The Revolution Will Not Be Digitized

Text of my talk at Turl Street Arts Festival, 20 February 2016 in their The Future of Art panel – please come, it will be amazing (It’s at Lincoln College at 11.30). And if that sounds good, check out all the other amazing events on next week here. The idea for this talk has been brewing for a long time, and forms the basis of a proposal I have been constructing for some time for a TV documentary called “The Descent of Unreason.”



(l-r Ankita Sexena, me, Leo Mercer)

Edited to add the powerpoint – you can download it here – It makes a somewhat surreal experience viewing it with no context, especially the sequence “Because Hegel – picture of Johnny Cash – Because Hegel”

The Revolution Will Not be Digitized

When I wake up tomorrow, I don’t expect to have become a beetle. But the tl;dr would be that maybe:

  • Fan fiction is the one part of the internet worth thinking about because it reminds us that stories are essentially wikis, endlessly adaptable and owned by no one.
  • Where the hell are all the books written from 3rd person POV in singular they?
  • The only redeeming feature of our contemporary mess is that we are moving towards a consensus on basic minimum income that will finally free people to create art

And the day after that? Well, I’d say it’s looking decidedly “forecast for beetle somewhere from moderate to holy Kafka!”

In 1843 Soren Kierkegaard declared Mozart’s Don Giovanni to be the pinnacle of Western artistic achievement

Because Hegel.

In 2002 a bunch millennials breastfed on Francis Fukuyama declared Johnny Cash’s cover of the Nine Inch Nails song Hurt to be the greatest music video ever made

Because Hegel.

In the intervening century and a half the rot that long ago planted itself inside our cultural marrow briefly surfaced like a festering pustule. It broke the skin spectacularly when Wagner first unleashed the Tristan chord before the final deflated capsule of Trent Reznor’s dissonant masterpiece was sucked out by Cash’s perfectly progressing melody.

This coincides with a decisive shift in our digital direction, the point at which digital ceased to be a platform for delivering the directives of human fiat and began to commodify human thought to serve an established neoliberal structure epitomised by the notion of the end of history. The digital revolution is over, and it has been lost. And if we continue looking to it for the future of culture, that too will be lost to us irrevocably. We will be carried along in a vacuous flow of zero viscosity. Of finely crafted harmonies, perfectly resolved structures, and uplifting, life-affirming cliché. The exquisite pus of resistance, discord, and diversity will be flushed out by an antibiotic of Hegelian ubershit.

But it needn’t be this way. I want to make three predictions that at the same time are a manifesto for a cultural black ops mission to break creativity out of its neoliberal holding cell.

  • The future is offline
  • Copyright is dead
  • Voice is power

In a moment I want to show why this future can be a great thing. First, let me show you I’m not completely an optimist. Far from it. Let me make three more general predictions about the world in the next hundred years.

  • Hegemonies will get more hegemonic
  • Libertarianism will become (even) less intersectional
  • The climate is fucked

So what does this mean? Basically, the first two are flip sides of each other. They are the result of the simple process whereby digital amplifies what it starts with. And what it starts with is an unequal world in which power belongs to groups who woke up and found themselves on the right side of history. Both the structures of power, our hegemonies, and the kickbacks against them, libertarianism, amplify the same frequency – those who flourish in a world like the one we have right now get to flourish more. Those who don’t, don’t. So whether you never got to that private school because you lived in a house where your parents had no books and you couldn’t concentrate on homework because you were too cold or too frightened or simply never told it mattered, or whether you need the kind of support to live your life that those freedom loving neighbours are too busy hacktivising to provide you with – you’re equally fucked.

The final point matters. And it matters because at some point every one of us who actually cares that the climate is screwed and that it’s too late to unscrew it will have to choose one of three things. What do we want to save?

  • The planet, including as many different species not criminally culpable for its current screwed-overness as possible?
  • Humanity? Or whatever tiny fraction thereof it might be possible to save.
  • Or the tiny post-apocalyptic rump who may one day get the chance to start over from next to nothing?

