From March 2012 to the end of September 2013, I was asked by Geoff Mulgan, the CEO of Nesta (the UK's innovation agency) to lead-curate a massive festival of the future called, appropriately enough, FutureFest.
The plan was to occupy Shoreditch Town Hall in London, over the weekend of 28th-29th September, and fill its Edwardian municipal grandeur with visions, arguments and demonstrations of the near-future (with an implicit mid-century horizon of 2050).
Well, we finally executed the plan - and it was an extraordinary event, the speakers, discussion and performances fully captured on the legacy FutureFest website (video, podcast and blogs).
Over these three blogs (one, two, and three) I explain my curatorial vision - but these paragraphs give you a flavour:
Go back to any of the great expos, or even to the earliest futurologists – like Francis Bacon’s New Atlantis (1627), with its longevity drugs and flying machines, its robots and clones – and it sometimes seems that modernity has always contained the same set of yearnings about the future: stronger, faster, more automation, more communication.
The acme of this might be Walt Disney’s mid-fifties EPCOT (Experimental Community Of Tomorrow), a theme park in which cosmic exploration leaves behind a happy planet of harmonious cultures and sociable, zip-suited citizens.
Well, it’s 2013, and of course we’re wiser and more civilization-weary than all that. Those intricate techno-sciences we devise and set running? They end up rattling our economies, fighting our wars, bombarding our attention spans and challenging our bio-ethics around birth, health and human potential.
And some of the more massive trends heading into the future – the inexorables of population growth and global warming, emergent economies and regions with their own claims to truth and justice – would seem largely resistant to the glittering technical fixes that future-types of the past have put their faith in.
But it’s 2013, and of course we can also imagine – because that’s what humans irrepressibly do – how this progress towards the mid-century might be quite different.
Radical innovation could well find us a combination of energy sources that mitigate the impact of a heating planet. Our computers and devices could as easily amplify our natural capacities for invention and community, as unravel or stymie them.
Over only a few decades of bioscience, our “new normal” could be closer to that menagerie of mutants and cyborgs that you see in the average Star Trek street-scene, than it might be to the mutton-chopped visitors to the Crystal Palace.
How to capture all of these possibilities, in a particular time and place? And in city where the weight of the past, and the chaos of a globalised future, can easily be mapped from the top of a giant glass shard? The principle of a festival – with its tolerance for enthusiasm, dissent and experiment – seemed like the only way it could be gathered together and curated.
FutureFest takes place in Shoreditch Town Hall, London – a building which itself brims with Victorian progressive self-confidence (its motto on the stained glass windows is “more light, more power”). In its cavernous rooms we will be deploying three different methods of thinking about the future. Firstly, great minds and practitioners (some writing in these pages) will give short but powerfully focussed takes on our options heading towards mid-century, and beyond – everything from the future of religion and altruism, to the future of eating and manufacturing.
Next, we’ll offer immersive spaces in which participants can literally “meet and experience” the future. Real – or at least, artistic and creative – humans will conduct a variety of performances, installations, social games and even banquets, that will leave visitors in a delightful space between “now” and “next”.
And finally, we’ll allow people to go deeper into the future, with a range of forums, seminars, makeshops and technical expos from organizations like the Oxford Martin Institute, Arup, the BBC, Berg, Dyson and many others. (Pat Kane, "Making the Future Dance", Futurefest site).
We had a sell-out on the day, saw millions of interactions around the #futurefest hashtag on Twitter, and with any luck FutureFest will become a regular event in the cities of the UK for years to come. Certainly one of the most satisfying creative endeavours I've yet directed.
Doing some personal archiving, I found this piece I wrote for Deborah Orr at the Guardian's Weekend supplement, on management culture - and part of the pre-reverberations before the New Labour victory in 1997.
In retrospect, I'm struck by how it sparked my interest in the cultures of work, business, creativity - and then play - which have obsessed me ever since. And rather movingly for me, I'd forgotten my late dad - a low-level British Rail manager - made a closing appearance in it, with probably the only dialogue of his I had ever transcribed. And whatever happened to Jack Black? Hope you find it interesting. ---PK
THE COMPANY WE KEEP
The Guardian, 25 May 1996
The gurus of management culture predict that `intuition is the master skill of the next century'. As a clarion call to Britain's wealth-makers, it has a nice ring to it. But at Asda HQ in Leeds, they find a toy dustbin does the job just as well
THE psychic bullets are flying everywhere. Three hundred palms rise from grey flannel suits and cream silk blouses, all eager to receive little pellets of positive energy from the guru on the stage who's cocking his fingers like a cowboy on the draw. He bends into the radio mike.
