The Arts and the Practice of Technology

I was invited to give a keynote address to the Association of Performing Arts Service Organizations. My subject: how technology is transforming the relationships between artists, audiences, and arts institutions. The transcript follows.

I need to start my talk by asking what I think is a very important foundational question: what do we think technology IS? Because I think we all get it completely wrong.

The first big mistake we make is that we tend to think of technology in concrete terms. We think of it as a collection of material things. Objects, mostly made of molded plastic and advanced alloys and micro-engineered components. Newfangled gadgets made in labs or factories by engineers and scientists. The iPhone 6; 3D printers; DNA sequencers; the Large Hadron Collider: that’s what we all think of.

But the root of the word technology is techne, which happens to be the Greek word for art. And the whole word, with the -ology at the end, means “the study of art.” Technology is a practice, not a product. Not a thing. It’s the practice of examination and experimentation and artisanship. The things we think of as technology are only evidence of the practice.

I like to think of technology as a way of both seeing the world and being in the world. As a philosophy. To be a technologist, you need to examine things, understand how they operate, and create ways to make them operate differently. It’s as simple as that. And in that sense, I consider everything I do as both an artist and as an arts administrator to be completely technological.

The second mistake we make is that we equate technology, at some level, with science fiction more than with science. We think about technology as the future arriving on our doorsteps at the present moment and changing our lives. Stem cell therapies for incurable diseases. Wearable fitness trackers to record our exercise levels and sleep quality. Cars that drive themselves. Watches that transmit video Dick Tracy-style via satellite uplinks. Stuff we almost can’t believe actually exists.

(You know, I hope that Dick Tracy reference doesn’t throw anybody. For those of you who aren’t at least my age, Dick Tracy was this comic strip that predicted people would use FaceTime on an Apple Watch way back in 1964, a full five decades before the Apple Watch even existed. And no, Apple Watches don’t come with FaceTime YET, but we all KNOW they will, right? Just give it another few years.)

We only think of new things as technology. A smart phone integrated via Bluetooth with an electric car? Yes, that’s definitely technology. How about a flip phone? The kind maybe your grandma still uses? Maybe. Sort of. Old technology. But how about a rotary dial telephone, circa 1975? You know: the kind you had to dial by sticking your finger into a hole on this big plastic circle and spinning it? You can only buy those now in antique stores. They’re novelty items, right? Not technology.

At one time, rotary dial telephones were technology: high technology, in fact. They were brand new, and they blew people away. A man named Almon Brown Strowger noticed that the operators running switch boards weren’t always directing call traffic fairly — some people’s calls got prioritized over others — so he decided to invent a system by which callers could direct their own calls. He took control away from a centralized switchboard and put it in the hands of individuals. It was a simple but clearly revolutionary act of creativity. That’s technology.

A simple but clearly revolutionary act of creativity.

But here’s the truth: really, everything is technology. Every single invention in human history, no matter how old it is. Bread is technology for transforming wheat into digestible nutrients. Shoes are technology for protecting feet. Surgery is technology for fixing the body.

And every single iota of human culture is technology, too. Democracy is technology for organizing citizens. Language is technology for communicating thoughts and feelings. A museum is technology for controlling how humans and art objects interact. The Association of Performing Arts Service Organizations is technology. Conferences. Keynote speeches. They are all technology.

So that’s my definition: technology is a practice, not a product, and it’s resulted in every single development throughout all of human history. Right down to this very sentence.

Now… I love to ask people a question about technology as it relates to the performing arts. I ask people which important technological development they think has had the most profound impact on the nature of performance.

A lot of people immediately suggest electric lighting, which has really led to a major transformation throughout human existence. We sleep differently because of it; we’re active late into the evenings in ways we never were even 150 years ago, which means that more people are experiencing performances at night than they used to. And of course electric lights have also helped us change the very nature of performance, too. Lights have actually become part of the art we make. That’s why we now have lighting designers. So you could make that argument.

Others, meanwhile, have suggested that Thespis, the ancient Greek, stepping out of the chorus and for the very first time in history portraying a character, rather than speaking as himself, was a critical technological development, and I agree. It was huge. I mean, this is a change that altered the very nature of performance. The whole structure and psychology of art was forever different. So you could definitely make that argument, too.

