The Bright Side Of Technology In London and New Orleans

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My last post was about how I worry about the ways in which some aspects of new technology could negatively affect our cities. To even things out, this post is about how I get excited about how some aspects of new technology could positively affect them.

For the past few weeks, I’ve been playing a mobile game called Silverpoint. On the surface, it’s a simple “match the symbols” game with cute-looking hand-sketched planets that feels sort of like a hipster Candy Crush.

But there’s far more to it than that. For a start, Silverpoint refers to a series of works by a very famous artist. And then there’s the fact that behind Silverpoint are Punchdrunk, a hugely innovative theatre company that, for those who’ve been lucky enough to experience their work, have redefined how we think about the world, and maybe worlds, around us.

Punchdrunk are most famous for their complex and ambitious site-specific shows – most notably The Drowned Man, a very modern morality play set across 1960s Hollywood and London – and a good few other times, places and conceptual spaces – that played for a year in a vast former mail sorting office near Paddington station between summer 2013 and summer 2014.

But Punchdrunk’s director Felix Barratt said a couple of years ago in an interview with Sarah Hemming of the Financial Times that he was interested in melting the boundaries between the real world and theatre: “What happens if you take theatre out of the building and scatter it across town? What happens if the show lasts for three days? Or for three months?”

It looks like these kinds of questions were what informed the creation of Silverpoint, essentially an ongoing theatrical experience encountered on the go through your phone and, if you were lucky, eventually in person.

Those who downloaded the app found themselves tackling a tricky but addictive puzzle game; looking at beautiful Andy Warhol line drawings from early in his career only recently unearthed (see below); being told a story in which you and they were interwoven; and finally discovering new places in their city and novel experiences. It felt like a experiment simultaneously in time, space, and within yourself.

Andy Warhol Serious Girl

Much of Silverpoint’s world was very London-specific, from the touches of occult Victoriana to the general insouciance of its inhabitants. But, as with Golem, aspects of it reminded me of New Orleans too – let’s just say things started with a crescent moon and finished with cocktails.

Before I gush too much, I should point out that it was also all a big advert for Swedish vodka brand Absolut. Yes, I know what you might be thinking right now, and part of me is thinking the same. But then again, I have a professional interest in marketing, so I find the current craze through doing so through content pretty intriguing  and tend to be a bit of a sucker for the funny stuff plus freebies format that often gets used.

Provided certain communications and controls are in places, I’m not one for sealing everything commercial up in a jar. After all, buying, consuming, and selling is a part of the fabric of London, New Orleans and all cities, and always has been.

I should also say that, although Silverpoint got me pretty excited about how technology could illuminate and enhance the relationship between people and their cityscape, I didn’t reach the end, or work it all out. But maybe, as with The Drowned Man, that’s the point.

As one piece of the story reads, as a character looks at reflections of herself: “Perfection is constant transformation, and everyone must change. Pieces of herself, waiting to be aligned.” I think that’s a good metaphor for what a city – London or New Orleans or anywhere else – represents and can offer us, and why technology has a place here.

Second image: Serious girl in From Silverpoint to Silver Screen, Warhol: The 1950s Drawings edited by Daniel Blau Photograph: The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc/The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc

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The Dark Side of Technology in London and New Orleans

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Last week, I saw a great play: Golem from theatre company 1927. Golem is about modern city life, and particularly how it’s been affected by technology. It’s not set in any particular named city, but for me the mix of kebab restaurants, too-cool cafes, and bizarre numbers of wedding dress shops made it feel like Hackney, where I live, and where 1927 are partially based.

That’s not to say that the play didn’t have messages for other cities, or that its creators weren’t thinking about other places. In fact, its last show The Animals and Children Took To the Streets made a big nod to New Orleans, both in the name of “the Bayou”, the neighbourhood where the show’s lead characters live, and arguably in some of its themes of inequality and violence. And one of Golem’s main messages that’s applicable to many cities is what I think is a welcome questioning of app culture.

Apps are great. We all have apps we love, use all the time, and couldn’t do without. But, as Golem points out, it’s undeniable that there are dangerous prejudices embedded in the tech start-up culture that produces so many of them, and which has very active chapters in London’s slightly comically-named “Silicon Roundabout” and New Orleans’ “Silicon Bayou“.

To take one example: Uber. I know lots of people, particularly male ones in their early 30s, who love it. Cheap, quick, convenient. Who wouldn’t like it? My granny, for a start. Golem has a super-cool older relative and so do I. But Uber doesn’t offer her what she wants from a taxi service: advance booking, the chance to communicate with a cab company by phone, and the potential for very good customer service that comes from an ongoing business/client relationship.

And while I don’t face the same logistical difficulties in using Uber that my Granny does, I’d rather not do so, thanks. Instead, in New Orleans I’m very happy with United Cabs, and in London I love knowing that the safe, reliable and knowledgeable black cabs that I’ve trusted all my life and that haven’t let me down once are out on the streets, meaning I feel I can go out when, where, and how I want and know that I can get home – and that’s something I’ll always be prepared to pay a premium for.

But the rise of Uber could mean the fall of the local cab services. So I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that if Uber became dominant in London it would change for the worse the relationship that I – and my Granny, other women, other older people, and others who don’t fit the image of the consumers that tech culture can tend to cater for – have with our cities.

So, while I’m by no means anti-technology or anti-app, if Golem’s creators and other voices make us question some of the values and assumptions that underpin new technological developments and think carefully about how they can affect the cultural fabric of our cities, I think’s that’s valuable progress, for London, New Orleans and other cities alike.