The man who sold the future

Taken from Prediction of Nostradamus by J. J. Grandville (1836)
Taken from Prediction of Nostradamus by J. J. Grandville (1836)

Good predictions are hard to make. Predictions made on the hoof may sound inspirational, but are riddled with biases. But good learnings can be drawn from bad predictions.

David Bowie fans will make themselves known to you faster even than vegans and wild-swimmers. Even six years after his passing, Bowiefication continues so strongly that you might be forgiven for thinking that nobody else had an impact on popular culture between 1962 and 2016.

Bowie’s career is noteworthy for being long and prolific: releasing 128 singles from 26 albums, even if only five were hits. This is double the output of The Beatles in their eight years together, although the Fab Four’s hit-rate was four times higher as one band, higher still when including their time individual artists.

Thanks to an interview on the BBC’s Newsnight in 1999, Bowie is often credited with foreseeing the potential of the internet way ahead of the pack. I’m fascinated by this interview. Bowie and the notoriously abrasive interviewer Jeremy Paxman, both having made comfortable careers in conventional media, are grappling with the concept of the media being democratised.

Paxman adopts as pessimistic stance, as if he sees the internet as a media-delivery tool rather than some sort of cultural movement. But we can’t know whether this is what he thought, since he is a talented interviewer. Either way, Bowie took the bait and began to riff, almost off-the-cuff, about the internet’s forthcoming cultural impact. The core idea he hit upon was the inflection from a small number of massive cultural touchpoints—television interviews, rock stars, etc.—to a massive number of smaller ones. Touchpoints as small as a group of near-anonymous people or, as Bowie calls them, an audience.

Bowie counters Paxman’s pugilistic pessimism with a sense of cultural potential, but his thesis is incomplete. While his sense of fashion had always been progressive, Bowie was technologically conservative. So, even if he wasn’t articulating ideas as he was having them, his thoughts about the cultural impact of the internet were still quite fresh. In an interview two years earlier, he described the internet as just another tool about which he wasn’t wildly excited.

Though, as the star uttered these words, his management were already in talks about founding an internet service-provider with Bowie as both investor and public face. BowieNet launched between these two interviews, which might explain both Paxman’s questioning and Bowie’s newfound optimism.

You can’t sustain such a long artistic career by staying in one place, and Bowie is renowned for reinvention. But for an artist capable of inventing and dropping whole identities as the pop market demanded, his technological skepticism had remained constant.

Bowie’s imperial phase ran from 1975 to 1985; all his hits were released in this period. It was also in this period that he developed a disliking for Gary Numan: another androgynous, highly-styled British male artist and longstanding Bowie fan. Numan’s futuristic 1979 single Are ‘Friends’ Electric had outperformed Bowie’s Boys Keep Swinging, so the latter and his fans began casually pouring scorn.

The New Musical Express, a fusty publication that took exception to Numan’s searing electronic disruption of the conventional rock’n’roll format, enjoyed whipping up the vitriol of Bowie fans against emerging artists. In a 1980 interview, egged on by the NME’s Angus MacKinnon, Bowie criticised acts he perceived to have copied him while simultaneously misunderstanding him. In particular, he attacked Numan’s sci-fi themes:

It’s that false idea of hi-tech society and all that which is… doesn’t exist. I don’t think we’re anywhere near that sort of society. It’s a enormous myth that’s been perpetuated unfortunately, I guess, by readings of what I’ve done in that rock area at least, and in the consumer area television has an awful lot to answer for with its fabrication of the computer-world myth.

Skipping forward again to the famous 1999 interview with Paxman: in articulating optimism for his newest commercial venture, Bowie inadvertently offers a number of teachings about the futurism, the internet and people in the media.

  1. It’s really hard to make long predictions. It’s hard to research them, formulate them and particularly to communicate them.
  2. We often consider ideas that are new to us as being new ideas. See also the illusion of explanatory depth. This colours our vision of the future: the things that appear to be us to be happening contemporarily, and therefore signalling new trends, may have persisted for some time even in primitive form and we chose to dismiss them.
  3. Pre-internet media people become consumed by the mechanics of the media. Their assessment of culture was seen through a lens of what media people would consume. Post-internet, the same is true but no longer confined to those in the media industry. We often blur commercial impact with cultural impact. For example, those who use ‘woke’ in a derogatory way are consistently, but not necessarily deliberately, describing cultural phenomena that cannot easily be commercialised.
  4. Many technological predictions, in this era, take the incumbent internet and add something to it: sometimes another technology, sometimes an observable consumptive human behaviour, sometimes an ideology. But future behaviours are rarely additive.
  5. Of course, people maintain a bias towards ideas into which they have tangibly invested. A rockstar who has founded in an ISP bearing his name is going to be far more open to the possibilities of a technologically-empowered future than a rockstar who’s fallen out of step with ever-shifting pop trends.
  6. Cultural shift on the internet, free of commercialised influence, isn’t one continuously-progressing thing. Grassroots digital culture and behaviours lurch towards an idea, and then that idea is commercialised. the cycle then repeats. Bowie’s observation about the cultural movement being more significant than the tech giants was right, for about four years. Then after another three years it started looking right again, for about two years and so on.
  7. All recent talk of the liberating possibilities of media-dominating advancements such as the metaverse and crypto can be considered another echo, in which those with tangible investments speak of cultural possibilities. I have no doubt Bowie, if he were still here, would say he found the idea of decentralisation fascinating—full of wild possibilities for artists and their audiences—while also investing heavily in crypto and selling off his creations as NFTs. After a short time, it would show itself to be a new implementation of an old idea: a fan club.
  8. In all things, the question influences the answer. That’s what Bowie teaches us, time and again. Put someone on a pedestal and give them something to fight against, and they will. Today you don’t need to be a rockstar: the pedestals are plentiful and thepugilism comes from all directions.

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