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We-think

Chapter 4

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We are moving from an era in which innovation and creativity was for an elite of special people, working in special places, to an era in which innovation and creativity are becoming mass activities. That is why the next big thing, whatever it maybe, will emerge bottom up rather than top down.


The Next Big Thing is Us Edit

A single grain added to a pile of sand can cause it to collapse. But spotting which grain of sand will play that role is very tricky. That is why most of the computer world did not notice in September 1991 when Linus Torvalds, then a computer science student in Helsinki, released onto the Internet the first version of a computer programme he had written. When Torvalds left the source code for Linux on the net he asked his fellow software enthusiasts to take it away and tamper with it, make criticisms and propose improvements. With proprietary software – the kind produced by Microsoft – the source code is kept hidden. You buy a “machine readable” version of the code which cannot be adapted. Eventually the geeks responded in droves to Torvald’s enticing invitation. Through tens of thousands of voluntary contributions, over many years, authorship of the programme became shared: it is no longer solely Torvalds’ invention. He set off a process of mass, participatory innovation. A decade later, about 15m people around the world were using a version of Linux, which had become one of the main competitor’s to Microsoft’s operating system. The programme runs systems for companies, public services and government around the world, including in China. The Brazilian government has made Linux its standard operating system.

This programme has emerged from a organisational mutant: a mix of a cult, movement and insurrection all rolled into one which defies easy description. A little more than a decade after Linux was first released there were 430 user communities in more than 72 countries and more than 120,000 registered Linux users, many of whom help with the programme’s development. In the first ten years the programme’s core grew from 236,000 characters to more than 122 million, a 516-fold increase. New sub-systems that provided additional functionality were added at the rate of three a month. Yet despite this rapid innovation and the burgeoning scale of the endeavour, the Linux community has hung together and the software it produces very rarely crashes. It should not work, because no one appears to be in charge, there are no job descriptions, work schedules and bonuses for good performance.

In particular Linux, Wikipedia and other mass collaborative endeavours raise a set of questions which seem incredibly troubling, seen from within the world of managerial, industrial capitalism.

  • Why do people participate ? Often they are not paid, they are not told to do it by a figure in authority, they do not have a financial stake. Why do skilled people, with busy lives, give their time for free to mass collaborative efforts, only to see the fruits of their labour given away? Why not just free-ride on the effort everyone else is putting in?
  • How is it that these distributed contribution can be brought together into a coherent whole? Linux and Wikipedia have thousands of contributions: what stops it all descending into chaos?
  • How do these communities hang together? Why do they not split into thousands of fragments? If part of the answer is that they make decisions in democratic and inclusive ways, that just raises another tricky question: how do they avoid being paralysed by laborious democratic decision making procedures?
  • Communities have a tendency to become closed and inward looking. They can encourage prejudice and intolerance as easily as they encourage diversity and welcome new ideas. The community elders often become the bastions of tradition not the vanguard of innovation. How do these communities avoid becoming a inward looking clique that ignores new ideas from the outside?

The free-form communities emerging from the mist of the Internet will only become new and powerful models of how we can organise ourselves if they can answer these questions, reliably. Linux provides perhaps the most developed answer we have. Just as Henry Ford created a new logic of organisation with mass production and marketing, so has Linux: decentralisation and mass participation within a framework of common standards to maintain quality has produced sustained innovation on a scale that only a handful of companies could match. What are the rules of thumb at work in Linux that others might follow to turn mass contribution into structured self-organisation?


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Proceed to Chapter 4 part 2

Some notes:

I have been watching the roots of ‘we-think’ grow for some time, at Ars Electronica’s yearly symposiums especially, where open source was discussed with a kind of 1789 fervour:

‘Linux, a computer operating system started by a wispy Finnish computer science student and at first developed almost entirely by unpaid volunteers…’ (Leadbetter, C. 2006).

I had become interested in the idea of voluntary work too, especially in the arts, or ‘creative industries’, that: ‘People can combine ideas and skills without a hierarchy’ (ibid, italics mine).