But I happen to think that the most significant technological development in the history of the performing arts was actually… the invention and propagation of the internet. The internet has changed everything from how we learn about and buy tickets to performances to how we collaborate and create performances. It’s affected how audiences attend the arts, how artists make art, and how institutions produce art. A significant percentage of everything we do has been greatly transformed in the last 15 years because of it.

Let me say that again: a significant percentage of everything we do has been greatly transformed in the last 15 years. Because of the internet.

More importantly, though, the internet has overhauled the governing metaphors by which art is defined, created, and engaged with. This is old news by now for a lot of us, but let’s just rehash it a bit so that we all get on the same page.

Before the internet, we all thought of art as a one-way phenomenon: there were creators and there were consumers. True or not, that’s what we thought. Now, though, the means of cultural production have been democratized, and art is becoming, in all genres, a many-to-many phenomenon. Anyone can make it, and everyone does, and we all still engage with it, too. We’ve lost what was always probably an artificial distinction between artist and audience member. There’s no bright line any more separating those two groups.

At the same time, lots of things have changed for audience members, too. There’s less of an expectation of passivity than there’s ever been. Command performances are no longer the purview of royalty; anyone anywhere can access art on demand in about ten thousand different ways. Social media platforms offer direct access to artists in a completely new way and on more interactive terms. Audience members are more clearly co-creators than they have ever been before.

And between artists and audiences, of course, there are arts institutions. Before the internet age, they all acted like curators, trying to present these monolithic (and all-too-often monochromatic, homogenous, male, heteronormative, gender normative) visions of “good art” to the world. Arts institutions sat up on top of a mountain, metaphorically, and reached down one side to select artists to lift up into the castle and perform. (Of course, ONLY the artists with the right credentials.) And then they unfurled this ladder down the other side of the mountain and said to audience members “If you can climb this, and you bring enough gold pieces, we’ll let you in, too. Though you have to sit still when you get in here and behave yourselves.”

But now, more and more arts institutions are re-defining themselves not as castles on mountaintops, but as platforms. They are focusing on service, rather than curation. (Or in addition to curation.) The most forward-thinking ones are, anyway. The internet lets them engage audience members, rather than marketing to them. The internet lets us provide artists with opportunities and possibilities, rather than making them submit.

The relationships between artists, audiences, and institutions are changing because of the internet and everything the internet has transformed, not only in the world, but in our worldview.

But that’s what technology does: it defines and redefines relationships. That’s why it matters SO MUCH that we get technology right.

Think for a second about a handgun. A handgun is technology that prescribes only two kinds of relationships between human beings: violence (when the technology is used) or coercion (when the technology is threatened to be used). There’s no other exchange two people are meant to have with a handgun. In other words, like the NRA says, guns don’t kill people. But they do, very much, prescribe killing. That’s why when we argue about handgun laws, we’re not actually arguing about the technology itself: what we’re really trying to do is define who gets to use that technology to create those kinds of violent or coercive relationships. Those who want tough laws want fewer people to be able to create them, and those who want loose laws want more people to be able to create them.

The same thing is true about nuclear reactors. About wire taps. About GMOs. About Net Neutrality. About Spotify. And again, this isn’t just about things we readily identify as technology; it’s about culture, too. What kind of relationships do we get from the technology of corporate campaign financing? Or Voter ID laws? Or vaccine regulations?

So… I want to talk about a few examples of the ways in which new technologies are redefining relationships in the performing arts. Some of these are well-known, and some are obscure, but they’re all reality important, I think, to what we do and to the people we serve.

Example number one is pretty obvious: electronic ticket purchases. Have you ever stopped to think about what an astonishing thing we’ve experienced? What a complete and total transformation the technology for procuring entry to a performance has undergone?

Imagine you were a patron attending Ford’s Theatre the night Lincoln was assassinated. Here’s the technology you would have used to procure entry to Ford’s that evening. You would have gone, physically, to the box office at the theater; exchanged pleasantries with a person you might very well have been familiar with; handed that person hard currency; and then been handed a printed ticket in exchange. It was a deeply inconvenient experience in several different ways, but at the same time, it was also a very human one. It was tactile: you held things in your hands. It was resonant: you connected with another human being, even if only briefly. More than money was exchanged: you made a kind of meaning together. The act was as much a ritual, a small one, as it was a financial transaction.

