We often consider technology an imposition on both our craft and our business: social media putting pressure on everything from marketing to performance, for example, or IT budgets draining resources from “more important” work. But the etymological root of technology is techne: the Greek word for art. To paraphrase cartoonist Walt Kelly, we have met the enemy, and it is us. Every month, this column will investigate the ways in which technology can inspire us, transform us, and help us chart a new course in the 21st century. Thanks for—to use a radio metaphor—tuning in.
For Hanukkah this year, my mother gave me a Fitbit. It’s a small monitor you keep clipped to your clothing all day long. While you wear it, your Fitbit gathers data on your day’s activity, passively recording the number of steps you take and floors you climb, the amount of calories you burn, the duration and quality of your sleep, and the total distance you cover on foot. One quick tap reveals your progress against daily fitness goals at any time. (You can also log into your Fitbit dashboard online to track your progress over time.) Checking it periodically throughout the day lets you know whether you’ve done enough for your health. Are you stuck at a low number of steps by 5 pm? Take a walk before dinner to catch up. It’s radically simple…and effective.
(Oh, and the Fitbit lights up now and then with little encouraging messages, too. I love it with all my heart.)
The truth is, I’m a sucker for the well-timed arrival of useful data: just the right information, just when you need it. It’s the surest way, if you ask me, to make any system work…or work better. Let me give you an example from another non-theatrical part of my life.
Not long ago, my wife and I decided that we could probably do a better job of limiting the number of purchases we put on our credit card every month. (Who among us doesn’t want to spend less nowadays?) We started by recording the amount of each bill in a spreadsheet and discussing how well we’d done (or not) at the end of every month, setting some goals for the next thirty days…but we really didn’t make much progress. So then we tried a simpler low-tech approach: we bought a small whiteboard and began using it to record every single purchase we made on our credit card immediately after we made it. Watching the running total creep up throughout the month immediately made us super-intentional about every purchase. The result: a 33% decrease in our spending.
Over the last few days—often while I’m walking on the treadmill, trying to hit my step goal for the day—I’ve been thinking about the fact that we really don’t get very much well-timed useful data at all in the theater. For example, let’s think about one obvious piece of information we all care about: ticket sales.
When do you currently find out how well a show is selling? Maybe a month before it opens, you start to get some idea, right? And the really accurate data comes after each performance, when you can include walk-up sales. (The really really accurate data comes after the whole run of a show, of course, when you can calculate total sales after the fact.) By the time sales data arrives, just about the only effective thing you can do with it? Change your ticket prices. If a show’s just not selling well at all—or if it IS selling well, but you’ve already booked another show in the same space and can’t extend—the information’s getting to you way too late. It’s the rough equivalent of my wife and I analyzing our credit card bills after we’ve finished using our credit card.
(Ticket sales are a measure of demand. What if you could get that measure of demand before you even programmed the show? Of course you would. Does it seem possible, though? While we labor under the currently dominant season planning model, it might not be. But if we started allowing audiences to demand performances… Well, I’ll save that for a future column.)
So… what are some useful data we might theoretically be able to collect in the theater with something like a Fitbit?
The best thing I think we might be able to measure (even if somewhat roughly or imperfectly) is impact. A Fitbit can detect when a person is fidgeting. Wouldn’t you like to know how still, on average, your audiences were sitting? And which exact moments in a show were making them most squirmy? What if you could measure that sort of thing while a script was still in development, even? Might it help you make creative changes?
Furthermore, while a Fitbit can’t measure galvanic skin response (GSR)—the conductance of one’s skin, which is a fairly good measure of psychological arousal—other simple devices can. Again, wouldn’t you like to know precisely when your audiences were particularly excited? What’s really compelling about the thought of being able to measure GSR is the fact that it’s demonstrably more accurate at revealing how people feel than any kind of post-show survey would be. Human memory is notoriously unreliable; we begin constructing and reconstructing how we think we experienced an event mere moments after it’s over. GSR, by contrast, doesn’t lie.
Might it not be interesting or useful to detect when people’s gazes started wandering from the main action on stage? What about recording the images that audience members find particularly riveting?
Imagine another similar device that would detect where on stage an audience member was focusing his or her gaze. Except…you don’t have to imagine that. It’s current technology. Time Warner has been doing it for at least a year, and a few other studios have begun to experiment as well…but has anyone tried it in the theater? Might it not be interesting or useful to detect when people’s gazes started wandering from the main action on stage? What about recording the images that audience members find particularly riveting? Google Glass would probably make that relatively easy.
Finally, let’s take the idea one (very speculative) step further. While a Fitbit is designed to help us maintain our physical fitness…what if people wore a similar device intended to help us improve our artistic fitness? Suppose a small monitor clipped to your sleeve could passively record the number of hours you spent reading (and the subjects you read about), the television programs you watched, the videos you streamed online, the museum exhibits you visited, and of course the plays you went to. What if we could know, with a quick tap, how little or how much culture we’d engaged with in a given day or week or month? Wouldn’t it potentially help us all make better decisions about how to spend our time? To exercise, as it were, our souls? I’d like to think it would.