The Digital Revolution: a Work in Progress

Design, Innovation, Music Technology

Two weeks ago some of us headed over to the Barbican to visit Digital Revolution, an exhibition that explores the creative potential of digital media.

While the exhibition has its fair share of new-ish technologies such as 3D printing, wearable computing and augmented reality, it begins with a nostalgia-inducing array of older gizmos and gadgets. These ranged from obligatory retro-gaming classics like the Pac-Man arcade machine through to devices that paved the way for modern electronic music, such as the Linn Drum and the Fairlight CMI synthesiser, ably demonstrated below by none other than Herbie Hancock.

Although we didn’t get to tinker with the antique synths and drum machines, we were allowed to play some of the old games on show. It was surprising just how difficult some of them were—playing the original Pong, for example, was only slightly more difficult than trying to juggle sand underwater.

As we moved on through the exhibition, the classic early 1980s retro computing era gave way to the time of the Atari ST, then the mid–1990s early web epoch, before eventually arriving at the modern day, with Angry Birds and Minecraft among the most recent exhibits.

Reviewing 35 years of computing history in such a short space of time made me wonder if that mid–1990s aesthetic—the early Web, Windows 95, underlined blue Times New Roman links, flickering CRT displays, AOL, the squeal of an analogue modem—would have the same cachet for the younger generation as the Pac-Man / ZX Spectrum era does for people of my age. If that’s hard to imagine, it’s possibly because many of us born in the 1970s associate that mid–1990s era with entering the workplace and using computers for productivity rather than gaming and fun. Younger people might form different associations, and arguably the vaporwave subculture and its obsession with the mid–1990s CD-ROM computing aesthetic is a sign that they’re already doing so.

Floral Shoppe by Macintosh Plus
Cover of “Floral Shoppe”, a vaporwave album by Macintosh Plus

But back to the exhibition, where—as if to underscore my thoughts about technology and how it’s perceived by different generations—I noticed a parent pick up an old rotary-dialling phone and ask her five-year-old son if he knew what it was. Naturally, the five-year-old didn’t have a clue, and why would he? This old relic was as relevant to him as the Omnigraph Morse code machine was to me when I was that age.

For him and today’s other five-year-olds, it’s things like Angry Birds and Minecraft that will inspire retro nostalgia, while rotary-dialling phones, Fairlight synthesisers and the Atari ST will be nothing but museum pieces. And for me, that’s the truly exciting thought: what things lie ahead, what new and as yet unimagined innovations are out there, that will make today’s latest technologies seem as old to them as Pong seems to me?