Watching the Mercury Prize this year was a holiday from two years of despair handed from the old to the young via Brexit and Trump. Here was a shortlist brimming with fresh, motivated young talent who all appeared to be a ringing endorsement for the role of technology in providing access and opportunity.
The shortlisted artist known as Loyle Carner didn’t even own a computer until recently, but his debut was recorded in a series of bedrooms where he at least had access to one. And, as the techno utopians would have it, that has given him access to a global audience. His mum (Jean, according to the T-shirt he wore at the awards, below) will be very proud.
Across the board at the Mercuries we saw young people dealing with the world they’ve got, not bemoaning the one 40-year-olds are missing. They are are content to spread their message through social media and waste little time freaking out, like I do, that Donald Trump and Brexit were delivered with a bow on top because our news is now so connected to rewards offered by Facebook, selected for what is seductive and addictive, not informative or helpful.
So, the kids are alright. The kids might save us from our parents, whose selfish baby-boomer ways have given us climate change and a fucked-up housing market. But will Jean be able to move to a bigger house now? Unlikely, because despite the commercial lift the Mercury will give her son, these days the winner takes all, and the winner isn’t Carner, or even Sampha, whose album Process took the prize this year; it’s Spotify or Google or Apple or maybe Adele, Ed Sheeran and Taylor Swift.
Dreaming in neutral
As with all industries, creative or otherwise, technology makes it easier than ever to enter but harder to make money once you get there. Technology shrinks the industries it enters and siphons off the remaining cash to killer apps and the VCs who fund them.
Take my own corner of the creative industry – 20 years ago, advertising supported thousands of agencies and media owners as well as the holding companies. Now ad revenue has fallen significantly. Holding companies face massive headwinds as much of the revenue goes to Google and Facebook, there are fewer scaled businesses left to buy and the consultancies are muscling in.
Technology acts like a warming ocean, bleaching a once-thriving advertising reef. But that’s not the full picture. The scrutiny of social media appears to be making the creative industries more diverse. Minority and female voices are given greater volume. Organisations such as Creative Equals are raising standards across the board, bringing in perspectives that are more reflective of the world outside adland.
The technology of an era has always defined and shaped its creative output. The printing press unleashed revolutionary ideas and shaped the world we know today. The seven-inch single defined the pop song, with LPs came longer tracks and different artists. With technological disruption some formats die, but podcasts saved radio where some thought they’d kill it. Perhaps no technology ever completely dies. Except maybe 8-track and Betamax, because they were shit.
As creatives, we must both work within and push the boundaries we’re given. Many creatives decry the short format of Facebook video ads. For me, they’re the posters of our era, a fertile place for a disciplined use of creativity.
The technological big picture is complex. Technology culture is shaping a future where human agency is removed in the name of efficiency, and efficiency is rarely the goal of creativity. Serendipity fuels invention. Dreaming, with your brain in neutral, leads to epiphanies. Boredom is the fuel of the creative and mischievous child. The efficiency narrative of modern technology asks us to make use of every moment of the day. We are afraid of leaving our brains unoccupied for a second. There are, according to Facebook, about 100 metres of content for us to scroll through every day.
This is maybe the greatest danger of all. Once we’re addicted to the instant gratification of our feed, all that time that could be spent on our novel/film/revolutionary business idea, is spent writing witty comments on other people’s stuff.
So we are now at a point in history where it’s crucial that creative people question the world that’s coming. Efficiency ought not be the only god. If we challenge it now, we can have a future where technology makes us more powerful and more creative and more interesting.
If we don’t, a sterile future as consumption zombies awaits.