Category Archives: Observations

Creativity & Technology in a New Renaissance

Commissioned in April 2018 by the Institute of Art & Ideas as an introduction for a research report on the “New Renaissance” in creativity in European cities for Huawei.

What is distinctive about humanity? Is it our capacity to turn abstract thoughts and feelings into concrete expressions and artefacts? Or our capacity to empathise, to imagine ourselves in the situation of others, to perceive and share things from their perspective? These are among the everyday feats of imagination and creativity that should never stop astounding us, never stop inspiring us to keep refashioning our environments and communities for the better. Communicating such experiences is a feature common to societies across time and geography. The history of humanity is also one of technology – our ability to externalise concepts, experiences and skills into pragmatic tools that help us achieve what we desire. From writing to engineering, astronomy to medicine, we continue to devise new technologies to enhance our capabilities and increase our enjoyment of what it is to be alive.

At the heart of contemporary civilisation are our technologies of communication. What we choose to share and how we share it, with whom and when. Technology is, of course, one of the prime outputs of human creativity: it is the practical result of the blending of a range of different knowledge domains, skills and expertise: from scientific theory and discovery, to engineering application combined with social, cultural and economic purpose. Any technological product is thus the child of many different disciplinary parents, all shaping aspects of its evolution from idea to product or service in the hands of its users. Along the way, it is not just the scientists and engineers who invent technologies, it is also the creative visionaries who deal in ideas, dreams and artistic expressions who help define technologies’ purposes, uses and values in the wider arena of society and culture.

The development of digital and networked technologies since the 1940s has been among the most evident demonstration of this creative collaboration between scientists, technologists, thinkers and creative practitioners. Artists have been among the most early and enthusiastic adopters of emerging technologies – often adapting them for purposes far beyond the practical and pragmatic uses which might have triggered their production. In particular, there is a rich history of artists not only adopting new technologies, but being at the heart of their development – helping shape them as they evolve both in research laboratories and in other, less formal, settings. Such collaborations have fuelled and driven not only the technologies themselves but also the public consciousness of the potential of the technologies to enable everyone to be creative and share their creativity. Technology companies have often invited artists to experiment and test their new products as part of this process; meanwhile an artistic ‘underground’ has consistently been at the forefront of developing alternative technologies to the mainstream. Technologies are never neutral, but always the products of the cultures that nurture them.

In this ‘New Renaissance’, our understandings of what it means to be creative and visionary are also changing. For centuries it was people with power and wealth who defined through their patronage who could be creative, and the channels through which their creativity could reach other people. Now distributed networks and communications technologies are opening up the near universal possibility for expression and sharing of creativity. As society engages with the practical implications of Joseph Beuys’ contention that “everyone is an artist”, people are having to question traditional assumptions and to re-define notions of value in creativity. What does it now mean to be ‘creative’, to be an artist, when everyone can express and share their creativity? What is different and valuable to society about those people who choose to make their creativity the core of their life and work? What are the perceptual tools required to cope with and appreciate the abundance of creativity enriching our lives?

Professional artists too are having to re-think and re-define their practices in a dynamically creative society. Such changes encompass social, cultural, economic and political shifts as well as the technological. Being ‘creative’ is no longer seen as an exclusive preserve of privileged individuals, instead it is a challenge to everyone to realise as much of our individual potential as we can. Yet some of the traditional roles that artists play in society nonetheless persist : as visionaries, educators, inspirations, pioneers, provocateurs, critics, storytellers, speakers of truth to power, transformers of the mundane into the extraordinary.

In my own work over the past two decades, I have worked at the intersection of art, emerging technologies and social change, devising projects and collaborations that have sought to peer ahead, to envision new possibilities for people to share what they value about the world we live in. Distributed, networked communication technologies have been crucial to this endeavour – enabling people to achieve personal agency in expressing their individual creativity in ways which, just a generation ago, would have seemed improbable if not unattainable. Whilst it is relatively simple to make predictions of the kind of technological changes that might take place in the near future, what is much more challenging is to make sense of the unfolding social and cultural changes that are happening as a result of an exponential liberation of the means of communicating among ourselves. Where once ideas took generations to circulate and where control of the means of production was almost exclusively from the centre to the margins, now we have the means for each person to amplify and resonate not only within their own local community, but globally. The implications of this profound transformation, both positive and negative, are already being felt in almost every country and community around the world. Where they lead us is in no way clear as the disruptive forces they have unleashed bring complications and uncertainties into areas of life considered stable and unchanging, or at least resilient to fashion and slow to adapt.

