Co-Presence Technologies (part 3): Music concerts and the evolution of lights

By Elad Ben Elul • MSc Digital Anthropology (alumnus)

This three-part post series about co-presence technologies started by introducing the assumption that digital communication tools are meant to bridge people who are far away from each other. I countered this assumption by discussing the digital game “Heads Up” as a technology that mediates and enhances people who are co-present. In the second post I further developed my claim about the importance and meaning of co-presence technologies by describing their rule in conducting and framing joint prayers in a Jewish social event. In this last post I’d like to discuss music concerts and how mobile phones create a sense of meaning and intimacy, especially thanks to their light torch function.

Smartphones are often discussed as intrusive objects in the context of music concerts

Mobile phones are often discussed as a hazard to musical concerts, and as an intrusive technology that ruined the authentic experience of concert going. This is pretty understandable as people are often engaged in video capturing, live broadcasting, story-posting, and photo snapping the concert. The most common claim is that mobile phones detach concert goers from the actual experience, forcing them to experience the entire performance through the screen. These problems and challenges relate to the well established role of communication tools to connect us to those who are not with us. By sending videos from a concert and sharing it with one’s social media friends, the hope is to simulate closeness and give people who are absent a “taste” of the experience.

However, let us try and focus on a different role mobile phones have been playing in concert – serving as digital torches. This role is radically different because it is all about using the phone for enhancing whats here and now, and establishing a meaningful bond between co-present individuals. The ritual of lifting up lighters and candles in concerts is much older than smartphones but it seems to have transformed into a digital practice. Holding up lighters in concerts is one of those exciting moments where product use is improvised, simple, and in-tuned with the environment. The inventors of the lighter were just designing a quick and portable tool for creating fire to light cigarettes. They hoped to create lighters with stable wind-proof flames, but they had no way of knowing that people will start waving these lights in concerts. According to multiple sources, it just happened sometime in the 1960s in the U.S. The replication of this practice using mobile phones goes to show how meaningful and engraved this cultural practice became ever since.

Why do lights enhance meaning and intimacy in concerts? it is hard to pin point one specific reason but lights have many symbolic and material properties that are worth considering. Lights symbolise hope, enlightenment, and modernity. In their miniature form, lights can also reflect spirits and souls (most commonly in memorial candles and church candles). When each concert goer holds a light they become present as individuals in an otherwise dark and anonymised space. They also get to play an active role in the creation of ambiance and form a great network of lights that tap on deep human emotions of unity, coming together, and overcoming darkness. As a famous Jewish Chanukah song says: “Each of us, is one small light. All together, we shine bright”.

Lighters create a warmer yellowish light while smartphones create white lights

The shift from actual fire to digital lights may reflect the convergence of mobile phones with previous mobile or outdoor technologies such as listening to portable music, owning a portable camera, or carrying an address book. The digital version of concert lights is safer, more stable, and easier to operate but the shift from fire to electric light means warm red and orange colours are mostly replaced with white lights. These white lights do not only signify the symbolic properties of light (as described above) but also indicate that one is holding a mobile phone. This indication changes how we experience and interpret these lights because they are now associated with digital technology, modernity, and globalisation just as much as they create ambiance.

The mobile phone, therefore, is no longer an object that distract, intrude, and detach from the concert experience – it is also an object that enhances, amplifies and contributes to it. The electronic musician Dan Deacon has tapped on this “mobile light culture” by developing a mobile phone app that creates an entire light show especially designed for his concerts. While mixed with his electric sound, these lights become more than digital torches – they create a magical, mysterious, and sensual atmosphere that light engineers can never reproduce.  To quote Deacon, “Hopefully the app will turn the experience of having your phone out at a show into something communally immersive,”

Omer Adam, one of the most popular singers in Israel has established a regular ritual in his concert whereby he asks his fans to pull out their smartphones and post an Instagram story simultaneously. This ritual has become a trade mark and an inseparable part of the concert experience. Instead of banning phones or seeing them as an intrusion, Adam was wise enough to elevate their presence and expand his performance onto thousands of social media users simultaneously. However, we should not be too quick when concluding that this is an instance of digital communication tools bridging distant geographies – the collective use of camera phones by concert goers in such orchestrated manner has become a kind of game or ritual. Furthermore, it contributes to the shared experience of the people who are present in the concert hall and how they communicate with each other and with the artist. In that sense, the convergence of social media, torch lights, and cameras takes the culture of concert lighters into the digital age.

According to an article called “History of the lighter in Concerts”, the lighter fills several functions in concerts: “it’s a way of bringing people together during the most emotional parts of a concert, and also used by fans to request an encore or show their overall appreciation.” We can deconstruct these functions and learn from them about the importance of co-presence technologies. They bring people together in a specific time and place and they send signals and messages in an alternative language that does not always rely on words. Why should be use alternative languages with people who we share the same space with? well, it seems that humans are always seeking more layers and textures of interaction, regardless of their physical proximity.

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