To procure entry into Ford’s Theatre today, you can slide a small rectangle of plastic, glass, and metal out of your pocket anywhere and at any time; visit the Ford’s Theatre website; pick a date on a digital calendar; enter a credit card number; and then wait for an email with a PDF of your tickets. If you’re lucky, you can even select your seats, all without leaving your bedroom or the back seat of your taxi or the line at the grocery store. Wherever you happen to be, you can do. Whenever you like. It’s immensely convenient, but it’s largely dehumanized. It’s almost entirely a financial transaction. All sense of ritual is gone.

Now let me be perfectly clear: I am NOT saying we need to go back to the days of in-person ticket purchases. I’m not advocating that we give up the gains we’ve made in added convenience. And I’m certainly not anti-technology. I’m just saying we need to look at the relationships we’ve prescribed with electronic ticketing and ask ourselves what we’ve really done. Have we helped to create the relationships we wanted to create? If not, is there any way we can re-humanize the technology? And yes, as a matter of fact, there are several ways. One humble (but very real) starting place is to make sure there’s a picture of a real human face — not stock photography, mind you, but a real person who actually works at your venue — on every single ticket purchase page of your website. A number of studies have shown that a simple thing like that can psychologically transform the ticket buying experience.

But more importantly, we need to think about the relationships we want to create BEFORE we develop new technology. We can’t just use what I call the “Wouldn’t it be neat if” impulse to inspire our technology practice. You know, that urge we all have to say “Wouldn’t it be neat if an artist in my community could such-and-such” or “Wouldn’t it be neat if the arts organizations I serve could actually do this-and-that.” We have to start by looking at the relationships in our communities and thinking about how we can make them healthier.

Here’s another example that’s particularly close to my heart: the New Play Exchange. For those who don’t know it, the New Play Exchange is a database of new plays designed for the common good of the entire new play sector worldwide. Artists create profiles, upload scripts, and tag those scripts with all sorts of metadata, from genre to cast size to subject matter keywords. And producers can then use all those metadata to sort through the database and find exactly the material they’re looking for.

When we designed the New Play Exchange — which was built by the National New Play Network, a nationwide theater service organization, and a consortium of artist-centric non-profits — we didn’t set out to just build a database because we thought it would be cool. We set out to overhaul the relationships between artists and arts organizations that are established by the submission process, which requires artists to try to slither their way into institutions, waving their credentials to try to bribe the guards and gatekeepers. Submission technology, as we call it, prescribes an inherently unequal relationship between artists and institutions. And we wanted to create new relationship possibilities.

So… instead of artists submitting their work to institutions, they can now upload it to the New Play Exchange, which is kind of a neutral third-party space. And instead of accepting submissions, passively, theaters now go looking for it, actively, in that same neutral third-party space. When we built the New Play Exchange, we built a platform that would prescribe a far more egalitarian relationship between artists and institutions than ever before. We replaced submissions technology with technology for sharing and discovery.

Here’s a third example: Space Finder. This is a project led by Fractured Atlas. The concept, with which you might be familiar, is simple: it’s a database of available performance/rehearsal/work/meeting spaces, available to everyone in a community who might need it. This is, no doubt, ample evidence of the healthy practice of technology at work.

Think about how an artist used to find, for example, a space in which to hold auditions before the advent of Space Finder. What an artist did, pretty much, was ask around. Make a few phone calls. Send some emails. Talk to people. Maybe it worked, maybe it didn’t, but it rarely worked well, and the whole process was fraught with anxiety. Did I pay too much? Have I really explored all the options? Is this person I’m getting space from dealing with me honestly and transparently? Ugh. It was bad technology.

And meanwhile, the organization with space to rent probably had un-used inventory, despite a clear need for space in the community, and no clear way to market that inventory, except maybe for a probably hard-to-find page on the organization’s website.

