Thursday, February 2, 2017

Simon Jenkins - We’re over the digital revolution. This is the age of experience

Stepping outside the bubble of gloom this week I noticed something surreal. Kodak was reviving its Ektachrome film range to meet a surging demand for high-end traditional film. Was this the same Kodak, I wondered, that went bankrupt in 2012 after 47,000 job losses, a moment hailed by seers as when the digital revolution finally came of age? It now appeared that users had found traditional film something unimaginable to those seers – something called “better”.

Other straws drifted past me in the wind. Sales of old-fashioned vinyl records have soared to a 25-year peak, requiring more factory reopenings. Printed books are also recovering, with ebook readers disappearing from bookshop shelves. Knitting clubs are all the rage, along with gin cocktails and ballroom dancing. To get a seat on most steam trains, you must book in advance. Even canals are running out of moorings. As for live performances of any sort, they are so lucrative that the big profits now lie with the ticketing moguls and touts.

Only fools would deny digital its recent and astonishing history, but that is different from how people feel about it. Many, I sense, have become exhausted by the sheer relentlessness of the digital revolution, by its endless boasts and by dark clouds on the horizon. References to the internet are now dominated by hackers, viruses, trolls, paedophiles, fake news and cyberwar. I am told most job openings for IT graduates are in gaming, betting and in protecting computers from each other. An early sceptic, the technology writer Evgeny Morozov, warned of the internet’s dangerous rejection of morality. Algorithms might proliferate as chips grew ever more powerful, but issues of good and evil were dismissed, as if the great god maths validated all. Witness last year’s first response of Facebook and Google to the fake news scandal. They said, in effect, that ethics was not their business.

The internet has come to look less like an engine of some new personal freedom and more like the same monopolistic anarchy that drove the railway barons in the 19th century. That earlier revolution was similarly disruptive, socially and economically. It proffered fast communication in place of slow. It rode roughshod over privacy. It upset social relationships, destroyed communities and empowered the state. The railway was a boon, but it was also noisy, dangerous and ugly.

Celebrities such as John Ruskin and William Wordsworth excoriated the revolution. Others retreated into retro. They built local stations to look like country cottages. Euston was a Greek temple and St Pancras a Flemish town hall. Rampant modernisation fuelled an opposing culture. New churches had to be medieval in style, novels gothic and art pre-Raphaelite. The natural human response was protective, to block out the big, bad, black-as-soot railway. As revolutions settle down, they usually require a process of adjustment. In time the railway was regulated and its image softened. Similarly, we are now trying to discern what matters online, what is good and what is not. I like online shopping but fear online banking. I use the gig economy, yet am nervous of it rotting what binds my neighbourhood together. I am exhilarated by artificial intelligence, but appalled by the obsession of civil servants with electronic surveillance.

The resurgence of retro technology is neither negative nor a hipster fad. My landline is simply better than my mobile, as my FM radio is better than my digital one. Photographers say that pictures printed from film are superior to digitised ones. A DJ knows that a vinyl groove holds a deeper bass line.
The sociologist Richard Sennettpointed out in his study of craftsmanship that we are programmed to do things with our hands, “to do things well for their own sake”, even if a computer could do them for us. This may embrace making music, gardening, painting, cooking and, of course, travelling. 

When many white-collar workers retire, they apparently plunge into an orgy of such activities.
I was pondering the latest horror story of how the digital future would “hollow out” employment when I came across an article on how bankers’ wives spent their husbands’ bonuses. The drift was entirely into the “experience” economy. It was into holidays, interior decorating, entertaining, bodily improvements and tutors for the children. This was not to mention the host of gardeners, personal trainers, therapists, auctioneers, lawyers, doctors and accountants ever more adept at separating “high net worth” from those who possess it.

Every penny on that list was going to labour-intensive services. Of course not everyone is married to a banker, but regular spending surveys from the Office of National Statistics chart the same move, from things to experiences. This is the new service economy on which Britain’s post-Brexit prosperity appears to depend. Digitisation has taken us past “peak stuff”. We are now heading for “post-digital”, the age of experience. It is one that employs new technology as the servant, not the master, of what is desired – as was rightly predicted by the first computing genius, Ada Lovelace, back in the 19th century. It is the new “economy of live”, from Ticketmaster to Tinder.

I find this hugely encouraging. It suggests we are able to digest a revolution without tearing ourselves apart, surely the ultimate test of a civilisation. It throws our other discontents into the shade.