How technology killed rock ’n’ roll… and gave birth to the ‘experience society’

Stanstead airport, spring 2009. As I stand there, I notice men and women of various ages and social classes on their way to different corners of Europe. The groups of smartly-turned out women, Man United football fans and wealthy-looking retirees may not look as though they have much in common, but they are all part of the 21st Century’s most happy marriage: technology and the fulfilment of our desires.

I call it the ‘experience society’.
 
Over the last 10 years, technology has replaced popular music as the driver for social change in the western world. And working with capitalism, it’s given the masses experiences that were once the preserve of the elite. The jet-set is now you and me.
 
From 1955, until the beginning of the 21st Century, rock ’n’ roll music – and its derivatives – changed the behaviour of young people in the West. And as those young people got older, so transformed society as a whole.
 
In the 1950s, ‘teenagers’ listened to Elvis and Jerry Lee Lewis as they stayed out late, challenged authority and got involved in gang violence. These things had happened before, but it was popular music that held them together. It was their thing.
 
In the 1960s, middle-class students got into drugs and revolutionary politics under the guidance of The Beatles, the Stones and Jimi Hendrix. Meanwhile, tough, working class youths, disgusted by the ‘hairies’, shaved their heads, adopted a precise way of dressing based on the Ivy League look and danced to imported Jamaican ska records. They then took their violent behaviour and clothing rituals onto the football terraces and changed the Saturday afternoon soccer experience.
 
Finally, in the late ’80s, the English suburban lower-middle classes, inspired by DJs who’d come back from Ibiza, adopted acid house and shaped it into something that made the taking of Class A drugs acceptable, changed the licensing laws of the UK and gave birth to a huge array of new music, from techno to what’s now labelled (groan) chill-out. It became the dominant youth cult for the next 15 years. And then… nothing.
 
There never was a new acid house. Pop culture experts predicted an emerging scene based on a music genre that would magically appear from nowhere. But it didn’t happen. And it didn’t for two reasons:
1) What you could do with the strict template of post-war black music was exhausted.
2) Music no longer defined us. In the first decade of the 21st Century, technology did.
 
The battles that pop culture fought had been won. And when you’ve won you have nothing to fight against. 
Instead, technology became the new tool for social change. And it was a tool, not just for the young (as rock music had been), but for everybody.
 
At first it was mobile phones, then it was texting, then it was explosion of the internet – and the internet, that network that we first used as a source of information, became something far more important: a tool that enabled ordinary people to engage in activities that were once were the preserve of the elite.
 
This is the experience society.
 
Let’s go back to Stanstead airport.
 
The group of well-dressed young women are on their way to a spa resort on the Amalfi coast. They’ve read reviews online, noticed that it’s frequented by some of their favourite film stars and bargained a knockdown price they got through emailing the resort directly. Meanwhile, their local travel agent has shut down as demand falls.
 
Then there’s the gang of Man United fans on their way to the Champions League final in Rome. In the past, they would have only read about the match in the papers, but today, they’re here, furiously texting their mates about their journey. Some of them are posting pictures, taken on their iPhones, and putting them on the Red Issue chat room. Others have been swapping tips about hostelries, hotels and even brothels. They are determined to experience everything.
 
Finally, there’s the retirement-age couple. For the next few months they’ll be living at their villa in the south of Spain, welcoming children, grandchildren and friends for the summer season. With enough money in the bank, they scoured the net for properties they liked the look of, checking out the interior of promising houses and, thanks to cheap flights available online, visited the local estate agent to finalize the deal. What would have been a near-impossible task 15 years ago has been made infinitely easier by technology.
 
So, the experience society is both a product of our desires and more importantly, the realisation that technology, hand in hand with capitalism, can make those desires come true. What rock ’n’ roll and acid house achieved now seems tiny in comparison. The changes they brought in were relatively minor, but in the experience society, everything, whether it’s VIP tickets to see Liverpool FC or a half-price late room deal at Le Meurice in Paris, is up for grabs – you just need to plug in your computer and go online.
And pop music, no longer turning our young people into animals or offending guardians of public morals, has just become another cog in the wheel, another thing to experience, another chance for an “I was there” moment. Every gig you didn’t go to is online, all the records you always wanted are available at the click of the mouse and the special VIP package that lets you meet Elton John after his gig in Monaco is half price on lastminute.com. You could even go with your kids or parents – after all, you all listen to the same stuff these days.
 
Seen it, done it, bought the T-shirt. In the experience society, it’s truer now than it ever has been.




This article first appeared in Umbrella Magazine Issue #2. You can view it online here.



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