Meeting this week in the south of France is the giant Cannes Lions Festival of Creativity. It is a fancy title for the marketing world’s Mad Men on sea. Rumour has it that half the world’s annual ad revenue is negotiated on its yachts and in its hotels and bars. It thus joins the Cannes film festival, the Frankfurt book fair, cancer research in Chicago and arms fairs everywhere as geographical fixed points in the post-digital world.
Meanwhile, the stars of vlogging and blogging are scheduled to gather at the Skip festival – held not on some virtual cloud but in London’s O2 arena. This is found by a search engine no faster than a Jubilee Line train. Is this the shock of the new?
In the 90s we were told all this stuff was yesterday. The digital revolution would replace the need for human contact by the wonders of electronics. Home-working, telecommuting and Skype would eliminate the need for office blocks, universities and mass transit. Video-conference would supplant expensive trips to distant hotels. Who needed to shake hands on a deal? Use a robot.
The craving of business people, indeed of humans in general, to congregate seems resistant to all technology. The commercial fair, like the arts festival, recalls the stock exchanges of 19th-century Europe. It revives the global markets of the Great Silk Road, the Calais staple and medieval Kiev and Novgorod. The digital age may facilitate the modern meeting, but it cannot supplant it.
The post-digital phenomenon is embodied in “the cult of live”. I see it first in the small things. Watch the BBC each night and you get a recorded item of news, then a moment when the presenter “goes live” to the same reporter on location, who says the same thing again. It wastes time, but the story is clearly felt to need the authenticity of “real” time and place.
The power of live is most evident in the music industry. Recording revenues in the past decade have halved for myriad reasons such as piracy. But no one can tell how far this has been matched by soaring revenues from live performance. Madonna and Kanye West must go on tour to reach their markets, as Sir Martin Sorrell must sell his ads from a yacht off Cannes. Stocks and shares may trade digitally, but not even so sophisticated a market as advertising.
This particularly applies to leisure. There are now some 900 music festivals in Britain, with 7 million fans spending an average £900 each at them. These events are on a medieval scale. The valley of Glastonbury this week will make Henry VIII’s field of cloth of gold seem like a vicarage tea party. The BBC Proms should be “unnecessary”, given perfect sound reproduction and broadcasting. But each year they sprawl ever further across west London. When I was young we were told that London theatre was dead. Now you cannot get into a popular West End play without paying touts hundreds of pounds.
Even the British book trade has been revitalised through live. Bookshops fight Amazon with coffee and events. Forty literary festivals in the 80s have become hundreds. Poetry is reverting to Homer’s day. Simon Armitage must traipse the countryside reading to his public. From idyllic Charleston, Sussex, to massive Hay, literature has emerged from the salons of London in search of exchange between author and reader.
I found myself earlier this month at a digital summit just off London’s Silicon Roundabout in Shoreditch. Gathered together were the thrusters of the digital age, charting the outer fringes of their universe. Why were they unable to do it online? They were tweeting and networking, and that was part of the experience. But like the conferees at everything from Davos to Bilderberg, they wanted to be with each other in time and place. Even the digitised zombies of David Eggers’ The Circle had to live together in one office. However well-connected, cyberspace is lonely.
A row of outdated futurology books on my shelf forecast the death of the workplace, the neighbourhood and the city. The nation state was to be rebuilt as an e-democracy. Now we are told that economic growth needs ever bigger cities, ever more networking hubs and ever more planes, trains and cars. The internet has not re-invented social geography. The conference is the pilgrimage destination of our age, even if much of its appeal, as David Lodge wrote, is “sex on expenses”.
I was not alone in once dismissing the digital revolution as a passing craze. (I embarrassingly wrote that the internet would be useful only to lawyers and pornographers.) But Marx was right, that all revolutions attract their antithesis. I find it exhilarating that the post-digital antithesis should be live experience. Live is an instinctive reaction to an excess of screen-gazing, app addiction and the “flight from conversation”.
Figures show patterns of household spending shifting from products to services. Last year the Boston Consulting Group reported that “consumers are moving from owning a luxury product to having a luxury experience”. They seek the shared emotions, surprises, fulfilments that come from participating, not just observing. This is typified by the success of the dating app, Tinder, that results in real meetings. Post-digital lies at the core of the new economics of happiness.
The valued jobs of the future will deliver these individual and collective experiences. In business it means more emphasis on contact with consumers – witness the plethora of “chief customer officers”. In leisure it means those new graduate destinations of food, fashion, exercise, travel, life-style, counselling and therapy. We crave to relate more closely with those we are supposed to love – and cannot do so online.
The goal of human endeavour has never been to make a better phone, pad or watch, but a happier person. The digital age is emerging as no more than a portal to such a goal, which emerges from the architecture of personal relationships. That applies in business as in pleasure. That is why the urge to congregate is now stronger than ever.
One day we will all treat the computer in our pocket as casually as we treat the watch on our wrist. We will move on. But in a BBC attic will lurk some digital Jeremy Clarkson, cavorting with his greying nerds and testing old laptops on “Top Cloud”.