`Many of you will have come with me on this journey of the imagination,' booms Jack Black, the UK's number one Motivational Speaker For Businesses And Organisations. `Did you feel those bullets?' From the general rustle of sighs and soft giggles that sweeps through the hall, oh yes, yes, they did.
The advert on the business pages merely promised `another way to inspire your workplace team'. By brunch-time on the first day, I'm sharing a shimmering New Age moment with Edinburgh's pen-pushing finest. What is management culture in the Nineties getting up to?
Within this £350-a-skull, Next-tailored ashram, anything it wants would seem to be the answer. Jack Black, Easterhouse social worker turned business evangelist, has a whole circus of mind tricks for his audience today.
Hulking great project managers are sapped of their strength by `negative thinking'. A bottle of Perrier is sloshed over the first four rows to illustrate how we `waste our precious daily energies'. Invisible bell-jars drop over heads (to the sound of the Thunderbirds theme tune), so that their wearers can `screen out moany-faced gits'. We salivate at imaginary lemons, we cleanse our minds in spring showers, we practise office meditation, all between morning and afternoon tea breaks.
It's nice to be pulled out of the depths of scholarship and enterprise around play and be asked to do a definitive interview on the subject - it forces me to think and speak in a way that makes public sense of my private musings and specialised consultations. This is from a Dutch magazine called Viewpoint, which is a bi-annual consumer trends journal. I'll be part of a bigger article with a number of ludocrats speaking, which I'll post here in November.
Interview with Pat Kane for Viewpoint magazine, November 2012
Why do you think play is gaining currency right now?
I think play is becoming important because of a number of crises in the way we habitually do things. Certainly in the decade before the recent financial crash, many economists and thinkers were talking about how "the Protestant work ethic" was becoming irrelevant to a networked and game-oriented generation. My 2004 book The Play Ethic suggested that these "soulitarians" would become conscious of their creative power and digital skills, and start to demand changes in social, political and occupational structure. It's hard to look at our current tumult of social-media driven protest, at all kinds of levels, and not see the proof of that. But I think play is also becoming central because it's a component of even bigger arguments about what growth and prosperity mean - on one side from the period of indebtedness we're about to endure, but on the other side from the crisis of consumerism, and the carbon consequences of all that material throughput, that a moment's contemplation on the climate-change statistics would incite. We need to find new motivating narratives in our lives, beyond status anxiety and lifestyle excess. Play, as a planet-friendly, convivial way to bring thrills and pleasures into our lives with others, is a prime element of those new "wellbeing" narratives.
What’s your philosophy on play?
Always evolving and changing, like play itself. But in recent years I have drawn a lot from evolutionary accounts of human nature in my understanding of play. My great guide on play theory, Brian Sutton-Smith, calls play "adaptive potentiation". Play helps neurologically-complex, deeply-sociable mammals (like us!) refine and rehearse living with other creatures like ourselves. And given our human capacity for self-reflection and conceptualisation, play in humans - the more distant from raw need and survival we get - becomes more and more the central action of our lives, rather than a practise zone for it. Play is the prime indicator that we are (as the title of my next book has it) a "radical animal" (www.radicalanimal.net) - but that this natural inheritance is dynamic, experimental and inventive, rather than just our savannah-era limitations constantly tripping us up - which is my problem with all this "nudge"-style behavioural economics. Presuming we're Homer Simpson, rather than homo (et femina) ludens.
How is the role of play changing, both in individuals’ lives and in society?
As above, I think play is becoming the central activity (arguably, alongside care) of healthy, better-educated, more self-determining people in the developed (and eventually the emerging) world economies and societies - rather than the degraded Puritan residue that the "work ethic" defines it as. There's also a very strong argument for its social centrality in terms of basic public health. For educationalists, it's a global given now that we must extend the play-moment in early years education, in order that neurological and physiological development happens to their fullest degree (the Scandinavians with their world-beating educational scores proves that, as does the brain science). But this will move beyond the kindergarten, into later years, and eventually out of the school and into wider organisational life. The general paradigm of purposefulness and value-adding activity that comes from gamer culture will get stronger and stronger, as a logic for running companies and organisations. How does an activity satisfy our demands for meaning, mastery and autonomy - as the best games do? Might genuinely committed, actively learning and relatively-free-to-decide employees be a real competitive edge in an economy where consumption becomes less important than experience?
What do you think of the idea of play being co-opted by brands and businesses?
