I’ve just come back from a big fireworks display in my local park. When I was a child displays like this were almost unknown, and even twenty years ago they were uncommon. Yet now it seems – quite apart from November 5th and thereabouts – that pretty much any evening event outdoors is incomplete without some fireworks laid on. It led me to thinking about the complex confluence of trends which had created this social shift.

There seem to me to be five, or perhaps six. The first is a social shift towards large-scale shared entertainment (the same trend which has seen the emergence of ‘fanparks‘ at big football competitions, and maybe also the growth of the music festival). What’s happened here, I think, is that as our homes have become larger, warmer. more comfortable, and better equipped, we have stopped going out to local social venues (pub, bingo) as a matter of routine, but still want to go out (we’re still social animals). And this is also connected to a desire for the live experience, the authentic moment, which is a reaction to a world of digital entertainment in which everything can be copied, reproduced, and falsified.

The second is technology. Big complex fireworks routines need programming if they are to go off at the right time and in the right order, but they’re always outside and usually a long way away from power. The fall in processor costs meant that laptops became powerful enough to do this – along with materials technology that meant that they were rugged enough to sit outside and function even in poor weather and a low temperatures.

The third is about sound. Big fireworks displays generally need sound to hold them together. We’ve had big enough speakers to do this since the 1960s, as one look at the inner sleeve of Ummagumma testifies. But there’s a cultural side to this as well. If you’re going to play music to a heterogeneous group of people (mixed age. mixed gender, mixed class, mixed ethnicity, etc) they need to have a shared musical repertoire if it’s going to work for everybody. This wasn’t true of my parents’ generation; although the 60s created the possibility, it didn’t really become true until the 1980s, as a result of the inceasing ubiquity of music, of radio stations, and the social expectation that you’d be regarded as odd ir eccentric if you didn’t listen to popular music.

The fourth trend is about attitudes to risk, and – related – about public safety. Fireworks explode, and we used to willing to tolerate the risk that one might explode at the wrong time while we were organising a display in our garden. We’re less willing to take that individual risk now, and this is probably just as well, since the authorities are less willing for us to use public resources (fire, police, health services) as a result of our risk-taking behaviour.

And the final trend, of course, is the increasing competition between venues and places for residents and visitors and also for residents – which is increasingly around a combination of events and quality of life. (Which I’ve blogged about elsewhere). There are world and European championships in fireworks displays.

The question that emerges in the face of powerful combinatins of trends is what might happen to derail them. The answer to this question isn’t immediately obvious, at least to me. The public fireworks display is a good deal, since it is free or cheap (we paid £4 each to watch thousands of pounds worth of fireworks go up in smoke last night), and a big enought display has some of th characteristics of a ‘public good‘ (up to several thousand spectators my enjoyment of the fireworks doesn’t intrude on yours). The notion of fireworks as celebration is also cross-cultural – Bonfire Night, Diwali, Independence Day, and so on.

But it doesn’t take much research to identify possible limits in the areas of health, ethics, and animal right. The CO2 impact may not be huge, but there are some significantly unpleasant toxins in fireworks, in particular perchlorates, at a time when there is increasing visibility of the idea of ‘toxic consumption‘. As Leo Hickman wrote in the Guardian this time last year:

Name another product that maims children, scares pets and wildlife,
costs councils hundreds of thousands of pounds a year and yet hasn’t
already been tossed into the dustbin of history.