As the creative industries are being reinvented, there is much hyperbole surrounding the “digital economy”, a concept that is moving to the centre of the Government’s agenda even though many people still feel quite uncertain of what it entails.
This is not completely new; since the 1990s there has been a push to bring together the universities, the arts and the media as key engines of culture and economy. After all, digitisation and “frictionless” production were supposed to change the whole material infrastructure of the economy, generating real revenue out of immaterial bits.
Yet the new Digital Economy Bill, revealed last week by the Government, may well kill this dynamic stone dead. The Government claims that the Bill aims to support growth in the creative and digital sectors, with Lord Mandelson stating that our “creative and digital industries are key to Britain’s future economic success”.
However, far from achieving these goals, the Bill will in fact bring in the age of digital enclosure. The only kind of wealth that counts will be that of the finite, quantifiable and unambiguously monetised kind.
The Bill focuses mostly on infrastructure and copyright and is framed almost exclusively to protect perceived business interests. Whatever one’s views on the interests of business, in the end the Bill will fail business too, because it will undermine the long-term innovation and creativity that fuels the entire sector. It simply does not understand the new mode of cultural production.
All that is digital is collaborative: software, networks, entertainment – social life itself is now a source of wealth. For example, what is often referred to as “remix culture” takes, breaks up, reimagines and creates anew out of the materials to hand – indeed the whole of hip hop and rap has its roots in such a practice. Billion-dollar industries stem from such grassroots creativity, but instead of protecting this, the Bill aims to consolidate the power and economic stakes of existing big players, mostly corporations. It turns internet service providers into police, insisting that they report file sharers, and it gives the state the right to then throw undesirables off the network for as-yet-unspecified violations, which can literally be made up on the fly.
This is counterintuitive to anyone who knows anything about creation in the digital realm. A genuinely bold and innovative approach to the digital economy would account for this. Finland’s idea of claiming web access as a human right is a much better attempt to try to understand the new modes of cultural creativity: its vision relies on the notion that infrastructure should not only govern corporate interests, but be perceived as the basis for arts, critical thinking and democracy.
The questions that the Government should be asking are: what are the necessary building blocks for a 21st-century cosmopolitan network society? How do we support equality, ease of access and creative modes of collaboration? It should be about harnessing emergent non-hierarchical forms of organisation in the arts, sciences and industry; about new democratic practices that online cultures could support; new copyleft and Creative Commons licences that protect cultural producers without taking away the possibility of distribution and remixing by others.
The ultimate irony here is that universities, whose very core is in collaboration and the creation of common wealth, are facing drastic funding cuts that are going to undermine their status as engines for creative, innovative and critical research across the board, from sciences to the arts and humanities, at the same time as the Government is calling on the education sector to be the pathfinder in its vision of the digital economy.
Creativity in the form of such risky and multidisciplinary research has been one factor behind the sector’s success – a recent report prepared by the University of Strathclyde for Universities UK stated that higher education now generates £59 billion annually for the UK economy, more than agriculture or the pharmaceutical industry. Yet by attempting to capture the wealth in the narrow sense, this Bill will squeeze the life out of the common wealth that makes any of it possible at all.