Play can't really be co-opted by any form of social organisation - as it is one of the elemental processes that lead to any effective social organisation itself. But I'm happy to see play being invoked as a positive term or signifier by corporate brands - as I think it is a term which has radical implications for how we think of time, space and resources in our lives. Genuine playfulness is not leisure, something you do after the daily grind - it's an open, experimental and socially joyful way of being that, if embraced, has incalculable consequences for the norms of how we produce and consume. Play will as easily co-opt big biz!
How has digital gaming influenced play?
Answered at points above, but digital gaming is to the 21st century what printed books were to the Renaissance - it's a fundamental reorienting of how human beings see reality and how its elements interrelate. It's as profound as the shift from seeing one's life as a narrative line, a story running through a book, to seeing one's life as an element in a system, in which one's actions are profoundly wrapped up in others. The question for me now is the degree to which we can teach games-making literacy, in the way that the study of literature encouraged new literary genres - the systems that we enter into with our games are too much scripted from above, it's interpassivity as much as interactivity. But that will come.
How do you see the role of play evolving?
My small moment of pride recently was the news that my work has been exhibited on the walls of the Museum of Modern Art in New York - or to be precise, an axiom about play I've been promoting for years was part of an exhibiton called Century of the Child that showed there this autumn. The axiom runs: "Play will be to the 21st century what work was to the Industrial Age - our dominant way of knowing, doing and creating value". I think it's going to be as important to that in our daily lives.
This is the unedited version of an essay on the UK tv talent show The X-Factor for my old paper, the Sunday Herald. The theme I'm trying to explore is how the combination of conspicuous glitz and vertical business integration that the X-Factor represents is a response to the crisis of the music business, brought on by the internet and its decommercialising tendencies. But it's not the only model of how to make a living (if not a fortune) in the music biz post the web - and I show how me and my brother's band, Hue And Cry, are using the current landscape to our advantage. All comments, as usual, more than welcome.
Sunday Herald 'Opinion' essay: Joyous austerity vs. The X-Factor
5 December 2010
By Pat Kane
For the last five years, it's become a thunderous seasonal ritual, with only one blip in the procession so far. From 2005-2008, surpassing even the three year consecutive run of The Beatles in the mid-sixties, the winners of Simon Cowell's fiendishly brilliant license-to-print-money The X-Factor have grabbed the Christmas No.1 spot: Shayne Ward, Leona Lewis, Leon Jackson and Alexandra Burke. So far as the bookies are concerned, they're giving 8/15 it'll happen again.
Only last year, as you may remember, corporate multimedia pop didn't quite rule supreme. As a result of anti X-Factor activism on Facebook, the national yuletide favourite buzzing out of young people's smartphones across the land was Rage Against The Machine's Killing In The Name, with its invigorating refrain, "Fuck you, I won't do what you tell me!"
The leading candidate this year is called, wittily, Cage Against The Machine. This is another social-network campaign, aiming to defeat Cowell's phalanx of Matt, Rebecca and Cher with avant-garde composer John Cage's 4' 33'' (that's four and a half minutes of total silence). Available on Dec 13th, if you're interested.
So it's all fun and games in the new Roman circus: the emperors with their thumbs raised or dropped, the Christians bleating in their borrowed designer gowns, the vox populi whooping from the hall or voting with their far-off devices. And outwith the spectacle, disgruntled indie-music barbarians sulk in their bars and student halls, or occasionally get it together to throw boulders into the arena.
Is that it for the music business? With the BPI noting earlier this year that pop music has outsold rock music for the first time in decades, and with The X-Factor being credited as the single-handed saviour of the ITV network, is this the new model? Pop ingenues from the street squeezed through a variety of cookie-cutter genres by a series of grandstanding judges, who then shuffle to find their slots in a crowded release schedule run by probably the most cynical cultural operator in Britain?
Many musicians looking at the X-Factor would resist the artistic passivity and audience programming that it revels in. And I say can from my own experience that there's an alternative business model of music-making, where a more mature balance can be struck - a balance between the necessities of getting a money-stream from one's own material and performance, and the communal power of fans as they express themselves through digital networks.
But this is a vision of musical practice that comes much closer to the participation and sharing culture of folk, than it does to the conspicuous and plutocratic display of the X-Factor. Is Cowell's circus the commercial wave of the future, or the last lurid gasp of the hyper-consumerist past - and not just in terms of the music business, but for much of our public life as well?
