Provocations on technology

We have now written up our research and several tools forming the Future Views toolkit. These will be edited and designed over the coming months so that they are of maximum use to people planning the future of creative learning.

Shared in this post is a sneak preview of some of our research. We looked at a range of drivers for change which will impact on creative learning and cultural offers in the future, including politics, the economy, educational reform, and culture. One key driver for change, but not the only one, is technology.

These are provocative thoughts about some challenges and opportunities in how technology is currently affecting culture and education. They can be used to stimulate discussion with colleagues and young people. What is coming in the near future? How can we make the best of it?

1. Human culture is technology

Humans are not separate from nature, but they are arguably the animal species that has had the biggest ever impact on the rest of nature. Technology, in the broadest sense, is the form of culture that most defines the human species. This age has been renamed the Anthropocene to reflect our impact on the ecosphere, mainly through technologies that have enabled us to extract and convert natural resources.

This is a critical moment in history when humans must take control of these technologies in order to regenerate the planet so that it can sustain our civilisation. This big global story is relevant to every local place.

2. Technology is crucial to future thriving

Technology in the past 10 years has been driven by consumerism, serving individuals with tools to enhance their lives, but the next 10 years will see it geared more to grand challenges, solving social and environmental problems. For example, it will help to create smart cities, new sensitive materials that adapt to our environments, improved food security and to resist terrorist attacks.

As a countertrend, people may want to use Virtual Reality to escape the problems of an uncertain world. Some young people we consulted suggested that future people will use VR to time travel back to the relatively unspoilt landscapes of the present day. Art, fashion, games and films may be geared more to increasing empathy and expression between people, providing catharsis and education in critical times.

3. Creativity is disconnected from place

Technology is a key factor in softening the boundaries of national industries and the signature characters of local cultural products. For example, social media and the cloud means we can see cultural content instantly from all over the world. People in multiplayer game environments can communicate with fellow players by learning other languages or using translation tools. Films or games can now be created by a team spread around the world, working remotely on aspects such as CGI, sound effects or marketing.

The ‘four freedoms’ of the EU have increasingly made the UK’s creative industries and cultural scenes more international. But this is poised to change if leaving the EU reduces the rich mix of talent and tolerance of cultural diversity.

Some argue that this change will end the more negative aspects of globalisation and will bring us back in touch with our communities and local ecologies. If this is the case, we need to support young people to contribute to their places with an open-minded and accepting spirit.

4. Any device, any time, any place?

Technology increasingly lets us work remotely and separately. However, places matter. The digital and creative industries are fragile or embryonic in certain places, and these industries benefit from clustering in favourable locations.

Many local economic partnerships see digital industries as key to regeneration of places. They are investing in: flexible spaces that can host micro-businesses but allow them to grow flexibly; robust technical infrastructure; proximity of networks of people with varied and advanced skills; and opportunities to respond quickly to investment and service needs.

There are two key threats to these efforts. One is new laws that restrict the open internet and the free flow of data. The other is the plan to leave the EU. This will impact negatively on our ability to leverage technological advances: Some areas of the UK will struggle to modernise their industries; digital and cultural companies will relocate out of the UK; EU talent will be less attracted to the UK; and funding and talent for Higher Education and innovation research will suffer.

It’s vital that educators and the cultural and digital industries understand, plan for and, if appropriate, resist these threats.

5. Technological unemployment

In our research, young people were concerned that future jobs might be outsourced to other countries and to technology. They talked about ‘robots’ but many realised the main issue was automation of services. The ‘sharing economy’ means it is easier for anyone to set up as an estate agent, a cab driver or money lender, while there are many fewer jobs in factories or shops. People can work in ‘slivers of time’ for anyone anywhere. Self-driving cars and delivery drones are already having an effect in the US. The potential impacts of automation include more unemployment, lower incomes and very different working patterns.

The creative industries are somewhat protected from these impacts because there is likely to be a higher premium on the ability to work with ambiguity, diversity and empathy. In addition, skills such as spatial intelligence, computer imaging and 3D drawing, developed in creative subjects, will be useful in science and technology. An Oxford Martin report that ranks 702 current jobs in terms of their likelihood to be automated, jobs in Dance are among those least likely to be affected, less than ‘proper’ jobs like lawyer and accountant.

However, these essential creative skills are under threat due to cuts and education reforms and it’s vital to advocate now for the value of cultural learning and injecting arts into technical education.