Whichever answer we give, we can’t set out to do that from within existing power structures, or by kicking against them. Because hegemonies will become more hegemonic and Libertarianism will become less intersectional, and all our problems will only become more problematic. Digital is not disruptive. It is the opposite of disruptive, it is the great enabler of the status quo.

What would my answer be? I am naturally drawn to the first, because I think, basically, screw humanity. But I am also aware that the planet will probably be OK. It will survive without us. In fact, once we are gone life will do very well. Different from how it is now. But successful. Maybe it is because I am imbued with the swell of post-apocalyptic culture, or maybe because I see the perpetuation of hope as the fundamental duty of the arts, but I am drawn to the third option. So much so, that I have written about how we might go about achieving it in my current book, The Alice Room. I call the endeavour The University of Lost Causes.

So what do we do? Well, for one like I say, the digital revolution is done. And we lost. But there will be another revolution, because there always is, and when that happens we have to be the ones to own it. We need to stop looking to digital to save us, and be ready.

In the meantime, if we as disruptors, dissenters, not those who speak for the outsider but who are the outsider, are to create on the one hand a cultural force ready to take up the arms of the new revolution and on the other a legacy of discordancy, diversity, and creative non-conformity in all its avatars, a library of hope for those who come after, we need to come back to the three things I started with

  • The future is offline
  • Copyright is dead
  • Voice is power

The future is offline. There are three premises to this. The first is simple, and my fellow Oxford rabblerousing cultural gobshite Andie Berryman put it a lot better than I could “The streets are the only place that are new to kids, they will inhabit it, cos too many of us oldies are online.” Second, offline is the only place you can express yourself and choose who’s watching you. It is the only place to mobilise. Encoded street art, whole networks of offline digital dead drops, stories passed on in basements – these are the means by which we will make the mainstream an outsider to art. Third, communities built offline matter. They can happen anywhere, and they can be facilitated digitally but art is the glue that binds them through an expression of common intent, and it is in the practice of art and the values it embodies that we build communities – in basements and garages and abandoned warehouses, under brutalist bridges and on dark forested hilltops. And it is these communities built in this way that will create the great repositories of hope for those who come after.

Copyright is dead. Culture is not owned, and that includes by its creators. The power of art is its ability to focus communities, change lives, alter minds, reach out in the middle of the night and say, “here, take your fingers off the blade and put them in in my hand.” The value of art for its creators lies in its embodiment of our voices, in the spread of our concerns, in the nurturing of our dreams and the fostering of our communities.

Voice is power. The flux and reflux of hegemony and libertarianism amplify the voices of those who start from positions of privilege. Their structures ensure that the flow of voices is not heard equally and because voice is the embodiment of who we are, it is how our presence is felt within the world, the disparities that exist now will only grow if we seek to address imbalances in the system from within that system. Those on the margins must be heard and it is the duty of all who create culture to ensure that happens, and that it happens in ways that are not safe or contained but challenging, disconnecting, iconoclastic. Culture must become truly diverse, from its core outwards. Or die.

Culture is not a smooth inexorable progress. Humanity is not making smooth inexorable progress. The next revolution will not be a revolution of the spirit. It will not be transhumanist. It will be technological, because it always is. And in the name of culture we need to be ready to seize and deploy it in an act of overwhelming iconoclastic totality. The culture of the future needs to refill itself from the wellspring of toxicity. Culture must not be a bed of pebbles smoothed into flawless beauty by an endless flow of hegemony and libertarianism. Culture must be cutting, damaging, disturbing, refusenik, against linearity and its parameters, aesthetics, and inevitability.

So please:

Get ready

Go offline

Tear down copyright

Amplify and enable the voices of all who aren’t heard

And fuck Hegel.


(with thanks, of course, for the title to the late, great Gil Scott-Heron)


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