Looked at from a great height (and yes, other actions could be performed up there) The X-Factor is a clever, comprehensive response by the traditional music business to the challenge of the digital generation- a generation whose mindshare has been scattered to the winds by a zillion media attractions, and whose consumer behaviour has been exploded by ubiquitous broadband and free filesharing.
From his experience in the pre-internet heydays of the 80s and 90s, Simon Cowell has remembered a few things and applied them ruthlessly. One is the continuing role of television in family life, particularly at a time when everyone's lost in their own media niches. Weekend telly provides a welcome shared experience for work-wearied parents, and children too young to go out themselves - one that won't present any ethical or moral challenges, but will generate some degree of excitement and involvement from the audience.
But one thing that's infuriating for the average A&R man are the media gatekeepers - producers and researchers - who control access to prime-time viewing. So Cowell created his own tv format: and in this, every element of the pop process - the broadcast show, the brandname, the performers, their rights and royalties, and their final recordings - is under one business regime. (Incidentally, there's not much irony in the name of Cowell's company, Syco. Much of the music business does indeed exist somewhere between psychopathy and sycophancy.)
So whether it's Rage or Cage against the machine, there is clearly a towering new music-biz "machine" before us - and that "all those people who don't seem to like X-Factor", as Cowell ruefully put it last year, are feeling oppressed by its operations.
In the last twelve months, this constituency has been self-consciously active in other areas too. Take the successful campaign to save the digital radio channel BBC 6 Music from rationalisation and closure. Or the (not-so-successful) tens of thousands that signed petitions to protest against the passing of The Digital Economy Bill, which will criminalise music downloaders through new powers of detection and enforcement
We have a Tory-dominated, services-cutting government, a clearly-identifiable musical establishment sunk in luxury and corruption, a general state of anxiety and dread .... So should we expect a 'new Punk' any day now, combining anarchy, technology and refusal? A new movement of street, campus and community music, articulating protest and advocating alternatives against a broken capitalism?
Well, let's see. But there's also currently a middling space between the top-down soul-shredding of corporate pop, and the bottom-up world of wikileaking and militancy about copyright. This is a territory, I would suggest, that most active musicians currently occupy. The question is: how can someone find a sustainable way to make music, for all those good reasons we love - to express what's inside you, to follow your aesthetic joy, to connect meaningfully with appreciative audiences - while at the same time, trying to circulate some cash around the situation?
This is where my own music career, with my brother Gregory in Hue And Cry, has operated over the last few years - and where many others are trying to exist also. There's an axiom we've been using which seems to sum up our the challenge of the sustainable music career in the digital age: use what is ubiquitous to drive people to what is scarce.
Unless there is a huge shift in how the internet is basically structured (and while that shouldn't be ruled out, it doesn't look likely), any recorded content that any musician releases will be able to be copied and recorded by anyone else. And that's no matter how intricate the restrictions placed upon each music file. The internet is a copy-machine plus a telephone - and infinitely so.
At the moment, even services that have figured out a simple way for people to pay for digital content - like iTunes or Spotify - are largely relying on the laziness of the consumer, as they use their well-designed devices. However, one teenager with a copy of a sound-grabbing program can easily defy every corporate programmer's control codes.
So there's the "ubiquitous" part - your content can be digitally everywhere, largely untrackable and uncontrollable. Deal with it, dude. But given that capitalism only works when you can make a resource scarce, and thus price it, what scarcity is left to the commercial musician? One is, obviously, the musician herself. Unless they've been taking too many illegal substances, even they'd have to agree they can only occupy one point in space and time. And so far, it's still the convention that a gig is an enclosed space, with entry requiring a cash payment of some kind at the door.
The primacy of the gig actually accounts for the relative health of the UK music industry. PRS for Music's 2009 report showed that live income rose by 9.45% that year, where games and DVDs has flatlined. Regionally, the report notes that Scotland "punches well above its weight", with 11% of the UK's music revenues generated from 8% of the population. The reason given is that festivals like T In The Park, Rockness and the Edinburgh Fringe support a lot of tourist-like consumer activity.
But this link between music and tourism can happen at the level of individual bands. This Feburary we'll be doing the second of our Hue And Cry Weekends at Glasgow's ABC venue - this one, tied to Valentine's Day, is called 'A Glasgow Kiss' (naturally). We'll make ourselves available to fans through meets, greets, and soundchecks, provide them with a guide to enjoying the city for a weekend - and get a chance to sing love songs for two days.
