Living in the Network

An introductory article for the Brighton Digital Festival guide.

A digital festival is an odd thing. What kind of event qualifies for inclusion in a digital festival? What exactly does “digital” mean? As with the infamous supreme court ruling on obscenity, “digital” can best be described as “I know it when I see it.”

Even a few years ago, it would have been easier to demarcate the line that separates the digital from everything else; if it starts life in a computer, then it’s digital. These days, that’s not a very useful distinction. There’s very little around us that didn’t start life in a computer—even the solid, tangible objects that we think of as being “analogue”.

As with digital, so with the network. There was a time when the internet was a separate place. You went online. Now, the internet pervades all our activities. There is decreasing separation between online and offline. And, as with digital, there is very little in the world around us that hasn’t been touched by the network at some point.

If we were to have had a digital festival during the last decade, it would have been an overwhelmingly positive—perhaps even naive—affair. New tools, new creative opportunities, whole new publishing platforms with wonderfully low barriers to entry; what’s not to love? But the past few years have brought unwanted consolidation to the network—what Bruce Sterling refers to as “the stacks”—Facebook, Google, Apple, the giants of the digital world, wielding immense, unchecked power. The truth revealed by Edward Snowdon is that the same digital tools that can amplify creativity and personal expression are also being used as weapons of mass surveillance. It’s still our network, but now it feels a little less like a playground and a little more like a panopticon.

It’s this new digital world that will be explored by the digerati speaking at the dConstruct conference—always a highlight of the Brighton Digital Festival. Writers like Warren Ellis and Cory Doctorow will be tackling the theme of this year’s dConstruct, “Living With The Network.” It will be thought-provoking, perhaps even a little frightening. But it will also be entertaining.

There’s going to be plenty of entertainment on offer throughout the festival. Whether it’s urban games played though mobile phones, hands-on hacking at Maker Faire, art installations, dance performances, concerts, workshops, or slash fiction readings, there’s something for everyone this year.

Perhaps there really isn’t much point in trying to define what “digital” means. As William Gibson said, the thing our descendants will find most quaint and old-fashioned about us is the trouble we still take to make that distinction, between the digital and the “real.”

Even if we can’t define the damn thing, the Brighton Digital Festival is still a cause for celebration. For all the wonders and benefits that the network has brought us, we humans still crave the opportunity to gather together in the same physical space. When that physical space happens to be in the vibrant seaside town of Brighton …well then, all the better!

Whether it’s the historical surroundings of the Brighton Dome and the Old Market, co-working spaces like The Skiff, arts venues like Phoenix Brighton, or community spaces like Lighthouse and 68 Middle Street, Brighton has a wealth of wonderful venues for us to gather in this September. As much as I like living my life on the internet, I’m grateful that I also live in Brighton. It’s the perfect place for a digital festival …whatever that means.

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