I want to explore the idea of ‘a-hierarchical’ production here a little further, initially via an anecdote:

I often write for music magazines, sometimes paid, but often not. Recently, I wrote a column for Plan B magazine. The writers don’t get paid, in fact the owner Everett True claims that even he doesn’t get paid. The reviews editor asked me to cover ‘Mirrored’ within this column, an album by the Warp label group ‘Battles’. When the issue appeared, the record label had taken out a full page advert in the magazine and the group were on the cover. They were also featured in a lengthy live review. The illustration for my column was also in relation to the group. Underwriting advertising commitments with content is a fairly standard, if under-acknowledged practice within the music press. A full page ad is around £1000, yet my labour time, or ‘intellectual property’, if you like, was unrewarded in any official sense.

There is an (again under-acknowledged) practice among unpaid writers, which involves the trading or sale of promotional copies of records and CDs, as a form of unofficial reward. Some are kept - I’m a fanatical collector, as you may imagine – and some are sold. Coincidentally, the previous week, I received a threatening letter from EMI, regarding my mistaken attempt to sell an Erasure promo on ebay (I missed the ‘promo only’ warning completely). I knew for certain that the EMI promos occasionally dropping on to the welcome mat were due to my extremely brief time as Reviews Editor for Plan B. EMI wouldn't send me anything until I became that 'important'. This 'job', lasted for about a month, as long as it took to realise that I was taking on a full-time job for free. I wanted to do it, but I couldn’t afford to.

I then noticed that in the same issue of Plan B as my column, the reviews editor who commissioned the Battles review had also interviewed Daniel Miller, the head of Mute Records. Erasure, the band whose promo I tried to sell, are signed to Mute Records, now an EMI subsidiary.

So, this magazine became a kind of contemplative knot for me. I was roughed over essentially in the name of a man who was being promoted in the same magazine as I had volunteered my labour, and that labour, I guess, underwrote some of the financial revenue the magazine exists on. I must point out here that Plan B is a good hub of voluntary creativity, creating access for all kinds of talented people, in a similar but much more extended way to the fanzine culture of the 1970s onwards, a culture Mute Records itself arose from. Of course, my individual case would be unknown to Miller himself, but I guess he will know about EMI’s broader practice.

Sections of the interview with Miller were interesting too, he partly justifies the fascist imagery Mute groups such as Laibach toyed with by saying:

'I suppose it was definitely an anti-corporate thing - at the time we were militantly anti-major. Which I think was healthy at the time, and maybe is still now. Obviously I'm not anti-major because I'm part of a major...' - Miller (2007)

At one point, Miller also mentions that it may be interesting to ask Anthony H. Wilson and Geoff Travis about the political debates of ten years ago, which, he says, he is no longer conscious of (ibid). It illuminates power networks, the ways in which DIY cultures can rise, but also change in their rising. The interviewer suggested that Miller’s attitude indicated ‘flexibility of thinking’, I think it indicates that people’s views are what work for them in any given situation. Out of a DIY free-for-all certain people will emerge. The issue of intellectual property rights are no less important for those people than they were for Richard Branson, and further, although in something of an interregnum, non-corporeal capital is just as sovereign as its corporeal counterpart.