And then Space Finder launched and completely transformed this imperfect, opaque, catch-as-catch-can relationship between artists and institutions into a transparent, efficient meeting-of-needs. Excellent work by an excellent performing arts service organization.

How do we all do similar work in our communities for our own constituents? What does the practice of technology actually look like?

It begins with examination. Where are the broken relationships in your community? How have those relationships become encoded in bad technology? How might renewed, re-imagined, and reinvigorated relationships help your community prosper?

Next, remember that if you’re going to build a new solution to transform those relationships, you can’t just focus on one party. It’s like with bickering children: you can’t just tell one child to be quiet and let the other one go on poking or teasing or using bad names. You have to build a new experience that works for them both. A database in which writers could put new plays, for example, would be useless to producers without a set of really good search tools, too.

And you can’t just say “This relationship is broken. We need to build a new one.” You need to understand why it’s broken. Maybe the parties involved in the relationship need different ways to relate with one another, but maybe there are environmental factors affecting the relationship, too. All the recent uproar about Actors’ Equity in Los Angeles, for example, is really a technological debate about how to repair the relationship between actors and their union and producers of theater. But all the parties involved in trying to build a new contract need to understand that the state of the American economy at large is a significant factor that cannot be ignored.

But the most important key to a sound technology practice is empathy. When you build things, you absolutely have to begin by thinking about real people and their real desires and needs. As an example of where that didn’t happen, I might call your attention to the New Play Map, developed and maintained by the good people at Arts Emerson, who wanted to help theater makers overcome the perception of scarcity in the new play sector by creating this giant digital map on which artists and producers could “pin” their productions of new plays. Their hope was that people everywhere would take time to figure out how add their productions to the map, and that if everyone did their tiny little part, the map would be FULL, and it would reveal the genuine abundance of the new play sector.

But do you know what both artists and producers don’t want to be? A small dot on a really dense map. In fact, what they actually want is to be a really huge dot on an otherwise empty map. The technology didn’t actually correspond to their desires, and it wasn’t about their relationships at all. That, if you ask me, is why it never quite took off.

To the extent that you and your organizations are ready to practice technology with the organizations you serve — to build stuff, either for them or with them (and with them is almost always better) — you absolutely can’t gear your practice around their organizational needs. You have to have actual human beings in mind. The things they care about. The tasks they want to accomplish on any given day. And, yes, their relationships.

Which brings me back, at last, to the age of the internet, or perhaps more accurately to the age of networks and networked information, which is the age in which we’re all living. To the extent that you’re serving the performing arts through the application of technology, you really need to be inspired by the new ways in which artists, audiences, and arts institutions are beginning to relate to each other. There’s an enormous culture shift going on, and you’re much better off being part of it, I promise you, than trying to fight it.

So what does that mean? For starters, it means trying to find ways to make the relationships between artists and arts organizations more egalitarian.

To do that, you have to start conceiving of arts organizations not as fixed, impenetrable institutions but as networks of individuals. Networks that grow and change and evolve all the time as new artists join their ranks and then move on to other projects. You have to understand that an artist actively working with an organization has one kind of network connection, an artist who wants to work with that organization has another kind of connection and that no matter what, everyone’s already connected.

Which is a tough one to wrap your head around, so I’ll say it again: if you’re an artist, whether you’re inside or outside an organization in a traditional sense, you’re already connected to that organization. If you’re an individual artists working in an arts organization, you’re connected not only to your co-workers, and not only to the artists who are performing in your arts organization, but to artists you have yet to work with, too, simply by virtue of their desire to work with you or yours to work with them. The desire creates the network. And we need better technology to support that network. The New Play Exchange is one example. We need more.

You also need to start paying attention to the networks that connect audiences and performing arts organizations. If we stop thinking of patrons as customers, and start thinking of them as nodes in a peer network, we’ll realize how badly we’ve been short-changing them. I mean, we’ve trained them for so long to think of themselves as passive recipients of culture, or as people who trade money for performance, it’s not surprising that it’s taking them a while to warm back up to us now that we’re trying to deepen our connections with them.