There's another other element of scarcity available to the musician: beautifully produced material objects with a personal, customised touch (the very opposite of the immaterial nature of digital music). For example, we have a facility called Songframes, where Hue And Cry fans can order a display frame containing a vinyl copy of a song from our back catalogue, with handwritten lyrics and music, and a personal dedication. It's hard work for us, but we're doing pretty good business; fans are devoting frames to children, spouses, lovers, departed ones.
I know this sounds like a very old scene of creativity. Craftsmen making objects for bespoke customers. Troubadors cultivating their audience as a community. Music operating as social currency as much as commercial product.
The crucial difference is that the internet allows the artist and audience to exist face-to-face online, building a virtual village square together (although populated by people across this island, and way beyond). In this square, the conversations and sharing come first - and from that collective enthusiasm arise opportunities to sell services and products of all kinds. But not to excess, and with a premium on quality and experience, not disposability and transience.
Does this new music-business model, the musician as community-minded enterpreneur, make you a living? Well, did the music business ever make a living for that many people? For me, it certainly has its place within a portfolio of earning activities - a craft conducted somewhere in the spectrum between professionalism and amateurism, and perhaps alongside some other specialised skill that society finds hireable (in technology, design or education).
Because the music business felt the brutal, de-monetising impact of digitality first, I'd say many musicians have been developing resilience and skills for survival that others could learn from.
Take journalism. Like musicians, journalists exist amidst a community of readers. As the internet unravels their protected revenues and saleable objects, how can journalists use their unique presence and skills to command a fee for services - and for what services, exactly? Also: where are the opportunities to create beautiful, treasurable and customisable objects of journalism? Does the iPad and other tablet readers represent a new way to combine ubiquity and quality - for a price?
The muddle-through (as opposed to top-down or bottom-up) strategies of the entrepreneur-musician might well result in a new stability for the music business. Artists will want to support music services that "feel like free" for music fans - giving users that sense of digital ubiquity that they love, but with some revenue (though certainly nowhere near as much as in Cowell's 80's heyday) collected through subtle licensing and contract agreements.
But the important attitude is to be sanguine and relaxed about these crazy times. It's a time for commercial invention and trying things out - not for panicked scaremongering about piracy and theft, which ends up alienating the most enthusiastic members of your audience.
The much bigger horizon is whether consumer-led economic growth, challenged by our need to achieve low-carbon targets, is actually an outmoded system. Beyond the Saturday night hoopla and the stadium mega-gigs, many musicians have been practising optimistic austerity for years. And that just happens to be the mindset which will enable us to cope sanely with drastic environmental limits on our lifestyles.
Beyond the baubles and conspicuous glitz of the Cowell circus, Generation Zero - preaching minimalist living and post-consumerist virtue - is waiting in the wings. And a participative music business, less concerned with high profit-margins and more concerned with the strong relationship between artist and audience, may be perfectly placed to answer their needs.
The X-Factor is at one level just some weekend fun, of course: no-one's frogmarched to the flat-screen to watch it. But from where I'm standing, some of its bombastic hysteria comes directly from the consciousness of its smug, but undoubtedly switched-on creator: I think he really believes the glory days of the 80's are back-back-back.
I'll certainly be voting to make sure John Cage gets to number one this Xmas. But the more enduring challenge to the X-Factor Machine will come from working musicians trying to figure out their new music business model, building it out across the networks and audiences, one event or recording at a time. For all his cat-stroking, high-waisted genius, I don't think Cowell understands the real X-Factor involved in making music at all.
Now here's an adventure... I've been invited to speak on a panel, and hang about for three days, at an invitation-only event called the Summit Series in Washington DC. May 13-16th 2010 - here's my session, titled “Media for Change”.
It has a pretty high-powered cast-list. From the heights of the US power structures (Bill Clinton, Ted Turner, the MD of Carlyle Group David Rubenstein, a clutch of White House “innovation officers”), through scientists and gurus (from the edges - long-life techno-advocates Ray Kurzweil and Aubrey De Gray – to the founders of Craigslist and Second Life, as well as quite a few health and yoga masters), to a decent sprinkling of Tinseltown glamour (R'n'B titans John Legend and Russell Simmons, Peter Petrelli from Heroes, the MD of Variety, an Estee Lauder 'spokesmodel').
But the driving force of the event is the twenty-something organisers' belief that they are the “Millenial leaders” - a generation born in the 80's, but getting ready to take power (see this NYT article which captures their culture well , and their press page). Their agenda seems (from this event) to be a heady mix of social and tech- entrepreneurship, dreams of human life extension and techno-utopianism, and a lot of 'playing hard' - they have a 'Revelry' strand which involves hip DJs and jam bands, 'altruistic' dating casinos and paintballing.
