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Yearning for experience

Welcome to the post-digital world, an exhilarating return to civility – via Facebook and Lady Gaga

Where is your post-digital presence? What is on your techno-horizon? Don&;t tell me you are still putting e- and i- in front of your product or talking "platforms", like some noughties nerd. That is so yesterday.

Ever since I was spectacularly wrong about the internet I have fought shy of futurology. I cringe to recall that in the mid-90s I dismissed it as a technological flash in the pan, like the fax and citizen-band radio. I said it would be of use chiefly to pornographers and lawyers, and "unlikely to have widespread application". As for threatening books or newspapers, that was ridiculous.

This was all before the dotcom boom and 3G. I had yet to surf silicon valley or move beyond a "word processor". This time I shall not make the same mistake. A week in California and a finger in the recessionary wind has shown me where the smart money is moving. It is from online towards "live experience".

The example of the music business is already well-known. Earnings from recordings have been plummeting for a decade, while from live they are rising ever faster. Warner Brothers release albums free online to publicise forthcoming concerts. In Britain HMV is closing 40 shops while tickets for a Rihanna concert can cost £330, and for Coldplay £180. A seat for Madonna is more expensive than her entire recorded output. A top American performer would reckon to earn between 80% and 90% of revenue from live performance. In the US alone, touring revenue that grossed $1bn in 1995 rose to $4.6bn last year. The big money, goes the catchphrase, "is now at the gate". Nor is this just a youth phenomenon. On the American music circuit, 96% of singers were reportedly over 40 and almost half were over 60.

The potency of experience extends far beyond the realm of music. The upsurge in live comedy began in the mid-90s with tours by Robert Newman and David Baddiel, but now has Michael McIntyre and others appearing weekly, with back-up teams that would staff a circus. Performers such as Stephen Fry have taken to reading their books in public, Dickens-style, and simulcasting to hundreds of local cinemas. Close to a million people worldwide watch the Met Opera live in cinemas.

The most carefully researched audience activity, American politics, has swung from advertising and staged events to the archaic political form of active debate. The Republican primary campaign has seen 23 debates, winning unprecedented television audiences of 5-6 million. The public seems to crave the authenticity and unpredictability of "reality politics", with political meetings crammed to bursting. This is why Tony Blair can (or could) charge £100,000 for a speech "in the flesh". It is why lectures and debates are the smartest evenings in town, and why venues such as the Royal Society of Arts and the RGS are booked solid – inconceivable 20 years ago.

The related cult of authenticity sees museums and galleries doubling attendances over the past decade. Visits to charging museums, such as the Louvre and New York&;s Metropolitan, are growing every bit as fast as the non-charging British Museum and National Gallery. The RSC and the National Theatre now play to over 90% capacity. Even humble authors find appearances at literary festivals (those that pay) can compensate for dwindling book advances and, in the case of poets, eroding copyrights.

The new magnetism of congregation seems universal. Every online service or forum promotes an event, an invitation, a club night, something for which subscribers will pay, much as online dating points towards a meeting. Demonstrators are never content with online but want to "seize back the streets". Religious sites plead for church attendance. Courses plead for students to go to colleges. Never have coffee bars been more popular, with Starbucks this week announcing another 300 with 5,000 staff to be employed. Anything for a bit of buzz.

There are as many theories as there are pundits on what this means. It is possible that people who spend all day online yearn to escape a screen at evenings and weekends, which explains why television has lost its pull. The silicon valley guru, Nicholas Carr, has written of the "shallowing" of the brain under the influence of too much computing, as we evolve from being "cultivators of personal knowledge to being hunter/gatherers in the electronic forest". Some therapists are even advising slow computer apps, to stop mental burn-out. The urbanist William Mitchell&;s Etopia ponders the "different grades of presence" that the internet offers, but concludes that a yearning for location and experience characterises even the online city. Ultimately "we want to be where it is" in person.

A mild sensation was created this summer by the revelation that Google, Apple and Yahoo executives were sending their children to California&;s Waldorf schools, where computers are banned. The masters of the e-universe appear convinced that computers "reduce attention spans and inhibit creative thinking, movement and human interaction". Classes have reverted to using blackboards, chalk, pens, paper, books and even teachers.

Post-digital is not anti-digital. It extends digital into the beyond. The web becomes not a destination in itself but a route map to somewhere real. In Marshall McLuhan&;s terminology, it is cold where live is hot. This is why concerts did not die with the invention of records, but thrived on the difference. The screen relieves loneliness, as once did letters and phones, but it remains a window on the world, not a door. You cannot download the thunderous beat and sweaty presence of thousands at a Lady Gaga concert, any more than you can make love on Facebook, much as some try. You have to go somewhere for it to happen.

I find this return to civility exhilarating not from any animus against technology. I do not buy Carr&;s thesis that the internet is somehow scrambling our brains, that we are losing the ability to read long sentences or handle complex information critically. Too much staring at screens may be bad for eyes and backs, as neurotic fiddling with iPhones is rude to present company, but the web has been by far the most rewarding innovation of my lifetime.

Futurology is a mug&;s game. The Economist, surveying "e-entertainment" back in 2000, concluded that for music "the internet will be a hugely important source of revenue", but that its impact on books, movies and television would be "peripheral". It added that "big cheeses of the entertainment industry will quietly and collectively breathe a sigh of relief, because they never liked or understood the internet anyway". All proved wrong.

Online services have found it hard to "monetise" their visits. Most offer nothing but free information and waste millions of man hours garnering unremunerative hits, whereas live uses the web to market and charge for a destination. As consumer spending evolves from "needs to wants", from goods to experiences, the post-digital age focuses on personal contact. Post-digital is not pre-techno but exploits technology for a civilising purpose, human congregation and intercourse. The money is at the gate. This must be good news.  Thursday 1 December 2011


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