Digital (physical?) revolution

26 Aug

I recently went to Digital Revolution, an exhibition at the Barbican in London looking back – and forward through digital technology and our relationship with it. I was lucky enough to be invited to a talk by Jim Boulton, the curator of the Digital Archaeology section of the exhibition that explores the hard and software of the last 40 years, and the impact that this has had on culture (or, indeed, the reverse; how did our evolving culture affect the development of consoles, drum machines, art software and games?).

As a self-confessed nerd when it comes to tech and digital, I couldn’t wait to get stuck in and see loads of cool stuff. It didn’t disappoint.

Jim talked about how digital wasn’t confined to the last 40 years (even though that’s the timescale that the Digital Archaeology section spanned). Some of the stuff he showed us was from way back in the 1950s – like the Manchester University Computer Love Letter Algorithm that was used to write notes of affection that were then left around campus, always signed M.U.C. (xo <3!)

 Digital Revolution Gemma Critchley MUC love letter algorithym

Going into the Digital Archaeology section was like jumping into a deep, dark pool – the effect of all the video and sound was immersive and almost overwhelming; kind of how I’d imagine it would be to time travel from 50 years ago and end up confronted by a world of tablets, smartphones, video calling, contactless technology and augmented reality.

Two things struck me about Jim’s talk. First, I was surprised to see how far technology has come in those 40 short years. Second, I think most of us get how much this technology had impacted on our lives, but it was eye opening to see how much it had done this and how quickly.

Jim’s talk was limited to the history of digital tech, and the rest of the exhibition branched off to explore immersive and interactive technology, film, music, gaming and wearables.

It’s the first branch that really interested me – immersive and interactive technology. Interactivity was something that flowed through the whole set-up of the event; touching, playing, taking photos and sharing was all encouraged. I won’t share too much as I’d suggest you go and experience it for yourself if you can, but there were some really awesome exhibits.

I had a go at controlling the ‘street folding’ scene from Inception, experienced the 3D graphics of Gravity, called up some birds made out of old mobile phones to make them tweet, controlled a game with my mind (yes, really – this freaked me out a bit but was pretty rad), changed the design of a skirt thanks to interactive LEDs, played some awesome indie games like Thomas Was Alone, went to what I can only describe as a sensory rave in the basement of the Barbican and saw some pretty sweet neon art:

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One of my favourite exhibits was wwwwwwwww.jodi.org – part of the Digital Archaeology section. This was an art project that was launched in the 1990s, using code as art (there’s also a big section on DevArt in the exhibition itself); but what I loved about this was the subtly subversive nature of it. What looks like pages of broken code are actually very cleverly put-together sites that have a message buried in the source code. Kind of using destruction as a form of creation – I like the idea of pulling everything apart and seeing what emerges…

wwwwwwwwwjodiorg

I’ve always been fascinated by escapism of all kinds – why do people play games, read fiction, watch films, drink alcohol, dress up? I won’t try to answer that now but what I will say is that this exhibition made it clear that the desire to escape – or to enhance – reality is very much alive and well.

You might have seen people sharing photos on Instagram of themselves as ‘digital birds’ or with smoking eyes… (if you follow me on IG you will have, nestled in between snaps of hipster food and nail art). Basically, there were several parts of the exhibition involving cameras that visitors could interact with to create an alternative version of themselves. These seemed to be the parts of the exhibition that people appeared most rapturous about. Does this show narcissism? Maybe. A desire to explore an alternate reality or other self? Perhaps. What I think it does show is that people are actively looking for next level digital tech – where it can transform us in a way we haven’t been able to achieve before, and where the physical and digital converge to elevate our experience.

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There were opportunities to whisper a wish into a flower and watch it emerge as digital text before transforming into a butterfly and visitors had the chance to design their own piece of 3D art, with the potential for it to be selected for 3D printing which would then be added to the exhibition. 

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This convergence of the physical and the digital is not just a futuristic vision that’s confined to a museum, though. Games like Ingress and James Frey’s new novel, Endgame, are real-world location-based experiences that tie story, community, digital and physical worlds together to answer this desire to anchor digital interactions in the physical, but to disconnect from reality. Oculus rift achieves something similar, but perhaps the games/story elements for this piece of hardware aren’t quite there yet to make this stick as well as things like Ingress. Facebook clearly sees its potential and is looking for ways to use it to help people feel more connected, as it recently bought the company behind the virtual reality kit – I can’t wait to see how this pans out. 

There’s been a lot of talk in retail and marketing for the last few years about how to combine social and local elements to drive action (and a few murmurs of it are rippling through the learning community, too), but few seem to have been able to get this right. The advent of games like Ingress, the level of sophistication of today’s mobile devices and the evident appetite for combining physical and digital worlds might mean that the time is right to combine these and open up doors for those looking to exploit the sweet spot between community, location and storytelling. Provided they’re good enough at harnessing the power of all three, of course…

If you’re interested in how the future (or even present) of digital looks set to play out, I’d definitely recommend going along to the exhibition and letting your mind wander. Digital Revolution was part art, part tech and it all made me think.

I reckon that the next frontier in tech/digital/innovation (call it what you will) is the relationship between the physical and the digital. The next digital revolutionaries will be those who are brave enough to explore these connections and who dare to exploit them to make messages stick with users. 

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