It’s the morning of May 7th and the week of back-to-back seminars, briefings and brainstorms continued, with one of the Southbank Centre’s famous “think-ins”, one aimed at launching the SBC’s Web We Want Festival – slated for this autumn, the Centre’s contribution to a year of activity led by Tim Berners-Lee’s World Wide Web Foundation.

The morning was kicked off by the Southbank’s Artistic Director, Jude Kelly, who discussed the centre’s genesis in the deprived years of the post-War period, as part of the Festival of Britain. Thinkers then had called for a “propaganda of the imagination”, and Kelly has sought to build on this legacy with a series of festivals dedicating to exploring given themes in real depth; they’ve included Women of the World, Being a Man and Alchemy.

The Web We Want would start from the question: “how do we care for the web, as we do (or should) for the planet?” Kelly also set out her stall by saying that she wanted the festival to take into account the reality of the continuing digital divide in the UK and the fact that the tech space was still quite so heavily dominated by men. The morning was intended to bring together people from a wide range of disciplines to help develop the festival’s content, but before we got to that, we had a real treat: Kelly in conversation with Sir Tim Berners-Lee himself, whom I’m assuming needs no introduction here.

Sir Tim covered a lot of ground both in his talk with Kelly and in response to questions from the floor, so I’ll just jot some headlines down:

  • He echoed Kelly’s remarks about the lack of women in the tech community and encouraged more girls to be geeks.
  • The web had begun as an unmonitored phenomenon (John Perry Barlow’s “hippy commune”) but business and government had encroached more and more on that until perhaps that encroachment’s apotheosis: Mubarak’s turning off Egypt’s Internet access.
  • Corporate business had deliberately obfuscated the issues around Net Neutrality in a deliberate, coordinated “push back” against it.
  • The World Wide Web Foundation was set up to champion issues around Internet Freedom and was looking to create a “Magna Carta” for the web.
  • Good work was already going on in the area in Brazil, led by President Dilma Rousseff herself.
  • Meanwhile the EU is doing good work, led by the European Commissioner for Digital Agenda Neelie Kroes.
  • Other countries doing encouraging work included Estonia and Kenya.
  • The WWWF will build on this work with pilot schemes in a range of countries including Brazil, Nigeria and Ecuador.
  • The UK is very much a mixed bag. There’s good stuff going on with publically available data (he cited TfL’s great success in driving efficiency through its publication of APIs – an alternative to trying to “build everything itself”). But the public are wrong to trust the government in terms of privacy, with GCHQ being “the hand maiden of the NSA”.
  • He acknowledged that society always needed to balance privacy and security but that the law as it stands “offline” should be the basis for the security services’ activity online.
  • Similarly, the balance between the right to privacy and its abuse in the form of trolling is a tricky one to negotiate.
  • There was also some discussion about advertising and the fact that “attention is gold” – and everyone is after ours.

Perhaps the most moving moment of the morning – certainly the one that got a spontaneous round of applause – came during the Q&A, when a young schoolgirl made an eloquent attack on the impact social media was having on articulacy. That once we “ran out of hashtags”, what would we be able to express? Quite.

And I’ve really just scratched the service here; it was a very full morning.

I’d like to close with a couple of my own observations. And I stress my own.

Web-native art – I thought, given that this was an event hosted by the SC, that there might have been some discussion about what kind of arts might develop that are in some way native to the web, or to digital generally. I’m thinking here partially about James Bridle’s New Aesthetic, but also about interactive art in general. It strikes me as somewhat ironic that the most immersive or interactive art I’ve experienced over the last year has been in the field of (relatively) traditional theatre: Punchdrunk’s Drowned Man and Theatre Delicatessen’s Spaced.

Communities of practice – It seems to me that one of the great achievements of the web has been to bring niche communities of practice together across international borders, communities that could not have existed previously in any meaningful way. I’ve seen just how widespread, diverse and passionate this phenomenon is in communities built on three very different areas of activity that are close to my own heart: paleo health (Marks Daily Apple), contemplation practice (Buddhist Geeks) and, of course, extreme metal guitar (SevenString.Org). How can these kinds of communities in the arts world re-shape artistic practice?

The future of the content industries – I’ve said it til I’m blue in the face, but the content industries’ future needs to be where it always has been: in scarcity (that’s just basic economics). But the nature of that scarcity has changed profoundly with the un-coupling of content and artefact. Someone in the audience raised the issue of artists being rewarded for their work. Fair enough, but no-one can agree what that work is worth, least not in the digital realm, and that’s because there simply is no inherent commercial value in creative practice. That commercial value arises from, again, simple economic circumstances, and again, scarcity is surely the chief one. If that scarcity isn’t in the form of artefact (yes, the vinyl boom is great but you’re having yourself on if you think it’s going to preserve the kind of record industry we had in the 90s) then it surely has to be in experience. So what new kinds of “scarce” artistic experience can be created in the realm of the digital?

Simon

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