But deeper is where we’re going, and getting there means thinking of them as part of us. And if they’re part of us, that means they get to create the rules of the network with us sometimes. So our technology practice needs to focus on letting them design their own artistic experiences. And on helping arts organizations see their full humanity, not just their season subscription histories. We have to build technology that helps people belong. The New York branch of the Neo-Futurists, for example, invites audience members to create 140-character “plays” via Twitter and then shares them all. They literally invite audience members into their digital performance space. That’s one small example of many, but it’s really important. And we need many more just like that.

Let’s get to it! Shall we?

7 thoughts on “The Arts and the Practice of Technology”

  1. Hi Gwydion,

    Thank you for this thoughtful (and actionable) framing of the practice of technology. I’m honored to have you highlight SpaceFinder, Fractured Atlas’ web application which I’ve been Product Manager of since 2012, as a healthy practice of technology.

    I often think about what barriers we are removing, and what incentives we offer (to both venue and renters) – we aimed to replace venue directory technology with technology for discovery and up-to-date inventory of available space.

    However it is interesting to consider the rationalizing of a marketplace strictly from the perspective of what relationships we are changing. Juicy food for thought as we move forward with expanding this technology to cultural hubs throughout North America.

    Lisa Niedermeyer
    Fractured Atlas

    1. Thank you, Lisa, for weighing in.

      I continue to feel as if the relationship perspective is under-valued in the practice of technology.We’re so painfully individualistic — we want technology that helps US do what WE want to do (usually better or more cheaply) — and we fail to think about others.

      We think (and talk) endlessly about users, but not enough about systems. (I’m tempted to say this is in large part because technologists are mostly male, but perhaps I shouldn’t go there.) Time for that to change, I think…

      Best of luck with SpaceFinder! May it go national (or even international) with all success!

      1. Indeed, systems is likely the only discussion worth having going forward. The performing arts is being forced to enter the vastly larger ENTERTAINMENT ecosystem, despite fervent denials that art is or can be a form of entertainment (as long as there’s more cash within the arts ecosystem). Yet arts orgs that grow new arms to extend into the community to plant entertaining, informative and interactive SEEDS of practical value, will likely build better relationships than ones that stubbornly remain art-centric in their outreach. Getting REAL does not have to mean dumbing down: it’s simply another way to make sure art truly matters. The other system to consider ourselves part of is community service organizations.
        Great talk! Am sharing.

  2. To your point about obsession with users (growth hacking) and not with systems (hacking relationships in new ways), I agree with you that largely comes from the infamous (thanks to South Park) start up technology pattern of:

    start up
    cash in
    sell out
    bro down

    To your point about international, I’m pleased to let you know we did a beta launch of SpaceFinder in Toronto in Nov 2014, which has been very successful and will be leveraging that to expand further into Canada. It is the first Fractured Atlas program to serve communities outside of the U.S.

    We’ve fielded interest from artist communities as far as Russia on SpaceFinder, time will tell.

    Again, thanks for thoughtful framing.


    1. Great news about SpaceFinder! Best of luck.

      I’d like to imagine a new technology pattern:



  3. Fantastic article on this important time in history. I really appreciated you painting the picture of the ‘dehumanization’ potential in technology and on getting back to the roots of how we should be using it to further enhance the unique human connection of a musical experience.

    I’d love to see you speak further on the topic of how you think we can effectively allow the natural human desire to communicate about what we are seeing (i.e. in a concert) and socialize it, while still respecting the ambience and experience. I’ve seen some very unique new practices like mini-intermissions that allow tweet breaks, and even allowing pictures to be taken during a concert. There may be an opportunity for the younger generations to be attracted to the arts if they were able to communicate in the way they are accustomed as well. Thoughts?

    Sharing this now!!

    Kari Metzger
    Online Performing Arts Management Tools

    1. Thanks for your kind words AND for sharing!

      To be honest, I’m not sure that “respecting the ambiance and experience” is going to be possible while still giving space for the human desire to communicate… at least not until we have chips embedded in our brains. I think we’re going to have to think of ourselves as peace negotiators between the competing impulses of artists and artistic visions and audiences and audience desires. Even mini-intermissions and tweet breaks and in-concert picture opportunities are mediations of that sort… and my intuition is that more are coming all the time.

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