My entry point is through the inimitable duo of Jason Silva and Max Lugavere, hot young anchors of Al Gore's Current TV network (and known in the US press as “Al's boys”) - both of whom are big fans of my ideas, and particularly Jason, who's something of an ardent transhumanist and futurist. Here's his Huff Post columns, and below is a teaser for his forthcoming documentary (in which I am planned to appear) called 'Turning Into Gods' (from the old Stuart Brand saw, "we are as gods and we might as well get good at it").
I'm going to write about this event in some form or other over the next few months, and will gather much material while I'm there (interviews, podcasts, etc), as well as blog from the event.
But I seems I am being caught up - from my Glasgow/London perch, sending out memes about the Play Ethic - in a new wave of Gen Y/Millenials-era public entrepreneurship in America. They are naturally globalist in outlook, completely native to the internet society, optimistic about growth (but in a green- and socially-centred way), and seek a new justification for their enterprise which gets beyond the Puritan work ethic (which is, I guess, why I've been invited). And (of course) they're inspired by Obama's victory, which has given them a new political horizon of successful activism.
On the eve of a UK election which has possibly registered a million extra younger voters, will we begin to see the same urge here for a generation to identify themselves as "millenials" quite so self-consciously?
Here's a recent review for Scotland on Sunday of Jaron Lanier's You Are Not A Gadget and Ken Auletta's Googled - ridiculously small word-count, so apologies for the compression, but I will be elaborating on both in a bigger post (and doubtless later presentations & consultations) later on. The Lanier book is brilliantly and provocatively wrong - I want to engage with it in terms of the Digital Economy Bill in the UK, and what an technologically-friendly artist's perspective should be on the debate. Later! [This article was first published in Scotland On Sunday on April 04, 2010 - below is the unedited version]
YOU ARE NOT A GADGET Jaron Lanier (Allen Lane, £20)
GOOGLED Ken Auletta, Virgin Books, £11.99
Reviewed by PAT KANE
In case you hadn’t noticed, the war for the future of the internet has reached the peak of battle. On the shimmering plains of cyberspace, Rupert Murdoch and the music multinationals are sandbagging themselves against the oncoming waves of news-surfers and file-sharers. Paywalls are being erected, the regulatory arm of Peter Mandelson is being seductively bent - anything to get a regular buck off those rapacious, intellectual-property-despoiling hordes.
To the philosophical rescue of hacks and A&R men, in a tangle of dreadlocks and perched on a silver surfboard, comes Jaron Lanier. Lanier was a pioneer of virtual reality in the early 90s (remember those goggles?) and is now the author of a carnaptious yet brilliant denunciation of The Way We Network Now.
You Are Not A Gadget is hardly a Luddite tract from some defender of old technologies and even older monopolies. There’s not many non-fiction “talkers” that plausibly invent an entirely new form of human discourse (“postsymbolic communication”, if you must know, seemingly a fusion between software and the behaviour of octopi) in the last few throwaway paragraphs.
So when Lanier says that our beloved Twittering, YouTubing and Facebooking is about reducing our personhood to fit the limitations of software, about “becoming a source of fragments exploited by others”, we should at least put the devices to sleep and pay attention.
Happily for Rupe and the satin-jacket brigade, Lanier says that one of the ways that technology can express a “digital humanism” is to allow musicians and journalists to make a middle-class living again. How? By turning every current (and neutral) click on the internet into a tiny monetary transaction between seller and buyer, enabled by a very deep change in the internet’s operating code. For Lanier, this would clean out the witterings of what he calls “the hive mind”, and allow those who live by their craft and skills in symbols to flourish in the Net, rather than see their royalty cheques reduce to zero.
Lanier notes the paradox that an exponential rise in broadband and computing power hasn’t resulted in the cyber-equivalent of a Mozart, an Orwell or a Thelonious Monk, but much more culture-as-nostalgia – the “YouTube” evening watching classic tv clips, or Spotify as a rummage through three generations of record collections.
As someone who plays between both of the industries that Lanier focusses on in this book, music and journalism, I can appreciate his Romantic angst about the dimunition of originality. Yet I think he’s wrong to suggest that a more closed, narrowed-down and marketised internet will foment genius or even just excellence.
Creativity is as much about reading and listening, as it is about writing and composing – and my own creative experience with the new digital plenitude, in all its cost-free ubiquity, is that of swimming in a sea of permanent inspiration. The end of the old business models means that both music and journalism will have to boil down to what is enduring and scarce in their professions: the live performance and the heartfelt, self-produced song; the necessary investigation and the unfettered comment. Rather than the hype, flash and churnalism that clogged up too much of both professions in the good old days.
