The 'Creative Economy' and Culture

© Donald Richardson, May, 2007

John Hartley's Navigating through a universe of information (ON LINE opinion, 7/5/07) is a curate's egg ('good in parts'). We can all readily agree with his premise that communications technology has moved beyond the capacity of most schools to afford it and/or that of most teachers and curricula to deal with what he calls 'this new toy' . And it is a scandal that all Australian governments have so under-funded education in the last decade that he can make a truly damning comparison with what they did when print literacy was the new thing.

But, it is not the new technology as such that is the problem. We know that it will soon pass, just as the other outmoded technologies have: celluloid film, cell animation, shellac discs, acetate discs, wire tape, cassette tape, videotape, CD etc - all in time ephemeral. And - how many of us have floppy discs of various vintages none of which we can now access on our current computers?

The problem is - as it always was - the content of the medium. The technology (the medium) is - as it was, even in the Stone Age - only secondary to what it communicates. In fact, the content is the only reason the technology exists! The content of the new technology - information (at best) and rumour and gossip (at worst) (mainly the latter, unfortunately) - is being passed off, and accepted by our youth, as education, knowledge and wisdom. This is nothing short of a tragedy.

To suggest that pop culture - 'purposeless entertainment', Hartley styles it, validly - is a viable replacement for school education is nothing more than a bootstraps theory of education: the ignorant teaching the unenlightened. An eminent American theorist once styled our use of communications media as 'Amusing ourselves to death'.

But, we had all this in the 1960s with the 'trendies' who told us Disney had replaced Shakespeare (well, he did try to!). Wikipedia even advises its users not to rely on the validity of its content. 'Creative innovation' based on the antics of the sad and ignorant individuals on TV's Big Brother rather than George Orwell's original character will lead only to galloping ignorance.

Despite their vociferous protests to the contrary - teenagers are essentially conservative beings, which is why they dress alike, have gangs and confide in each other. This is an understandable ego-defence mechanism in an environment that continually challenges their psyches. Education, on the other hand, is progressive (a posteriori as distinct from a priori) - and, thus, potentially threatening to the young individual's status quo. So, all cultures have - in their various ways, through initiation ceremonies or university degrees - had to force education on their teenagers to obviate them staying immature for the rest of their lives .

Hartley vaunts the concept of the '"long tail" of self-made content', which was conceived by Chris Anderson in 2006. But, the 'discovery' that there are opportunities to create and market things for which there is not a mass market is no less than the self-deception of the culture of advertisers: their myopia has blinded them to the fact that the local hairdresser, dressmaker, legal firm, advertiser, vegetable shop, winery etc ad infinitum has always survived despite the mass marketing of Coca Cola, Target and McDonalds. Nothing new about the 'long tail'!

Hartley is critical of the 'expert elites' who insist that there is a canon of worthwhile, educational content. This reminds me of our prime minister who uses 'elite' similarly as a pejorative to denigrate those who hold a different opinion from his own. But both are oblivious to the fact that 'elites' - who are no more than people who have studied something more than the average - exist in every field (including politics and communications). In fact, they are nothing less than our true educators.

Hartley asserts that 'while [teenagers] may not be able to spell they can tell you their life story on MySpace' But, to do this, they will have to be able to spell well enough to communicate at least minimally. And where do they get the means to do so? Certainly not from the medium itself. The medium has no content worthy of the name - apart from what Marshall McLuhan many years ago, referring to television, characterised as 'the medium is the message' (later, acknowledging the deleterious way advertising had taken over TV, 'the medium is the massage').

Much teenage gossip confirms the psychological theory that our instincts can be categorised into those dealing with our self-preservation and those the survival of the species - 'self and sex', as the catchphrase goes. They talk about problems at home and of their personal maturation and about boys/girls! And, of course, it is uninformed discussion. Well, not entirely uninformed because it is informed by pop culture - rap singing, Big Brother, graffiti, drug culture, the movies and - now - Bollywood! The knowledge equivalent of the junk-food diet - also the result of smart marketing. Style over substance. Entertainment over education.

The fallacy of this methodology is exemplified by the number of pop idols from the vinyl and video era who have fallen to cupidity, drug abuse, cheating and violent crime. Clearly, the entertainment industry cannot be trusted to provide good role-models for our youth.

And the concept of 'creative industries', much vaunted by the Queensland University of Technology , sells itself for its ability to generate and market entertainment - including computer games - and ignores the many real problems that creatives should be giving their attention to. It is noteworthy that Hartley gives us not even a suggestion of a map to use in navigating his universe of information. So - what is he telling us that we don't already know?

But, it is true that only the exceptional schools are into nurturing creative innovation in their students. This is a great pity. Teenagers are driven to individuate themselves from the crowd as much as they seek refuge in the popular and, thus, are ripe to receive information and the wisdom to equip them for a fulfilling adult life.

And Hartley is wrong to assert that what we are experiencing is a user- or consumer-led revolution. On the contrary, it is market- or, rather, marketer- or marketing-driven. An axiom of advertising has it that marketing cannot create a demand; that it can only channel an existing demand. In western culture, the young have ever wished to demonstrate their difference from - and presumed 'advancement' on - their elders. They have done this through their choice of clothing and hair fashions, taste in music and entertainment etc - all, in principle, media of communication - and, of course, developing their own in-group patois. There is nothing new in principle about SMS or YouTube: it is just marketers taking advantage of an existing demand to make many fast bucks.

Finally, we need to recognize that the current digital marketing phenomenon is a replay of the situation in the 1970s when the purveyors of the then new medium, television, brought about - and, largely, bought - a revolution in libraries, forcing schools to turn them into 'resource centres' and to install TV reticulation cables in classrooms - at enormous expense and, of course, profit to the marketers. All of which was redundant in a few years. Not to mention Henry Ford's famous boner, of half a century before, that the invention of the movie film would bring about the demise of the library. Talk about déja vu!

(Why has print persisted, we wonder?)