However, such transformations are the fuel of artistic exploration and experiment – they provoke and inspire new visions and possibilities to be created and shared. And the ways in which artists are able to share their ideas is much more participatory and engaged than before, precisely because of the kinds of communication technologies which have become virtually ubiquitous. The landscape of where creative encounters take place has thus broadened dramatically, as have the modes in which people can take an active part in culture. They are civic technologies in that they enable so much more for people to contribute creatively as citizens than just as consumers. What shapes that civic societies will take in different places, will reflect the great diversity of cultures and creativity that make us human.

London, April 2018

The Charter of the Forest & The New Enclosures

November 6th 2017 is the 800th anniversary of The Charter of The Forest – a landmark document in English law which guaranteed common people access to royal lands to forage, graze their animals, gather wood for fuel and building and to conduct small scale farming. Coming two years after the Magna Carta whose benefits were limited to a small number of barons, the Charter of the Forest set out a “a system of governance for the common stewardship of shared resources”, an early understanding of the importance of mutuality and reciprocity between people and living natural systems. Since England was covered by roughly two thirds forest – much of which was “royal” land, this was the equivalent of guaranteeing that the poorest people would be able to subsist off the land without fear of the harsh punishments that had been imposed in the late 1080s by King William II (“Rufus”) and later by King Henry II.

The Charter of the Forest, like Magna Carta, was incorporated into English Statute Law in 1297 and has the distinction of remaining law until revoked in 1971 (its key provisions having been incorporated into subsequent Acts of Parliament over the centuries and finally into the Wild Creatures and Forest Laws Act 1971). One of its effects was to constrain monarchs and landowners from enclosing ‘common’ land by default, although in later periods this was circumvented by the passing of individual Acts of Parliament – most notably in the 18th Century when huge areas were sequestered by the nobility and the wealthy for their own personal gain at the expense of local communities.

“The Charter of the Forest guaranteed access to the land for common people to forage, graze their animals, farm and gather wood for fuel, building and industry. At a time when the royal forests were the most important source of food, fuel and wood for the production of craft items, it guaranteed rights to herbage (gathering berries and herbs), pannage (pasture for pigs), estover (wood to build homes, make tools and for firewood), agistment (grazing), turbary (cutting of turf for fuel), and the collecting of honey.”
Julie Timbrell

The charter also granted smallholders rights to farm: “Henceforth every freeman, in his wood or on his land that he has in the forest, may with impunity make a mill, fish-preserve, pond, marl-pit, ditch or arable in cultivated land outside coverts, provided that no injury is thereby given to any neighbour.” In this respect, the charter’s guarantees may have provided inspiration for critical thinkers such as Thomas Paine, whose books Common Sense, Rights of Man and Agrarian Justice set out key concepts of liberty, governance and equitable access to the commonwealth (such as a universal basic income).

 

The Charter of the Forest is included in the set of books I published in 2015 celebrating the 800th anniversary of Magna Carta – read it online, download and make up your own copy, or purchase one of the last remaining sets (bound with red silk).

The New Enclosures

The digital revolution and the growth of network communications has led to an extraordinary profusion of new types of ‘commons’ whilst, at the same time, seeing a breathtakingly rapid enclosure of these ‘commons’ by a handful of global corporations. Their rise to pre-eminence over the initially fragmented and anarchic world wide web has been swift yet is by no means certain or secure. The growing scandal of electoral interference via social media advertising in the 2016 US election and Brexit Referendum (as well as reported hacking in the 2017 French presidential election) has exposed just how vulnerable to (if not complicit in) uncivil, anti-democratic action these platforms are. Coupled with the Snowden revelations of blanket surveillance by US & UK government agencies (no doubt mirrored to some degree by other governments elsewhere) we can see that these technologies are fundamentally imbalanced in favour of large, opaque institutions and corporations.

Its clear that the digital realm will need more than just bland promises to act well from those who seek to profit from it most. It is as intrinsically a network of sites and places where humans come together to interact as any other traditional places where rules, laws and social conventions define the ways in which we behave in our own interests without harming others. Those who have power in these spaces are, from time to time, held accountable and required to act with responsibility. Such conventions differ across cultures, societies and jurisdictions and there have been (and remain) many notable exceptions, severe imbalances and asymmetries. In our uncertain times, it is to models of stewardship of the commons like the Charter of the Forest that we could look for precedents in developing compacts – about the kind of world we want to live in – between ordinary people and those who have power.

2018 will see the adoption across the European Union of the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) – what is probably the most important shift in how we will come to use digital technologies in recent memory. The GDPR creates some new rights for individuals and strengthens certain existing rights: to be informed; of access; to rectification; to erasure; to restrict processing; to data portability; to object; and, in relation to automated decision making and profiling. It also regulates data  ‘controllers’ and ‘processors’ to be accountable in demonstrable ways and to maintain comprehensive records of all data control and processing. There are, however, significant loopholes (via the derogations) that may well be exploitable by governments, public agencies and corporations in spite of the GDPR’s provisions.

