For a man who spent decades redefining cutting edge, there are remarkably few published photographs of David Bowie using computers. There’s a throwaway one from the last decade where he sits looking slightly distracted in front of an Apple MacBook and a 1994 snap where he appears to be using a PowerBook docked to a monitor and keyboard.
There can’t be a single well-known creative from the last 30 years who hasn’t appeared in similar-looking pictures. It seems to be some kind of unwritten rule that the brand in view is always Apple.
And yet behind this conventional façade, there isn’t an artist in the history of music who devoted more time to trying to think through the implications of digital technology than Bowie. This wasn’t simply about early adoption. During the 1990s – a decade written off by his detractors as a period spent treading water in New York – he blazed what at the time was seen as an eccentric trail on numerous fronts, setting up an ISP, appearing in a video game, even fronting an Internet bank. Most significant of all, he did all of this without ever falling for the vapid cyber-utopianism that characterised much early Internet discussion. Digital technology and the Internet were always tools to create art and never an end in themselves.
Many of his tech projects went nowhere in particular but perhaps that’s the price paid by innovators. The curse of getting there first is to make mistakes or forget that digital technology is also about business as well as ideas. But good ideas are worth risking failure for. A perfectionist, Bowie was surprisingly unafraid of flopping as long as it was interesting and took him somewhere new.
Computerwelt - 1981
Bowie became fascinated by West German synth pioneers Kraftwerk long before mainstream had woken up to the long-term significance of what was going on in Düsseldorf‘s Kling Klang studios. He probably first encountered home computers during this time on the back of Krautrock's hyper-experimentation but was more affected by Kraftwerk’s vision of the fusion of digital technology and human destiny. They refused to be his Tour support act but did name check him in Trans-Europe Express.
The multimedia years - 1994
Hard to credit now but multimedia was the key tech movement in the early 1990s, liberated by greater processing power and the GUI. Bowie jumped on this in earnest, in 1994 releasing Jump, an interactive CD-ROM that allowed users to remix the music and explore “a virtual world of hidden animations, sounds, pictures and other surprises.” Bowie thought that in future his audience might co-author music with him. Fellow artists recoiled in horror.
Davidbowie.com - 1995
The look of Bowie's first website - almost certainly the first star site to make it to the Internet - has been lost to history but it appeared in late 1995 or early 1996. A simple text-based affair with low-res images, its arrival was a signal moment for the man and his fans. For the lucky few, modems buzzed.
First MP3 download – 1996
After launching his own website and long before Napster, Bowie became the first major music artist in the world to make one of his songs directly available as an MP3 download, then a format so new barely any programs could play such files. The song was Telling Lies from the album Earthling, downloaded a then staggering 300,000 times.
Bowiebonds - 1997
Easy to overlook but Bowie blazed a bit of a trail in monetising his future earnings though something he branded ‘Bowiebonds’, later called celebrity bonds during the height of their popularity. Bowie reportedly received $55 million for a share of future earnings on his catalogue before 1990. With piracy and downloads about to encroach on star earnings, many believe he got a great deal.
@BowieNet – 1998
Just as the commercial Internet was switching on, Bowie decided to back his own ISP with its own rack of 56k modems in the US. Now sadly defunct, if email addresses were collectible, @bowienet today would be the most exclusive in music history.
Anti-censorship - 1998
Bowie’s vision for BowieNet was always less about connectivity than accessing the Internet without having a big company deciding what users could see. Bowie openly worried about the potential of control and censorship over what people could and could not see. At the time this was an eccentric view for a medium that had barely pressed the 'on' switch but in hindsight it sounds prescient.
Virtual game Bowie – 1999
Omnikron: The Nomad Soul hasn’t featured in any of the tributes to him but perhaps it should. In another first, Bowie’s computerised image and voice were used in a PC and later Dreamcast game. As well as contributing songs and helping to develop the narrative, what came out appears to have flopped as a game but succeeded as art. Typical Bowie - another first.
Dot.com and Bowiebanc.com – 1999
Essentially a front to a conventional Philadelphia-based bank operation, it was still a bizarre turn of events when Bowie’s name was used to launch online operation Bowiebanc at the height of the dot.com boom. “Is somebody going to put all their assets in a bank named after a rock star?”, mused one banking analyst at the time. Customers also got a year’s subscription to BowieNet thrown in. The venture eventually closed after losing a pile of money though Bowie emerged unscathed.
Internet angst – 1999
At the turn of the Millennium, the Internet attracted Utopians who saw in it the outline of a new politics and bulwark against authoritarianism. Unfashionably, Bowie was not among them, if anything going the other way by expressing a surprising level of ambivalence for a man who'd spent the previous decade conducting online experiments. He said at the time in a BBC interview: “I don’t think we’ve even seen the tip of the iceberg. The potential of what the Internet of going to do to society, both good and bad, is unimaginable. We’re on the cusp of something exhilarating and terrifying. It’s an alien lifeform.” For Bowie, there were always two sides.