Wednesday, May 06, 2009

Creative Surplus & Virtual Unemployment (Participation = Destruction)

Yesterday I watched The Hunt For Gollum a 40 minute prequel to the Lord of the Ring Trilogy. The film was made as a not-for-profit collaborative project by 150 volunteer enthusiasts. Fan films are nothing new but this is one of the most striking examples of non-monetized enthusiast creation to date. Although the film is being released for free on the internet, given the popularity and profile of the source material, Tolkien's books as well as the New Line Cinema films directed by Peter Jackson, this is sure to call attention to these kinds of increasingly complicated legal issues. The casting, costumes, sets and effects are remarkably spot on to the film trilogy. It looks and hence is experienced as part and in relation to those commercially released products.

One of the most fascinating and problematic things to emerge in the digital era is the enormous amount of unincentivized content production. There is a lively entrepreneurial spirit in the tech/media digital space but most of the content shared online is created out of pleasure, at people’s leisure and are labors of love.

The most common observation made about this is the awe-filled recognition of the enormous amount of passion on the part of so many people engaged in so much creative activity — blogging, fan videos, music mash-ups, digital photography — and sharing it without incentive or compensation.

What strikes me is how all of this creative work and potential represents a kind of unemployment (economically unutilized individual and social capacity). There is obviously a massive surplus of time, advanced skills and intelligence that is detached, unutilized and economically non-contributing. It's the digital/information age's version of unemployed youth wandering streets and burning off energy by vandelizing. It's energy and capacity that isn't directed in ways that have tangible shared value. I'm not saying those things don't have value, they massive intrinsic and shared value for a large number of people.

Here is the heart of this destructive paradox (the point at which participation = destruction). We have all these incredibly smart, tech savvy people that don't have a way to directly contribute towards the construction of shared, socially beneficial forms of value, the meeting of survival needs, the big heavy ones on the bottom of Maslow's Pyramid. At the same time they are engaged in creative, non-monetized efforts that are undermining existing business models and industries. Big ones. They've drawn audiences, undermined revenue models, drove down the value of content and reset expectations about what should and shouldn't be paid for. It wasn't as if rival industries sprung up, its simply an emergent effect of technology and people going about their lives and doing what they enjoy. But what's emerged are platforms of interaction that are off the grid economically, that suck juice and jobs from preexisting industries and economic structures.

The hope is that new economic structures, industries and jobs will emerge but in the meantime we live in this chaotic paradoxical world in which creativity runs wild against a backdrop of rising unemployment, foreclosures and economic collapse.

The Sherman Foundation "Our Side is Winning"

Participation = Destruction (1 Billion Internet Users, The Tyranny of the Masses and the Death of Digital Culture)


Steve S. said...

As this trend continues to grow and evolve, it will be interesting to see what impact this sort of talent has as consumer object fetishism begins to crumble. Assuming the culture of consumption for consumption's sake is brought to a grinding halt, which will be inevitable as raw materials and energy become ever more scarce, I expect to see more of this sort of work until a different business model emerges in the U.S.. The problem is that, as you point out, this sort of work could put serious pressure on any sector that relies on creativity to build value. What emerges after the smoke clears will hopefully be a business culture that highly values people with this level of skill and creativity.

Kathleen said...

The modern version of cave paintings, I think

Steve S. said...

There is one other aspect I am considering, and that is the slight whiff of Velveeta I detect when I watch these trailers. It is to be expected for sure, as the fans, although very creative, usually under-perform whatever film or artwork they are emulating. There are a number of reasons for this, but more importantly, what effect does this have on the rest of the community that watches these? Exposing someone to a sub par mash up is probably both good and bad. Let's hope there is more good than bad.

Thomas Sherman said...

i never ceased to be amazed at how resilient and unrelenting the culture of consumption is. after 9/1 you heard people talking about how it was a reality check and how rescue workers and firemen were the new heros and celebrities. it didnt take long for the dominant reality of consumer culture snap everyone back to their dulled senses

Thomas Sherman said...

cave painting were believed to be an attempt, through sympathetic magic to get some control over an hostile and unpredictable natural world. you draw a herd of buffalo so that they might appear in the fields, you throw spears at the painted buffalo on the wall to conquer over its bounty

were still wrestling for control in a world that is no more tamable and predictable than it was then