Others have also sought to find complementary ways to negotiate the boundaries between platforms and users: one noteworthy attempt (which I made a small contribution to) is the Social Charter for Smart Platforms, created as part of the EU’s Smart Society research project. Such charters are, I believe, fundamentally different from some of the more exotic technological attempts to ‘automate’ trust by devolving conscious responsibilities and observation of mutual obligations to background processes – such as the ‘blockchain‘. These simply replace one set of powerful people at the centre of key social processes (bankers, politicians, lawyers etc) for another set (engineers & programmers) who understand and can manipulate the fiendish complexities of its computational processes. If anything, I believe we need to rely less on automated systems that replace human consciousness, and focus more on engaging people to feel their own agency in participating in the relationships that drive our societies and cultures. 

What I think the Charter of the Forest offers us is a model for how we can come to describe things that are beyond private ownership – things that belong to a commonwealth we can all share in, nurture and harvest from. How our current generations steward these resources, be they tangible systems of living nature, physical resources or intangible ideas and knowledge is what is at stake. After the horrors of the Second World War and the upheavals of the mid-Twentieth Century, it seemed as though there was a chance that a fairer world was slowly emerging. But relentless greed and the modern day enclosures of wealth and resources principally via privatisation of national assets, the sequestration and obscuring of wealth in tax havens away from its fair contribution to taxation, these factors have dire historical precedents and echoes. Increasing inequality, reducing fairness and commonality have only ever resulted in catastrophic civilisational upsets or collapse. Coupled with impending climate change the pressure for radical change in how we share our world and govern our polities can only build up so much before something ruptures.

“Each generation must discover its mission, fulfill it or betray it, in relative opacity…

…What matters today, the issue which blocks the horizon, is the need for a redistribution of wealth. Humanity will have to address this question, no matter how devastating the consequences may be.”
Frantz FanonThe Wretched of the Earth

Pioneering versus Leadership

Recently I’ve had several conversations with friends and colleagues touching on the differences between being a pioneer and being a leader. There have always been support structures for aspiring leaders in many different fields and sectors, but there seems to be very little support for pioneers. Is it because, often being disruptive and maverick, they make other people uneasy? Or perhaps because what they do does not always bring a direct return on investment for sponsors and funders?

One analogy I have been thinking of is that of a ship. Ships require different specialists to fulfill diverse tasks: from engineering, victualling, cooking, communications, maintenance to management. Among these, it is the navigator or pilot’s task to navigate the ship, whilst the captain’s role is to direct the whole crew and be responsible for the ship and its integrity. The navigator must plot a safe course for the ship, earning the trust of the crew and captain that their experience, skill and nous will carry them all safely. I imagine that navigators have to combine heterogeneous skill sets and knowledges – such as weather/meteorology, geography/hydrography, tidal patterns, the mathematics of bodies/mass and movement among other things – to achieve the right synthesis of conditions for their task. I think this is very much like the kind of trans- or interdisciplinary approach that helps foster invention and innovation. Its not for everyone but can be extremely rich and rewarding for those who do participate.

I believe that pioneers are also just the kind of people with the skills to navigate uncharted territories. They survey and map out new territories that are often then colonised – farmed, made productive perhaps – by others who follow in their wake; by which time the pioneers have most likely moved on to new spaces. Leaders could be described as those who stay and organise the territory and the activities that take place within it. It’s this qualitative difference that separates pioneering from leading: leaders work within established frameworks whilst pioneers explore the potential for entirely new structures and frames that don’t yet exist.

What then is the value to society of people who pioneer? How can societies value and appreciate the kind of deferred return on investment that pioneers bring? Is it possible, or even desirable, to nurture pioneers with programmes like those that support those aspiring to leadership roles? Or perhaps, is it too much to ask society to feed the restless nature of those questing souls for whom any structure, in the medium to long term, is probably going to feel irksome?

The question is not an idle one: looking back over my own work of the past two decades there has been a strong element of pioneering in both projects and processes. Some of the projects and concepts I have developed have anticipated mainstream activities, but too far in advance to really reap any benefit from our prescience that could be reinvested in new work. How does one explain, or even demonstrate, the value of this deferred return to funders, sponsors or investors who are increasingly demanding direct returns on investment for the same kind of pioneering work?

There remains a contradiction or tension between wanting to be recognised and rewarded for being so ahead of the field alongside the frustration that people simply don’t understand where you’re trying to taking them. I suspect it comes down to temperament and character, an inexorable drive that just can’t be laid aside.