[iDC] more thoughts about fan-labor/'playbour"

pat kane playethical at gmail.com
Sun Jun 14 11:00:49 UTC 2009

HI all

Decided to sit down and read the 37,000-odd words so far generated on  
this list, and it's like riding a bucking bronco... exhilarating, but  

I'm hoping to respond to many of the points in specific, but in lieu  
of that, I thought I'd share this slightly edited fragment from a  
presentation I made at Cambridge University's CRASSH seminar earlier  
this year on metrics of creativity (and their impossiblity!). I think  
It relates to recent iDC discussions on fan-labour and playbour.

I'm trying to look at the interactions on our Hue And Cry Music Club  
site through the lens of two research papers from academics  
presenting at the seminar - one an anthropologist who studies social  
creativity in Melanesia, and one from sociologist Nigel Thrift  
(mentioned by Trebor recently) who has a radical (and to me somewhat  
pitiless) social theory about innovation in the network age.

I kinda feel like Engels the reluctant business partner to the  
various multiple Marx's on this list, sometimes... hope that a  
trader's perspective, working through the "murky typologies" of  
interactive enterprise, may be of interest.

best, pk

FROM "Taking Reality Lightly: the challenge of play to metrics of  
creativity" http://www.theplayethic.com/2009/04/measuringcreativity.html


...The first piece I was given was by my chair, James Leach, titled  
'Modes of Creativity'. As I understand it, James is attempting to  
specify what he would call a 'Euro-American' appropriative model of  
creativity, rooted in a conception of creativity as the intellectual  
act of an individual/individuals upon a material world – a world that  
remains inanimate until its elements have been recombined or  
transformed by external mental activity. This conception is the basis  
of what we might called Western intellectual property and copyright law.

Leach compares this mode of creativity to that experienced by Nekgini  
speakers in the Rai Coast, Melanesia. For me, this was a head- 
wrenching account of a profoundly non-Western and relentlessly  
intersubjective world of people and things – an effect which I expect  
the best anthropology is designed to do for the reader.

But what struck me was actually the possibility that, in the Euro- 
American techno-culture, an existing middle-ground between these two  
modes of creativity – one appropriative, one generative – might well  
be opening up, right in the heart of the network society. But that  
middle-ground is very tough, complex and ambiguous.

In short, I found myself comparing a lot of James's distinctions  
between these two wildly different modes of creativity, with what  
we're trying to do with an online community website we're running  
around Hue And Cry, called the Hue And Cry Music Club (http:// 

For the Rai Coast people, James says that their "spirits/songs are  
seen as a resource – a powerful one, as they elicit the currency of  
kinship, the currency through which affinal (reproductive) relations  
are managed."

Well, I don't know that we have kinship, or affinal relations managed  
through our website (although there's a lot of flirting between  
members). But it clearly struck me that our songs are a resource and  
currency for friendship and affiliation between our fans. That's  
exactly how they use these songs, as they surf and morph these  
ramifying, malleable networks. The strange thing about networked  
digitalisation, and the way that it's currently challening old ideas  
of how to commercialise music, is that it's supporting the kind of  
'music as social currency' practices that James sees in indigenous  
societies. There's a kind of resignation about 'the end of music as  
property' in the music biz – which opens up interesting new  
opportunities for live performance.

But other things about the Reite people's mode of creativity sounded  
familiar to me. I quote James again:

"For Reite people creativity is a necessary process. Human life does  
not continue without it. Humanity is not defined by the contingency  
of creative action (in thought/mental operation) but by the necessity  
of embodying and acting creatively…

"Relations established with others create those others and oneself in  
the work of differentiation… We come to this insight through the  
contrast with intellectual property rights, which make creativity  
into a specific resource, its presence contingent upon certain  
conditions of emergence. The notion of resource implies scarcity, and  
scarcity is a measure of value. But creativity is not scarce in  
Reite. Resources for these people lie elsewhere. People themselves  
are valuable, not what they produce as objects." (My italics)"

Now I'm struck by how similar the idea that "people themselves are  
valuable, not what they produce as objects" is to the experience of  
social networking that our site demonstrates and many social network  
sites do. Certainly, the experience of social networks is of a realm  
defined by a plenitude of possibities for creative interaction with  
others, rather than a scarcity. Our Euro-American, rather than just  
Melanesian, "necessity for embodying and acting creatively" is  
possibly disclosed by the radically cooperative nature of socio- 
technical networks. Clay Shirky in his recent book Here Comes  
Everybody notes that the cheap organising tools of Web 2.0 – their  
propensity for 'insanely easy group-forming' – are revealing a realm  
of daily sociability that simply hasn't had the opportunity to  
express itself in such an organised way before.