6. Many creative possibilities at our fingertips but what about the hand?

Multiple and advanced tools for making, experimenting and expressing yourself are in many more hands, so that active engagement in arts and culture is potentially less elitist and more affordable. Young people are using smartphones to create video animations, to creatively edit photos, to share creative writing or lay down electronic music compositions.

However, although fingertips are being exercised, the whole hand and the body are less involved. Crafts and Design are squeezed in schools so that young people are not mastering skills in crafting artefacts. Digital creativity is starting to be more three-dimensional with the growing affordability of VR headsets and 3D printers, and tools such as Google’s Tiltbrush. Digital is accelerating innovation across industries, opening up opportunities to test and create new materials. 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.

However, although some schools are investing in these or linking with digital businesses to let young people experience them, the squeeze on funds and creative subjects means they won’t be widely available. There are also concerns about the cognitive and emotional impacts of frequent use of devices, abstracted from embodied experience, leading to a ‘Feed me, Fix me’ attitude and ‘digital distraction’.

These inequalities and tendencies could be overcome by forming partnerships so young people can be more hands-on with digital making. Locally, educators could seek out or set up ‘Maker spaces’ that allow cross-fertilisation of materials technology, computing devices and creative arts, and encourage Arts Awards in digital creativity.

7. Young people using technology are ‘on their own’

Young people have particular technology habits, motivated by strong social and creative drives, that are not supported or maximised in schools, who tend not to allow pupils to make creative use of their own devices. In the UK, 95% of families have internet access and 90% of 16-24 year olds own a smartphone. Compared to school or college, young people at home or on their own devices, can get better access to internet strength and data, and to social sites and content.

55% of boys and 20% of girls play computer games for 2 hours a night during the week. While there is a need to address self-management of screen-time and safety risks, we are likely to see growing popularity of VR headset games, which have great potential for learning skills and emotional intelligence because you are immersed in contextual simulations. A very small number of schools are investing in cheap headsets (e.g. Google Cardboard), and museums are starting to develop VR experiences of exhibitions, historic events or sites.

Although girls play games for less time than boys, they are more prone to prolonged use of chat platforms. For both genders, so much time spent in closed chat and gaming communities is likely to lead to an increase to ‘the filter bubble’ effect where peer opinions become homogenised.

Educators can widen these limited horizons by exposing young people to diverse forms of culture, while also supporting safe use of the internet.

8. Technology is changing cultural experiences. What about cultural organisations?

While cultural organisations such as museums and theatres are still mainly valued as ‘real world’ spectacular and social experiences, technology is increasingly reforming habits of consuming culture in a personal bubble. Family members watch separate films or play games in different rooms. Commuters listen to their own playlists and podcasts rather than the ambient sounds of travel. Now that it is possible to turn your phone into a VR headset, the options will increase for self-immersion.

Some cultural forms are changing because they use mainly digital tools in their creation or performance, and new forms are emerging as discipline boundaries blur. Contemporary culture is no longer defined by the material artefacts, localised performances and unique creators that characterised culture in the past.

The danger of such a rapid shift is that demand for and investment in venue-based cultural experiences may drop. Some cultural organisations and companies are already responding by designing better, more participatory, experiences enhanced by technology. But are all cultural organisations up to the challenge?

9. Technology offers routes for self-managed enterprise

Most careers support for young people is still geared to traditional categories of employment. It is framed by thinking of a pipeline from school, to training, to being employed in a job for life. It has not caught up with how technology offers new solutions for managing one’s own life and work, in a networked way. Technology advances, along with political crises, will force a shift to a new frame of ‘individual sovereignty’ within a commons-based economy. For example, artists no longer rely on patronage or production companies but can crowdfund and market themselves. There are emerging approaches, such as Imogen Heap’s Mycelia for Music, which uses the Blockchain technology upon which Bitcoin is built, to ensure that musicians retain control of their music and its earnings.

Educators working with creative and digital partners could help young people develop skills for a self-managed but collaborative future.

10. Assistive technology will help us all

Despite advances, there is a long way to go before all cultural and creative experiences are inclusive and seamless for people with different or changing needs.

Technology offers many possibilities for enhancing creativity, cultural experience and life in general for everyone, including those with sensory, physical and cognitive challenges. For example, bio-feedback technologies developed for games and sports performance are are helping autistic users communicate and understand emotional messages. In turn, tools to enhance communication can benefit everyone. Mobile devices can also offer more choices for people to access content (e.g. subtitles, interpretation or guidance) that suits their needs, for example, when visiting museums or performances.

How can we involve young people in exciting tech projects that open up access to arts and culture, and acknowledge abilities in inclusive ways?

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