The point is to use the wild and free internet to connect these moments of cultural integrity to communities who only have time for the best: and then, eclectically figure out how to monetise their intense interest and commitment. It can be done.
Something that Lanier refuses to do – but which exercises the Digger greatly – is to condemn Google as the cuckoo in the nest of content. Ken Aulietta’s meticulous account of this huge company’s fundamental geekery should encourage Lanier that the basic infrastructure of this new era is being driven by insanely creative individuals.
And Googlers know fine well that they’re in the position of the old railroads and private utilities of the 19th century - in the queue to be nationalised when they become too big and infrastructural to fail us. Our future might not be the "digital Maoism" that Jaron deplores – but something more akin to a digital social-democracy. Let’s have a debate about that vista, rather than worry too much about Kevin the teenager in his downloading frenzy. A war against enthusiasm could hardly be more pointless, or less winnable.
Pat Kane is author of The Play Ethic (www.theplayethic.com) and one half of Hue And Cry
Beautifully argued, as ever, from Andrew, and I can't respond to everything, but a few caveats:
ROSS: These violations of work standards occur in the sector of old media that is most clearly aligned with the neo-liberal ethos of the jackpot economy. It’s an ethos which demands that we are all participants in a game that rewards only a few, while the condition of entry into this high-stakes lottery is to leave your safety gear at the door; only the most spunky, agile, and dauntless will prevail, but often at high psychic cost–witness Susan Boyle’s recent return to the spotlight after a long bout of medication and institutionalization.
I'm scratching my head here at what you're defending: the unionized rights of tv workers to produce decades of passivity-inducing pabulum, and worse than that (as Brian Holmes has dubbed it), a cyber-marketing "Neilsenism" which locks the viewers into a sad loop of uneasy identification, leading to restless consumerism? Didn't Paddy Chayefsky nail all this in Network in the mid-seventies?
And from a play studies perspective, one has to immediately relativise and historicise your linking of this particular 'game' of culture to neo-liberalism. As Sutton-Smith reminds us in Ambiguity of Play, agonism - play-as-contestation - is an enduring modality of play, functionally deep in our evolved condition, alongside others to be sure. I doubt whether Simon Cowell's various spectacles are qualitatively different from other symbolic expenditures of power in other, certainly pre-modern eras. The point about social media, in or out of the clutches of parasitic corporates, is whether we can use it to tap into more expansive, enriching, sustaining games, simulations and rituals.
To my eyes, though these shows successfully commodify the 'interpassive' dimensions of the network society - phone/text votes, branded forums, cheap shows (the X-tra Factor) on multiple channels - they are also vigorously subverted by a fourth estate (amplified by social media) which is still doing its job. Witness the recent convulsions of both ITV and BBC in the UK about game-show rigging.
ROSS: Yet the labor infractions I have been describing are only visible because they take place against the heavily unionized backdrop of the entertainment industries. In the world of new media, where unions have no foothold whatsoever, the formula of overwork, underpayment, and sacrificial labor is entirely normative. The blurring of the lines between work and leisure, the widespread use of amateur or user input on the social web or in open source, and the systematic expropriation of Tiziana Terranova first described as “free labor” has prompted some commentators to ask whether the experience of digital environments should direct us to rethink entirely our basic understanding of labor and enterprise.  While skeptical, I am certainly open to such inquiries and look forward to any such discussion.
Do you have no perspective on the Italian autonomists' (and in recent times, Andre Gorz's) response to the spectre of free labor - the horizon of a 'guaranteed income' or 'social wage', which would recognise that we are cognitively and affectively producing in our generality? I don't know that this is necessarily such a utopian horizon, or so disconnected from policy processes. One of the arguments about the nature of creative work I'm hearing in the UK and Europe is that it may well demand a new conception of welfare/well-being support - what has been called (and I think precipitately rejected) by Rossiter and Lovink as 'flexicurity'. (for a rather watery version of how this might work in terms of state allowance see http://www.newdealofthemind.com/?page_id=1329). This is the commons-ization of cultural production as a consequence of open digital networks (and remember how it could have been different? Ted Nelson and his hypertext micropayment system?).