Another quote from James:

As Wagner points out, ‘Westerners’ value the objects, the outcomes of  
creativity: ‘we keep the ideas, the quotations, the memoirs, the  
creations and let the people go. Our attics ... [and] museums are  
full of this kind of culture’ (Wagner 1975: 26). In contrast, palems  
[the groups that the Reite people form] do not last. Torrposts [one  
of their symbolic objects of exchange] rot away in the bush. Their  
effect is to maintain separations between people, to distribute  
‘creativity’ throughout existence. Intellectual property regimes have  
the effect, to the contrary, of concentrating creativity in  
particular individuals, and then in individual kinds of mental  
operation which amount to forms of appropriation by the subject." [My  

In light of this point, wasn't it fascinating to see those recent  
protests organised against Facebook's explicit 'apprpriation of the  
subjective flows of its users' sociability? My guess is that the  
mentality wasn't as much "you're trying to make money our of my  
stuff', as much as "you're commodifying something which I regard as a  
record of my sociability with friends and family". It also reminds me  
of the debates we had in setting up the Music Club – whether to  
charge a fee or not. The rule-of-thumb for this in e-commerce is that  
you get a tenth of the possible community membership if you ask  
people to pay for a service. The intrinsically commons-based nature  
of the Net compels any web-commercial enterprise to take into account  
that, at the very least, the cash nexus has to be sensitively  
handled, or pushed to the margins. There is a default expectation  
among users that this is a 'cornucopia of the commons' (however much  
of a 'tragedy' it might be for one's cash-flow!).

My take-away from Leach's paper is that the Euro-American mode of  
appropriative creativity is already being challenged by open-source  
production and remix culture. Yet it's the "hybrid" enterprises  
trying to survive in this environment that concern me – those that  
balance closed copyright or enclosed and scarce commodities, with  
open commuity involvement. Other than via a neo-communism [the social  
wage suggested by many Italian Marxists and Greens], how else can  
creators find some way to be recompensed for their art?


This brings me to the second paper – Nigel Thrift's Re-inventing  
Invention. To me this was almost like reportage of our business  
model, and about a near to a political economy of play as I've ever  
read, particularly if play is about 'taking reality lightly'. I could  
talk all day about this, but I'll confine myself to a few comments.

What Thrift gets absolutely right is the strategic intent of people  
like myself who are trying to ply my cultural trade, in what he calls  
"a different kind of capitalist world, one in which a new epistemic  
ecology of encounter will dwell and have its effects, a world of  
indirect but continuous expression, which is also a world in which  
that expression can backfire on its makers".

He also gets it right about what kind of business cultural players,  
and particularly musicians, are up to in this environment – "from  
simply the invention of new commodities to the capture or  
configuration of new worlds into which these commodities are  
inserted". As the strap-line for our Music Club has it: "Music,  
Friendship and More for Hue And Cry Fans". The 'And More' isn't  

Another quote:

  "Consumers have become involved in the production of communities  
around particular commodities which themselves generate value, by  
fostering allegiance, by offering instant feedback and by providing  
active interventions in the commodity itself".

That's absolutely accurate about the intentional design, and the  
eventual usage, of our site. But the key experiential driver of the  
site is the live experience of watching our band – urging fans to  
record the gig on their phones, to record themselves at the gig, to  
create collages that represent their experience.

Professor Thrift puts the relationship between digital plenitude and  
live experience into his theory as well (he should be a music manager):

"In line with the increasing tendency to want to gather invention in  
wherever it may be found, new time-space arrangements have to be  
designed that can act as traps for innovation and invention. They are  
spaces of circulation, then, but, more than that, they are clearly  
also meant to be, in some (usually poorly specified) way that is  
related to their dynamic and porous nature, spaces of inspiration  
incorporating many possible worlds."

