Making the most of the digital era: new substance or just ever increasing speed?



Vahni Capildeo
Writer (Trinidad & Tobago)

African Digital Art (South Africa)

Raquel Mesa Sobejano
Acción Cultural Española (Spain)


Lucy Hannah
Programme Manager, Commonwealth Writers Commonwealth Foundation (UK)


Meredith Okell
Communications and Project Coordinator, International Federation of Arts Councils and Culture Agencies (IFACCA)

Key words: 

digital; access; identity; narrative; alternatives; collaboration; consumers; economic controls; politics; reality; philosophy.  





The panellists presented on the topic from their perspectives / areas of expertise, followed by a brief Q&A. The following represents the main points made by each speaker.


  • Spoke from a regional perspective and highlighted the potential for online spaces to showcase artists that are not shown elsewhere.

  • Online identity gives users opportunity to construct narratives outside the habitual narratives about Africa.

  • We must ask ourselves the question: what is the reality of the digital space?

  • Digital does not equal democracy, as governments can – and do - control citizens’ access.

  • Issues of private interest are also problematic - for example facebook at the forefront of, an initiative to provide free internet to African countries. This comes with concerns about privacy, and government and private enterprise partnerships.

Raquel Mesa Sobejano

  • Sharing of content online can be transgressive. Authorship must be conserved while content is made shareable. Organisations must work with the legal establishment to create new copyright guidelines. Must work towards a sustainable and fair culture that can be exchanged on- and offline without being devalued. Must change the current conversation from 'free to fair culture'.

  • The collaborative environment calls for new models and the artistic community needs to reinterpret its role in society (and its best asset is innovation).

  • Leaders need to adapt, and allow collaborations between different teams / agents. Creative leaders must develop democratic platforms and look to see what is happening in civil society and take cues from there. Important for corporations and citizens to be involved in processes.

  • Institutions can offer online and physical spaces for knowledge exchange. Organisations must “foster deep interaction between the communities to which they cater”, promoting and institutionalising a culture of sharing (open cultural content).

  • There is a small number of tech firms making the decisions that affect world of users. This is not the internet we wanted. It is the role of leaders to promote actions that will improve it.

Vahni Capildeo

  • Alternative narratives are available online. Plurality of narratives of place made possible. Non-determinative narrative, where the human is not subject to technology.

  • Proposed alternative meaning of culture as: ‘simply the inescapable medium in which we find ourselves growing…an entire complex way of being that may indeed be anti-culture or anti-art…we are seeing the manifestation of a culture that values the passive possession of a device, but does not look beyond…’

  • Digital can mean artistic activity not as entertainment or a vehicle for a message, rather as a way of connecting with Others. Differences may be better understood as the points that invite contact and wonder (not divides). It is toxic to young marginalised people to make this part of their identity. The ethical extension of this is that we are learning to encounter the Other.

  • Cultural collections do not reflect the parent histories that have been whitewashed. Digital space will create living stories of living and historical connection….’so that one day no one is a stranger’.

  • There are still social hierarchies, especially around who has access to expressive media. 



On Cultural Leadership in the 21st Century

Panellists and delegates identified a lack of strong leadership from the cultural sector, and highlighted the need for the sector to play a greater role in shaping the digital realm in the coming century. Key issues for cultural leadership included: forging a sound philosophical approach to how digital cultural content is curated / presented; positively influencing the ways in which digital content is used and shared; widening access; shaping the design and human experience of the digital; ensuring that digital spaces do not just recreate existing societal hierarchies; enhancing artists’ capacity to create digital products; building relationships with civil society and other agents to ensure the sectors expertise is embedded in developments. In short, while the panellists provided positive examples, the general feeling is that the digital world will require substantial attention from the cultural sector, if it wants to be in a position to truly lead. 




Problems/obstacles to developing sector leadership 


  • The digital space has opened up platforms that showcase African artists working at the intersection of technology and art, and it allows Africa to create narratives outside the habitual conversations and narratives about Africa that come from outside the continent. However, it is a fallacy that digital=democracy, particularly where governments and other interest control access (“we have quickly learned that the internet has an on and off switch”). (Jepchumba)

  • The digital space is still predominantly shaped by a small number of tech firms that affect an entire world of users, limiting the current capacity for the culture sector to lead.  (RMS)

  • There tends to be homogenisation of identity in the digital realm at present, but it does also allow for narratives that are alternative to the dominant ones (VC)

  • There are two concerning narratives around the digital. One is that technology is perceived as globally available, which is not true (the producers of the physical products often do not have access). The other is that the narratives of self are created through engagement of other users, however, it is the mediating space that does this, and as such it has implications for the base ethics of human reality – the economic control of this space must be assessed. (VC) 


  Examples of culture sector leadership on wider community issues


  • In Kenya, Theirworld and facebook have helped launch an arts and technology school for girls, as part of a push to get Africans to code. There could be more strategy involved, but the school is exploring how to work across both fields. (Jepchumba)

  • Accion Cultural Espanola produce the AC/E Digital Culture Annual Report 2017, which provides good practice models for working in the digital space, and can help lead the digital practices of the wider sector and communities. (RMS)

  • Maya Chowdry offered as a good example of an artist and web designer who creates works with ecological consciousness (VC).

  Recommendations for action to enhance sector leadership


  • Philosophical grounding is needed for the algorithms that are used for design of digital spaces and how content is prioritised. Most content that is shared is cultural, and should thus be curated by those who best understand culture. (RMS)

  • Creative leaders must develop democratic platforms that reflect what is happening in civil society, and allow for collaboration that is non-institutional (crowdfunding suggested as an option for how to achieve this)…leaders should promote dual organisations, with teams that can work together. (RMS)

  • We should question the language we are using around developing the digital realm, to avoid the space remaining centred to traditional power structures: ‘substitute leadership for companionship and guiding’. (VC)

  • Audiences can drive demand for content (e.g. crowdfunding) – is there potential for the sector to harness this to lead?

  • The sector should provide greater training and skill development, as we are not yet skilled at using digital tools or responding to their use. Analysis without sufficiently developed skills is not useful (Shahidul Alam). 


  Key quotations


'We are at a pivotal point, between being makers and consumers, or being consumed by digital culture’ (Jepchumba)

‘This is not the internet we wanted. It is the role of leaders to promotes actions that will improve it’ (RMS)

‘Culture is simply the inescapable medium in which we find ourselves growing…an entire complex way of being that may indeed be anti-culture or anti-art…’ (VC)

‘Attitudes are not immediately transformed by the existence of new technologies’ (VC)

‘Cultural collections do not reflect the parent histories that have been whitewashed. Digital space will create living stories of living and historical connection…[until] one day, no one is a stranger’ (VC)

‘How can the new be discovered? There should be policies from the State to direct how the internet is organised. It cannot be left to private companies who have no interest in looking after citizens’ (RMS)

‘The future is for all of us to improve’ (RMS)

Technology is outpacing policy and politics’ (RMS)

There is a danger of policy flattening the possibilities of technology’ (audience member)

The problems of the digital age may not be new, instead they are old problems dressed for the digital age…digital culture is a new arena for the continuing struggles of humans in the world’ (VC)

‘The fundamental issue is not technology, but politics. Although technologies could allow for a restructure of existing hierarchies, we have not sufficiently explored the philosophical possibilities’ (Shahidul Alam)

‘It is a digital-infused reality; not a digital reality’ (audience member)