To expand a little on the concept of ‘unrewarded labour’, Alison Bain (2005) re-situates artistic identities and working practices, re-valorizing work with an identity which is, to varying extents, generative, constructed. This is a central part of what voluntary members of the music press do. Being able to say you write for the music press is essential for younger people entering a field with few or no financial rewards. But understanding and acknowledging this doesn’t tackle anomalies within the claim that we-think avoids hierarchies. Creative volunteering is a privilege, often underwritten by other labour, unless the creative volunteer is privileged enough to be supported financially from some other source in the first place. Open-source-enthusing, ‘barefoot’ creatives still have to go to the supermarket. Julian Stallabrass explains how corporations enjoy a massive over-production of creativity around the peripheries of capital, as they can then cherry-pick from the innovative. This works as a market driver, essential to the creative industries, but it does also mean that the creative industries can usually take what is useful to them on their own terms, often for free, or on a promise of some sort. There is a feed-forward of some Plan B writers, to, for instance, The Guardian. I have personally gained some paid work via my volunteered labour and I moved from fanzines to mainstream magazines. Sharon Zukin has written about the 80s art market, how in 1980 Citibank estimated $1.5 billion dollars to have been generated by ‘cultural production’, tourism being central to this (Zukin, S. 1989). She links this explicitly to real estate and ‘gentrification’, something we have seen later, in, to name but two places, Shoreditch and Manchester (Williams, 2001). Zukin calls this process ‘a winner takes all culture’, both in terms of artistic production and gentrification, describing the ‘extreme gaps between commercially successful and unsuccessful artists’ (Zukin, S. 2000: 263). The UK creative industries in total are no less impressive than the figures Zukin cites for the U.S. in the 1980s:

‘Although perceived as a new industry, the creative industries are a major economic force contributing more than many of the established industry sectors both directly to GDP and indirectly through their role in job creation and urban regeneration. In 2001 they accounted for approximately £54.8 billion of the UK Gross Value Added (GVA), reflecting an 8.2 per cent share of the GDP’ - Creative Industries International Trade Strategy 2005-6 (UK Trade and Investment publication)

Of course, much of this will be paid work, but in terms of creative fuel for the industry, the UK far overproduces, via its wonderful art schools and ‘fringe’ creative production, done on the cheap, or next-to-nothing. ‘We-think’ must be a leveler of sorts, as I’m now contributing to the draft of a book by a writer who is far more well-known than I am. It is clear that new media creates opportunities and access, Plan B magazine being another example. I read an interview with Blaise Cendrars some months ago, who discussed how hard it was for incredible writers such as Apollinaire to be published in the early years of the 20th Century. I am utterly indebted to the opening of access which has occurred since then. This book is due to be published though, for which I guess there will be an advance of some sort and a name on the cover. Although I am grateful for the privilege to make my point here (assuming, of course, that it will make the final cut) I must re-iterate that point, by suggesting that we-think can never be a non-hierarchical situation.

It would be easy to describe EMI as a cornered bear, lashing out. To some extent, this is the case. As a fan of popular culture, I actually have a great deal of sympathy for the mainstream music industry in changing times, particularly the recent heavy job losses at EMI. 'Sonic Boom', a book by John Alderman, posits a convincing argument. Using the example of Columbia Records, he discusses how Herbie Hancock had a loss-making experimental phase of his career underwritten by the major sales of Simon & Garfunkel, etc. I had always used this argument to temper the more extreme views of my rather more black-and-white thinking friends, who are naively 'anti-mainstream'. But I think that right now, although we are witnessing a major re-negotiation of creative working practices, with some emancipatory features, we are also seeing a re-negotiation and morphing of hierarchy, and of ‘the majors’, of the corporate, rather than their deaths. YouTube/Google, CBS/Last FM. Networking that is open and mobile, horizontal rather than vertical, isn’t necessarily value-free.

Some references:

Bain, A. (2005) Constructing an artistic identity. Work, Employment and Society, Vol.19, No.1, March 2005.

Leadbetter, C. (2006) Are You Thinking What I’m Thinking, from Times Online, October 13, 2006, accessed 29/05/07.

Miller (2007) interviewed by Louis Pattison, Plan B, issue 21

Stallabrass (2005) Art Incorporated. Oxford: OUP

Williams, R.J. (2001) ‘Anything is Possible - The Annual Programme 1995-2000’. From Life is Good In Manchester. Manchester: Trice.

Zukin, S. (2000) Century City: Art and Culture in the Modern Metropolis. London: Tate Modern.

Zukin, S. (1989) Loft Living: Culture and Capital in Urban Change. New Jersey: Rutgers University Press.

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