Comment »Posted on Sunday 12 June 2011 at 10:45 am by Jacob Aron
In Inventions & Technology, Musings

Jonathan Coulton at the Guthrie Theater, Minneapolis (Image: abiodork)

Last night I went to see Jonathan Coulton, an American musician who writes songs about all things geek. During the gig, it struck me just how much the event was both reliant on and improved by technology.

I first heard of Coulton on the internet – I don’t remember where exactly, perhaps a YouTube video of one of his songs – but he really rose to prominence in 2007 with the release of Still Alive, the song which plays during the credits of the video game Portal.

Coulton also wrote a song for the game’s sequel, Portal 2. It was released this year and when he asked how many people had played the game to completion, I’d say over 90% of the audience put their hands up, me included.

If Coulton’s popularity is based on technology, so is his marketing.¬† I only heard about the gig because I saw a friend tweet that he was going to the Manchester leg of the tour. This isn’t a guy who runs massive advertising campaigns, but he was able to fill Union Chapel with a good few hundred people.

Twitter was also incredibly useful on the night of the gig itself. We got to the venue at 7pm to find a massive queue of Portal tshirt-wearing fans stretching down the street. Rather than join the long wait, we went for dinner at a nearby fish and chip place, and I used my phone to monitor the tweets of the people in the queue by searching for “Union Chapel” and “Jonathan Coulton”.

After about half an hour I saw people tweeting that they’d got inside, but some were still queuing, so I knew there was no rush for us to leave. We finished our meal at 8pm and joined the now much shorter queue, waiting for just a few minutes. Naturally, I used my phone to show our ticket confirmation, since I hadn’t thought to print it out.

While monitoring tweets I’d also seen that Jonathan Ross was attending the gig. Sure enough, I spotted him in the front row. Very few people approached him, but he did get a lot of hellos on Twitter. Technology also made its way in to the actual performance, with Coulton using an iPhone to control his laptop, triggering samples and adding vocal harmonies.

None of this technology is particularly novel, in the sense that it’s all been around for a number of years now, but it struck me how different the experience was from the first time I went to a gig, seeing System of a Down at the Brixton Academy in 2002.

It’s more than just my musical tastes that have changed. I probably also bought the tickets for that gig online but I would’ve found out about it from a listings magazine, not Twitter. While waiting in the queue, I would’ve had no knowledge of the thoughts and actions of the people around me, unless I actually spoke to them.

And with the camera phone barely taking hold back then, let alone the smartphone, there would’ve been no sea of screens recording and sharing the event online, though I imagine some people did risk their digital (or even film) camera¬† in the mosh pit. In comparison, I can search Twitter this morning and immediately find a picture of the gig from someone I’ve never met.

People often bash Twitter as pointless, full of inane people sharing what they had for breakfast, but by concentrating on the social networking element they miss the really useful part: Twitter turns the internet into a real-time stream of conciousness.

Smartphones take that concept a step further, focusing those thoughts locally at certain areas or events. What’s the next step, I wonder? Augmented reality is clunky, but I think there is some value in bringing the internet back into real space. For it to really work though, I think it has to be seamless – a heads up display in digital glasses, perhaps. As Coulton sings, it’s gonna be the future soon.

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