Digital changing culture

I’ve been trying to summarise the ways that digital is bringing change to creativity and culture, but is also seeing countertrends or resistance. This is mostly thinking about impacts on the UK and on young people or cultural education. Please comment and tell me if I’ve missed anything, or got anything wrong. How else is digital changing the nature of arts and culture, and the ways that young people might be creating and experiencing it?  What are the real reasons for some of these countertrends, or resistance, or lagging behind innovation?

Digital formats

  • Culture is experienced in a greater variety of digital forms by audiences and consumers
  • For example, graphic novels in interactive e-books, the distribution of short free films, 3D versions of exhibitions, performances of operas on big remote screens; or art collections in game environments such as Minecraft.
  • However, cultural organisations continue to offer value in more traditional or real world experiences. Some organisations are seen to be responding very slowly to innovation, and funding cuts have reduced their capacity of digital expertise.

Audience reach

  • Culture can reach more people anywhere without them having to visit a physical venue
  • For example, there are 4.9 million visits p.a. to UK national museums but c.120 million visits to their websites[1]
  • However, it’s not clear who they are reaching. The cultural sector is not meeting targets for reaching more diverse and hard-to-reach audience groups, and it can be more difficult to track qualitative reach or social segmentation of online audiences.

New cultural forms and blurred boundaries

  • Some cultural practices are fundamentally changing because they use mainly digital tools in their creation or performance. Boundaries tend to be more blurred between artforms when this is the case, and new forms are emerging.
  • For example, 3D sculptures can now be ‘built’ and experienced within virtual reality, raising questions about whether this is sculpture or digital art, both, or something else entirely.
  • However, some of these cultural forms are still rather exclusive or experimental, mostly reaching early adopters and peer practitioners. Cultural venues are not all adapting to programme and commission such forms as a matter of course, or for popular audiences.

New materials

  • Digital is accelerating other technological advances, opening up opportunities to test and create new materials, which is starting to impact on crafts and the potential for manufacturing industries.
  • For example, clothing or accessories can be manufactured from mushrooms, or be embedded with smart fibres that respond to temperature, or emit lights to communicate emotion or health information. Maker spaces are starting to appear (e.g. in creative hubs or meanwhile spaces) that allow cross-fertilisation of materials technology, computing devices and creative arts.
  • However, because of the rigid subjects and curricula and the reduction in Design and Technology and Crafts in schools, these exciting areas of making are not very visible to young people.

Accessible creativity

  • The increased affordability of digital tools is putting ‘making’ and expression into many more people’s hands, so that active engagement in the arts, design and culture is potentially less elitist and more affordable.
  • For example, 90% of 16-24 year olds own a smartphone, using them to create video animations, to creatively edit photos, to share creative writing or lay down electronic music compositions.[2]
  • However, schools tend not to allow pupils to make creative use of their devices. There are concerns about the impacts of frequent use of devices, leading to a ‘feed me/fix me’ attitude and ‘digital distraction’. Other concerns include that young people are forming a tight peer-based echo-chamber where their exposure to cultural forms is narrowed and reduced in quality, compared to when they accessing culture in more traditional ways more monitored by adults.[3]

Diversity and internationalism

  • The networked and distributed nature of social media, the creation of digital content and interactive gaming is reducing the hardness of national borders. (In addition, the free movement of labour in the EU has made the UK creative industries more international.)
  • For example, film production teams have pockets of talent located all over the world, working remotely on aspects such as CGI, sound effects or marketing. Or, players in game environments might communicate with fellow players by learning another language (English mostly!) or using translation tools.
  • The countertrend arises not so much from digital but from socio-political forces, that are evident in resistances to migration, internationalism and cultural diversity.

A shift in contemporary culture

  • Digital-influenced cultural forms are less easily defined by the material artefacts, localised performances and unique creators that characterise pre-digital culture. Perhaps then our contemporary culture in general is becoming more performative, ephemeral, collaborative and conceptual.
  • For example, there is a trend for participatory projects where ‘smart-mobs’ create collective digital stories, or where artists use Creative Commons licensing to make their artwork open and shareable.
  • On the other hand, ‘millennials’ more highly value non-digital culture as a countertrend. (e.g. “Give us bespoke, handmade, tangible, esoteric and analog. I’m a slave to digital platforms at work and play and I want to spend my downtime away from them.” Mark Carnall)

Big global changes affecting missions of culture and technology

  • Climate change, resource insecurity and conflict, mass migrations and extinctions, will all make themselves much more felt in coming years. Businesses, charities and cultural organisations will start to focus much more on tackling the social and economic impacts of these issues, and will harness technology to do so.
  • For example, artists using technology can raise awareness of pollution. Human Sensor by artist Kasia Molga (and produced by Invisible Dust) made visible air pollution entering the lungs with special data-sensitive lit up costumes worn by dancers.
  • As a countertrend, people may want to use Virtual Reality to escape the problems of an uncertain world. A group of young people we consulted suggested that future people will use VR to time travel back the relatively unspoilt landscapes of the present day.


[1] Also, of the 85% cultural attractions that use digital marketing, they report 3% increase in visitors and 6% increase in revenue compared to those that don’t use it

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