Never mind recompense for unionised tv workers - the whole field is de-monetizing (or at least re-monetising, but at a much lower level). And there's a bigger ecological horizon about the extent to which we need to move away from (heavily) material consumption - wherein the rush to (relatively) immaterial prosumption, production or interaction, as our psychic compensation for being Northern, late-modern 'flexible personalities', might be one kind of answer. I don't know that agonising over the labour conditions in making trash tv is the right zone in which to deploy one's critical energies.
ROSS: Subsequent ethnographic studies of knowledge and creative industry workplaces show that job gratification still comes at a heavy sacrificial cost–longer hours in pursuit of the satisfying finish, price discounts in return for aesthetic recognition, self-exploitation in response to the gift of autonomy, and dispensability in exchange for flexibility.
And for most creative workers, the alternative is...? A career in advertising, where a satisfying finish, aesthetic recognition, autonomy, and flexibility in the job are indeed handsomely rewarded - but towards the end of numbed and dumbed mentalities? You seem to have an angst for a pre-digital, almost Mad Men style world of cultural employment, where symbolic analysts did at best mediocre, at worse mendacious work, yet at least managed a serene martini in comfortable surroundings at the end of an 8-hour day. Are sectoral employment deals on residuals and recompense going to be enough, when (as you say further on) the dream of semiotically-active, mass-innovative citizenry has now come true, in all its copyright-busting fecundity? And further: Will all art and culture become folk-art and culture in a steady-state economy - and is the mass embrace of interactive tools an anticipation of this shift?
ROSS: for the business entrepreneur, the outcome is a virtually wage-free proposition. There are costs involved for bandwidth, hosting, and maintaining commercial platforms, but as far as the monetizable product goes, it is the users, or prosumers, as industry strategists call them, who create all the surplus value (which could be described as the difference between the value such free services offer to users and the value they create for business).
I'm one of those entrepreneurs, using (though not owning) one of those platforms, encouraging that kind of fan labor (http://hueandcry.ning.com). I can tell you our anxiety is that we have built a fan community upon a platform whose advertising-convertible interactions won't be substantial enough to maintain the functionality of its social tools (whether through its own bankruptcy, or a takeover leading to reduction of service). At the very least, Ning's ability to allow you to export your data-base as a file, and measure some degree of customer behaviour through Google Analytics, means that this small-trader has the possibility to start again if his platform fails. But there is no doubt that the free-culture expectations induced by net behaviour has shaped Ning till now - and its combination of power and low cost has given us (and I'll bet many others) the possibility to conduct our cultural commercial enterprise *without* a sell-out of our art to corporate interest, and with a direct relationship with people who want to give us money - for our performances, at least (if not to the same degree our music).
I would say a net-preneur has to have, at best, a tragic perspective on the permanence of the institutions and networks which sustain their enterprise. What I'd like to know is: if there are dimensions of the private banking system that are too big to fail, which of our commercial social networks might also fall under the same category? Or alternatively: what is the public infrastructural stake in robust open networks? Or: was Minitel really *that* silly?
ROSS: Technolibertarians who have consistently viewed cyberspace as a haven of free being are notoriously oblivious to the impact of the cut-price labor economy that is its default mode. The flourishing of self-publication and amateur content has been a clear threat to the livelihoods of professional creatives whose prices are driven down by, or who simply cannot compete with, the commercial mining of the online, discount alternatives to their services. Print journalism is only the most recent, well-publicized example of a profession trampled underfoot as advertisers and owners switch to online assets. Indeed, it’s ironic to see how media critics who are more accustomed to proclaiming that the “press is free only for those who own one” have lately been defending these bastions of information gatekeeping as stable sources of valued livelihoods.
As I said in previous post, I think there's a good ferment of thinking about how journalism as an ethical, professional practice is sustained in the digital meltdown of company and organisational models. Could be legislation to support new, with- or non-profit company structures; could be some new maleficent integration of device, software and e-commerce (wait to see the deals that the iTablet has cut with publishing houses). But in any case, and to repeat myself, it could be that journalism becomes (has already become?) one of the many operations of the 'General Intellect' in necessarily steady-state economies, in a sousveillant mode. Rossiter and Bauwens' separate calls for 'organised networks' might well be a template for what succeeds the big-city, ad-driven newsroom. But no Martinis in the wood-panelled bar at the end of the day, I would hazard.
We (the self-consciously creative/cognitive classes) will be poorer in the post-capitalist economy: however, we may well be more alive. What did Vaneigem say? "We refuse a world where the guarantee that we will not die of starvation entails the risk of dying of boredom...We can escape the commonplace only by manipulating it, controlling it, thrusting it into our dreams or surrendering it to the free play of our subjectivity".