Arts + digital technology: the shadow side

I wrote a short paper for NESTA/Clore Leadership Programme recent call for papers on arts & digital technology. It wasn’t selected: maybe they only want the sunny side! But points I make are important for arts managers to consider so I’m posting it here.

Digital technology appears to offer a bright route forward for arts organisations in extending reach and interacting with audiences. The social and cultural landscape has been utterly transformed in the past decade, enabling ways of creating and experiencing creative expression that compels the sector to radically rethink traditional approaches to linking art and artists with audiences. The advance of the digital seems inevitable. You either adapt or become irrelevant.

Yet the promise of a technofix solution to problems of public engagement and financial stability is not without a dark shadow. In its murkiness we find that not all that glitters is indeed gold. Responsible leadership demands that both sides of the coin are considered, thoughtfully and with concern for the wider world not just one’s immediate self-interest.

Digital technology is currently being designed in a global economic system that believes that continuous growth in a world of finite natural resources is possible, and that more growth leads to more fairness for all and better quality of life[i]. This means that products are generally designed with built-in obsolescence and short lifespans, forcing us to keep consuming new products. By increasing reliance on the digital, what are arts organisations asking of audiences? To buy more and yet more gadgets if they want to keep engaged? How does this affect those on low budgets, who are without home internet connection or smart phones or digital know-how? Research by UK Online Centres finds a correlation between social and digital exclusion, with those suffering from socially exclusion three times more likely to be offline. According to their research, 8.7 million adults in the UK today have never used the internet[ii]. That is 17.5% of the population: a huge proportion. Clearly, arts organisations would need to take social inequalities that the digital divide reflects and compounds into account.

And what is the impact of all this consumption on the planet?

A recent Energy Saving Trust report reveals that despite gadgets and appliances becoming more energy efficient, domestic energy consumption in the UK is increasing substantially because we obsessively keep buying more stuff, with obvious implications for greenhouse gas emissions[iii].

Digital technology is also dependent in its construction on rare earth minerals such as indium and tantalum, of which known supplies are dwindling and recycling is minimal.

In some places the extraction of these precious rare minerals is fuelling social conflict and oppression, for example in eastern Congo. For this reason they are known as ‘conflict minerals’.

In the pursuit of profit, IT companies in the West accept or ignore standards of workers rights in their supply chain that would be shocking at home. The use of toxic materials in manufacture has consequences for the health of all species, not just humans. Pollution of air, land and water and fossil fuel consumption in the manufacturing process are externalities that can be absent in companies’ profit and loss account.

This then is the shadow of digital technology. But it is not to be accepted passively; there is much that arts leaders can do to influence it.

There are a growing number of organisations and initiatives devoted to assessing and ranking companies and products, making it easier for us to both purchase more ethically and to put pressure on companies to do better. Examples are which is particularly impressive for its very comprehensive and well researched buyers guides and interactive scorecard ratings, that makes it easy for you to send a message to electronics companies about their action on conflict minerals, and Greenpeace’s COOL IT Leaderboard that ranks computer companies on how they manage their own CO2 emissions, political advocacy for stronger environmental legislation, and innovative technical solutions to climate change.

There are further ethical issues to be taken into account by the responsible leader.

Digital technology is designed, and designs can embody forms or power and authority[iv]. Values can become implicated in the design itself with implications for human agency[v]. Involving digital technology in the audience experience therefore requires attention to its design, so that audiences are not inadvertently adversely affected by designs that undermine values of, for example, welfare, privacy or autonomy.

These kinds of ethical considerations extend the arts sector’s concept of social and environmental responsibility way beyond the conventional eco-efficiency approaches largely limited to reducing carbon emissions, into the complex web of connectivity that exists between human wellbeing, digital technology and environmental sustainability.

[i] Centre for Local Economic Strategies, 2010. Productive local economies: creating resilient places, CLES

[iii] Energy Saving Trust. 2011. The elephant in the living room: how our appliances and gadgets are trampling the green dream, Energy Saving Trust

[iv] Langdon, W. (1980) Do Artefacts have Politics, Daedelus, Vol 19. No.1, pp. 121-136, MIT Press

[v] Friedman, B & Kahn, P. H. 2003. How values become implicated in technological design, The Human-Computer Interaction Handbook, Ed. Jacko, J & Sears. pp. 1177-1201, L. Erlbaum Associates Inc. Hillsdale NJ USA.

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1 Response to Arts + digital technology: the shadow side

  1. Pingback: Is technology harming our brains? | Wellcome Trust Blog

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