David Bowie as Disruptive Technology

I woke up this morning to the news that Glen Frey, guitarist and singer with The Eagles had died. It hasn’t been the best start to 2016 for fans of classic rock*. It follows last week’s news about David Bowie, which quite rightly got lots of attention online and offline. Both men played a part in revolutionising music; the success of artists such as Taylor Swift, Ryan Adams and Wilco can all be traced back to The Eagles, and as for Bowie… it can’t be overstated. We talk, in Digital Marketing circles, about Disruptive Technology; smartphones, social media, cloud computing, I put Bowie in this bracket. Bowie was the musical equivalent of Disruptive Technology, he was a game changer.


You’ve probably seen all the tributes and archived interviews concerning Bowie, but this one is worth sharing again. In it Bowie talks about the impact the internet will have on us all, and the thing for me that’s so good about this interview is that although he can see the possibilities of all this technology, he has no idea where it will go and how it will look, he’s just excited about the possibilities.

David Bowie Talks About Technology in 1999

Disruptive Technology and Bowie

  • The BBC used ‘Space Oddity’ to soundtrack its coverage of the 1969 moon landing. Even when he was a relative unknown it was clear that he sounded like the future.
  • In 1996 he became the first major artist to make a single release downloadable. ‘Telling Lies’ took about 11 minutes to download using a dial-up connection.
  • He set up his own Internet Provider in 1998 called BowieNet. Users were given access to exclusive content and bonus material…now everyone does it!
  • BowieNet included a 3D Virtual World where you could walk through a computer generated city and, using an avatar, you could interact with other users. BowieWorld pre-dated Second Life and Minecraft.
  • In 1999 Bowie ran an online competition for fans to collaborate on a song with him. Fans sent in lyrics and the song that emerged was ‘What’s Really Happening?’. Fans could also see the track being recorded via a 360-degree interactive webcast. Almost 20 years later that technology is being explored by U2 and companies including Live Nation.
  • On ‘The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and The Spiders From Mars’, Bowie predicts the future success of Kanye West. The sign above the door on the album cover says ‘K.West’, and the opening track ‘Five Years’ predicts the end of the world. Who was born five years after the album release? Yep! I might have made this one up 😉

Disruptive Technology Now

Reading the latest Top Strategic Predictions Report for 2016 on Gartner, it’s clear that the future, in terms of the possibilities that technology will present, is as exciting today as it was in 1999 when Jeremy Paxman interviewed Bowie, perhaps more so. Driverless cars and smartphone technology might be getting the headlines this week but there’s so much more on the horizon. One thing stood out for me in the report, which I thought was particularly relevant when discussing David Bowie, Robowriters.

Bowie was always interested in the wider world of art, whether that was performance, film or literature, and this interest fuelled his own creativity. This was never more apparent than his meeting with writer William Burroughs in 1973. Burroughs experimented with different ways in which to create writing, the most successful being ‘the cut-up technique’, a process whereby paragraphs are literally cut up and pasted back together differently to create something new. Burroughs produced several novels using the technique.

David Bowie & William Burroughs

Technology & Art

After the meeting with Burroughs, Bowie used the technique in his own writing process, both with words and music, eventually recording the album ‘Diamond Dogs’. He continued to use the technique for years after, and in the mid 90’s used a piece of software he helped develop called ‘Verbalizer’ to digitize the cut-up process. In his words, “…what you end up with is a real kaleidoscope of meaning and topics and nouns and verbs all sort of slamming into each other.”

So what would he have made of Robowriters? Computers that can generate 3,000 pages of content a second! It’s an interesting subject and I’ll explore it further in another post in the not too distant future, but I reckon Bowie would have loved the idea of collaborating with a Robowriter. Is it possible to record an album with a piece of software? Where each has equal artistic and creative input? In his novel ‘Idoru’, William Gibson explores the idea of a virtual pop star, Artificial Intelligence as pop icon. I wonder how far away we are from that becoming a reality?

*I use the terms ‘classic rock’ very loosely! Music is music, no matter what label you attach to it!!

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Mick Scanlon

Director at Sky Blue Toffee
As George Bernard Shaw put it, 'The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.' There's the challenge! 10 years marketing experience and looking forward to the next 10...
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