Thrift is talking here about the well-designed public centres for  
science and culture that are opening up to house what he calls the  
'brainy classes'. But when we do a gig in Shepherd's Bush Empire, is  
it "a space of inspiration incorporating many possible worlds" – or  
an enclosed space in which one artistic experience is dominant? As a  
songwriter, I'd like to say that there are worlds within and between  
every song… but some may disagree…

For me this is Thrift at his most spookily descriptive of my project  
as a musician in the world of indirect but continuous expression:

"Design has increasingly therefore become re-cast as interaction  
design : the design of commodities that behave, communicate or  
inform, if even in the most marginal way, in part by making them into  
processes of variation and difference that can allow for the  
unforeseen activities in which they may become involved or, used for  
which, may then act as clues to further incarnations. In other words,  
‘the success of a design is arrived at socially’ - that is through  
structured processes of cultural deliberation which massage form… 
Another way of putting this is that ‘through the activity of design  
the process of production provides information for itself about  
itself ’ This is another means of understanding co-creation, of  
course, as a continual process of tuning arrived at by distributed  

Our experience of using the modular social networking platform Ning  
chimes exactly with this. We literally massage the form of this  
platform, shift one element around, create new ones and kill old  
ones, in the face of a stream of "unforseen activities" by users that  
give us clues as how to develop the site. "A continual process of  
tuning arrived at by distributed aspiration" is precisely descriptive  
of the relationship between our fans and ourselves through this  
network – their enthusiasm as they sit at their terminals throughout  
the country is indeed a "distributed aspiration", and their actions  
continually tune the music of our site's design and functionality.  
And to return to Thrift's initial quote: some of that tuning can be  
in the face of quite severe critiques from fans, not just for how  
much we're trying to sell them stuff, but sometimes how little (or  
how wrongly) we're trying to sell them stuff! Trade and commerce  
become one form of socially-regulated exchange in the Hue And Cry  
Music Club, among many other kinds of reciprocations, with no prior  
place in any hierarchy of actions within the site.

But there are points where that co-creation of the Hue And Cry  
interactive reality is limited or arrested. For example, my brother  
and I are still wedded to the idea of an CD with 12-15 songs,  
produced in seclusion by myself and my brother, the result of a  
silting-up of experience and living, and brought out to the world as  
a punctual event. As artists, we still want to reserve that old  
Romantic right to conduct an act of poiesis – rather than be always  
lost in the cybernetic coils of autopoiesis. And we believe that our  
fans want that also.

I know what Thrift means when he talks of "a world made incarnate by  
a co-shaping which is an intrinsic property neither of the human  
being nor of the artefact", or when he dreams of "an animated economy  
in which the entities being dealt with are not people but innovations  
that are constantly trying to multiply themselves, ‘quanta of change  
with a life of their own’"… a world dependent upon and activated by  
germs of talent, which are driven by sentiments and knowledge and are  
able to circulate easily through a semiconscious process of imitation  
that generates difference from within itself. The world becomes a  
continuous and inexhaustible process of emergence of inventions that  
goes beyond slavish accumulation."

I know what he means – or I should say, I know what he memes… But  
emotionally, do I want to live there? I've rarely been as chilled in  
reading social theory when I read Thrift on one of the new  
sensibilities he thinks is worth charting in this new, full-on  
capitalism. This is a permanent tactical manoevering with the way the  
world is, an endless 'war of position' in everyday life: all of us  
interactives in a state of permanent, combative deployment (rather  
than employment) of one's energies and skills. (Thrift takes his  
metaphor from the Chinese military ethic of shi).

I returned rather gladly to James Leach's point that our over- 
intellectualised model of creativity does not consider how we  
socially reproduce that creativity, through families, affective ties,  
nuturance and community. For all the excitement of Thrift's non- 
human, cyborg-style modern consciousness, I'm still not surprised  
that most pop songs are about love. Or that some can present the best  
and most searching ethical questions you ever heard (or didn't want  
to hear).

Pat Kane
Mob: +44 (0)7718 588497
Twitter: theplayethic



All mail to: playethical at gmail.com

The idea is all there is. Trust me.
- Ornette Coleman http://bit.ly/2VDLPI

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