lenticular cameras.
Now comes ‘Digital Revolution’, an exhibition in London’s awkward Barbican space (it’s in three claustrophobic sections, as a single hall doesn’t exist in the vast Barbican complex). It follows the history of digital technology, how it started, its various stages and where it might go.
After flashing ticket reference codes on our phones we collected paper tickets which were then rubber-stamped – not a good start.
The first section was the least interesting; lots of grey plastic boxes and keyboards that some very earnest members of the public found incredibly exciting. The first Apple monitor! The updated Linux system! Pong! Pac-Man! A roomful of old machines allowed the energetic young Indian kid next to me play rubbish old games he’d never heard of, but which I’d had to live through while gaming found its feet. He thought it was a novelty; I thought it was a nightmare.
Here was the last version I’d played of ‘Tomb Raider’, and the shock was just how much imagination we’d had to supply to make a bunch of glitchy grey planes look like a cave or a staircase. Remember those wolves? They look like a bunch of sticks now. It was like being trapped in a very old video arcade in a forgotten seaside town.
Then came a gallery showing how artists were interacting with digital technology. Some of these were lovely. Crowdsourcing was used to create a Johnny Cash video. Butterflies were born from your whispered words and developed wing patterns unique to you. We turned ourselves into artworks (here’s my selfie), had our limbs devoured by crows and sprouted wings of our own. A smoke-filled room let us catch light-beams and create moon-trails.
But a lot of it simply didn’t work. A 3D printer was there to bring out our creativity, only no-one could understand the instructions. Apps could be downloaded to turn art and some hideously ugly fashion into living designs, only we kept getting ERROR messages. A website could be accessed via our phones to give us museum-guide commentaries, but proved impossible to hear in the noise-filled rooms.
One of the most potentially interesting devices, which worked from electrodes attached to your forehead and behind your ears, allowed you to play a form of primitive shoot-em-up with just your eye movement – except that the screen image looked about thirty years out of date. I’m sure it will be perfected to operate on brainwaves if we go back in another couple of decades.
Finally there were large-scale breakdowns of CGI film techniques from ‘Gravity’, ‘Inception’ and a Will.i.am video which had been projected onto a concave sculpture so that his face followed you around the room.
Now, all of this should have been extremely beguiling, and the work that had gone into the curatorship of the show was phenomenal. But what surprised me was the audience. Broadly speaking, they fell into two groups; awestruck tech-heads who nearly wet themselves when they saw an old Amstrad, and people who simply didn’t have any way of processing what they were looking at. A couple of mums with babies stared at the Will.i.am video without walking about, so they never saw the point of it. Another lady sat on a bench looking as if she was waiting for a bus. The technology doesn’t make allowances for people.
And despite the wonders on display, it felt like an interim report on an imperfect technology. Most of the techniques were 2D and didn’t encourage or excite. Worse, they were joyless. We couldn’t touch them, feel them, immerse ourselves in them. Perhaps a museum isn’t the best place to put on an exhibition like this because coding is a long-term linear thing, and the best examples were pieces of long-developed interactive art.
It was hard to make out what Tomorrow’s World would be like from standing in a room chasing beams of light around. When I was a boy I remember breaking a beam of light to open a door at the Science Museum, which meant that in one sense this technology had hardly advanced at all.
The original ideas were best. One guy had used existing Google Earth maps and Satnav tech to pinpoint every US drone that had killed innocent civilians – it was the only political statement in the room. I saw no-one getting excited about the future possibilities of digital technology. Rather, they were only really jazzed when they saw something they remembered from their past. ‘Wow, I used to have one of these Game Boys!’
Tools for the future are only as good as their users. It’s not the fault of the technology – it’s us.
Digital Revolution is on at the Barbican until mid-September.