Wednesday, 17 June 2009

You can't pirate a moment - or can you?

Of course, I was lying when I said everything was digital. One of the best things about going to Wexford for the Theatre Forum Ireland conference was hearing Tim Crouch give his first ever keynote speech (and first ever powerpoint) and talk in the car down from Dublin. Tim’s address focused us on the moment, the present, the human – a stripped down vision of the heart of the dramatic connection that happens when audiences meets performer. It was entertaining and thought-provoking and definitely fulfilled the TED rules for presentations I shared recently.

At the heart of his talk was a delight in, and a commitment to, the way the dramatic moment – in which the performing arts specialise – refused to become an object that could then be monetized and traded. Tim is far from a luvvy, and has been performing his play England in visual arts galleries around the world, most recently at the newly opened Whitechapel Gallery, so he's seen art markets. The Guardian called it ‘an endlessly thoughtful piece which artfully challenges a globalised world where everything is for sale, and questions the value we put on art and on human life’. Unfortunately I've not seen it, but I can imagine that from what he said.

I mention this because one of the side affects of Digital Britain, if not applied carefully, might be a lessening of the human connection, rather than a burgeoning of individual and collective possibilities. This not just because we’ll be sat twiddling with our phones with earphones in rather than talking to each other, but because of the centrality of commodification to the thinking.

This most visibily (or even understandably) manifests itself in discussion of downloads and piracy. I'm always a little ambivalent personally about the piracy theme - I can remember home taping killing the music industry, and even have some of the weapons in the attic. (I mean cassettes of albums borrowed from friends.) The 'lost income' figures always seem very notional, for instance. A couple of years I heard a very impressive and challenging speech from Sunil Abraham of Mahiti in India, who basically suggested this piracy/protection issue was a very Western imposition which resisted the fundamental and healthy human urge to share as well as own.

I've some sympathy with that. If my son borrows one of my cds and puts a copy on his i-pod, it just doesn't feel as if he'd gone next door and stolen a cd, no matter what the music industry say. (Not that my neighbour Eric has the same cds.) It feels more like borrowing a drill. (Should Eric send me down to B&Q next time I ask to use the Black & Decker?) It might be the strict position to say 'No, you can't share that cd, go buy your own,' but it also feels a little peculiar. And what's the impact on social capital of that approach?

But I do appreciate the need to create ‘monetisable products’, and the need to develop models in which any sharing increases payment to creators (you might call that professional culture, might you not?) and to protect creators from flagrant abuse, so, no, I don't share or download files online. (Apart from anything else I like records and cds too much, and Spotify takes care of the rest.)

My point is that in drawing the map of Digital Britain we shouldn’t forget the human moment of shared, human connection even digital creation can give us.

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