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Is there life on Mars?

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Twenty years ago, I remember being impressed when the late, great David Bowie launched a bank. Admittedly it was backed by USA Bankshares, a proper bank, but the idea of celebrity-branded banks was expected to become a thing.

Funnily enough, it hasn’t (unless you count and Atom) yet, nevertheless, what has become a thing is celebrities selling their backlog of music as bonds, something that Bowie was the first to do way back in 1997. The bonds pay interest based upon future earnings of existing work and brand. An amazing innovation.

Bowie was often a leader and visionary in things – I always remember the first online live concert event I ever watched was Bowie on AOL* in September 2003 – and the reason I’m blogging about it today is that the media has recently been debating the role of Facebook, Google and others in our lives. Do they have too much power? Should private companies be able to block or veto public activities, such as a President’s thoughts?

This came up on BBC’s @Click series – their special news series about all things tech – where they discussed the Facebook block in Australia.

That block has been resolved, but it does demonstrate the power of the internet and the internet companies. They are governments, not companies.

Having said that, there is friction between companies that are governments, as demonstrated by the recent actions of the PRC against the Ant Group IPO.

But notably BBC's Click references a 1999 clip of David Bowie talking about the internet (8m50s into the Click excerpt above). They showed a little bit of the discussion, but here’s the full interview with Jeremy Paxman:

Bear in mind this was 1999 when AOL dominated, no one downloaded much, 128kbps dial-up lines ruled, and Amazon was emerging as more than just a twinkle in Jeff Bezos’s pants.

“The internet is now. It carries the flag of being subversive and possibly rebellious. Chaotic, nihilistic …” creating a “… demystification between the audience and the artist” as “it’s becoming more and more about the audience … I find that a terribly exciting area. So from my standpoint, being an artist, I like to see what the new construction is between artist and audience. There is a breakdown, personified I think by the rave culture of the last few years—where the audience is at least as important as whoever is playing. It’s almost like the artist is to accompany the audience.”

In fact, what’s interesting in this conversation is Bowie is referencing, over twenty years ago, how the internet is democratising and decentralising power.

“I don’t think we’ve even seen the tip of the iceberg. I think the potential of what the Internet is going to do to society, both good and bad, is unimaginable. I think we’re actually on the cusp of something exhilarating and terrifying.”

Paxman responds, “it’s just a tool though isn’t it?” [Paxman has no idea what Bowie is talking about]

Bowie replies: “No. It’s an alien life form. Is there life on Mars? Yes, it’s just landed here. The actual context and state of content is going to be so different to anything we envisage at the moment, where the interplay between the user and the provider will be so in simpatico it’s going to crush our ideas of what mediums are all about. It’s happening in every form. That grey space in the middle is what the 21st century is going to be about.”

As a lifelong Bowie fan, I wonder whether the man’s influence is the reason why I focus so much on future trends? Maybe, maybe not but, either way, Bowie was way ahead of his time. Are you? Are you thinking about payments in space? Are you registering a bank license for Mars? Should you?


* AOL was the short form of America Online, the dominant internet access method in the late 1990s but not visionary at all ...

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Chris M Skinner

Chris Skinner is best known as an independent commentator on the financial markets through his blog,, as author of the bestselling book Digital Bank, and Chair of the European networking forum the Financial Services Club. He has been voted one of the most influential people in banking by The Financial Brand (as well as one of the best blogs), a FinTech Titan (Next Bank), one of the Fintech Leaders you need to follow (City AM, Deluxe and Jax Finance), as well as one of the Top 40 most influential people in financial technology by the Wall Street Journal's Financial News. To learn more click here...

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