The enduring creative class and the myth of samizdat

by Rob Horning

9 August 2008


In a riposte to tech pessimists like Nicholas Carr, media blogger Jeff Jarvis argues that “the myth of the creative class” is in the process of being extinguished by the internet.

The internet doesn’t make us more creative, I don’t think. But it does enable what we create to be seen, heard, and used. It enables every creator to find a public, the public he or she merits. And that takes creation out of the proprietary hands of the supposed creative class.

Pretty to think so. This is internet ideology at its most inspirational: the Web allows us to be individuals rather than part of a mass addressed by media monoliths, and it allows meritocracy to at last become a reality, and no one will be any more famous than he or she deserves.

The playing field is flat and to stand out one must now do so on merit - as defined by the public rather than the priests - which will be rewarded with links and attention. This is our link economy, our culture of links. It is a meritocracy, only now there are many definitions of merit and each must be earned.

A look back at the history of internet fads makes one skeptical though. And it seems that the power networks of the offline media replicate themselves online—the commercial media has a more vested interest in drumming up traffic and integrating content production with advertising support, so they invest money and effort accordingly, with the effect of reproducing the offline mode of production online. Independent bloggers are adopted by national publications, and their content is branded by the big media companies, and the power of branding to confer authority begins to exert itself over the once-wide-open sphere of communication. It becomes harder to be some random person with a blogger account and still get discovered and linked to—it can happen, but then so could my letter to the editor be published as a column on the NYT opinion page. It’s just not very likely.

As Jarvis would have it, Web space has replaced the hip urban centers celebrated by Richard Florida as the site where inspired minds congregate to inspire one another.

This link ecology does potentially change the nature of creativity. It makes it more collaborative, not just in the act but in the inspiration. Coelho’s Witch of Portobello is the spark that leads to a movie made by its readers. Same with Stern, LonelyGirl, Colbert. Perhaps the role of the creative class is not so much to make finished products but to inspire more to be made. It is the flint of creativity. It’s the internet - Google, Flickr, YouTube, and old, mass media as their accessories - that bring flint and spark together.

This sort of thing plays out as the much heralded “remix culture”—consumers become producers by using digital cultural products as a language for their own creative expressions. This undermines the old allegiances that paved the way for subcultures anchored in various nexuses of music and fashion and zines and so on, and introduces a more motley pastiche form of culture that is at the same time more homogeneous than ever. The internet—the link economy, the amateur parodies and homages of culture industry product, etc.—becomes a hegemonic form for cultural expression even as it become more heterogeneous in its composite parts. You might make a steampunk rap video with snippets of sitcoms mixed in, but it will still be posted on YouTube in the end. It has become so much easier to publish samizdat that samizdat now no longer has any meaning as a form.

I’m not sure this more democratic access to the means of distribution ultimately frees up an abundance of heretofore suppressed talent or shifts anything away from the established creative class—the anointed ones who shape the culture that consumers remix. Yes, the internet provides uncolonized space for cultural activity, a space that is ever expanding. You never reach the Western shore. There is always more room for “creative” pioneers to stake claims. But the majority of cultural consumers aren’t interested in lighting out for the territories, and the creative class continues to run what is recognized socially as the civilized portion of that vast online space, and it is slowly expanding its control assimilating the more promising outliers. This seems no different from how things have always worked in the culture industries; if anything the dependence on the law-giving creative class strengthens with so much chaos lurking at the fringes.

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