The myth of the creative class

As I near the end of writing my book, one lesson that has struck me is about the will of most people to create, and the new possibilities the Google age brings us.

One survey I quote says that 81 percent of us say we have a book in us. Another survey says that a coincidental 81 percent of young people think they have a business in them. We make tens of millions of blogs. We take hundreds of millions of Flickr photos. A few hundred thousand people write applications for Facebook. Paulo Coelho (see the post below) asks his readers to make a movie of his book and they eagerly do so. Stephen Colbert challenges his viewers to remix John McCain and they do. Howard Stern doesn’t even ask his listeners and they produce no end of song parodies and anthems to Baba Booey. The art and entertainment of Lonely Girl 15 becomes not just the videos they make but the videos viewers make. Every minute, 10 hours of video are uploaded to YouTube. People create T-shirt designs on Threadless and sneaker designs on Ryz and things of all descriptions on Etsy. BMW invites drivers to color a car and 9,000 people do. And on and on.

This has surely always been the case. 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.

Internet curmudgeons argue that Google et al are bringing society to ruin precisely because they rob the creative class of its financial support and exclusivity: its pedestal. But internet triumphalists, like me, argue that the internet opens up creativity past one-size-fits-all mass measurements and priestly definitions and lets us not only find what we like but find people who like what we do. The internet kills the mass, once and for all. With it comes the death of mass economics and mass media, but I don’t lament that, not for a moment.

The curmudgeons also argue that this level playing field is flooded with crap: a loss of taste and discrimination. I’ll argue just the opposite: Only 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.

We have believed – I have been taught – that there are two scarcities in society: talent and attention. There are only so many people with talent and we give their talent only so much attention – not enough of either.

But we are shifting, too, from a culture of scarcity to one of abundance. That is the essence of the Google worldview: managing abundance. So let’s assume that instead of a scarcity there is an abundance of talent and a limitless will to create but it has been tamped down by an educational system that insists on sameness; starved by a mass economic system that rewarded only a few giants; and discouraged by a critical system that anointed a closed, small creative class. Now talent of many descriptions and levels can express itself and grow. We want to create and we want to be generous with our creations. And we will get the attention we deserve. That means that crap will be ignored. It just depends on your definition of crap.

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.

I’ve long disagreed with those who say that copyright kills creativity, for I do believe that there is no scarcity of inspiration. But I now understand their position better. I also have learned that when creations are restricted it is the creator who suffers more because his creation won’t find its full and true public, its spark finds no kindling, and the fire dies. The creative class, copyright, mass media, and curmudgeonly critics stop what should be a continuing process of creation; like reverse alchemists, they turn abundance into scarcity, gold into lead.

When we talk about the Google age, then, we do talk about a new society and the rules I explore in my book are the rules of that society, built on connections, links, transparency, openness, publicness, listening, trust, wisdom, generosity, efficiency, markets, niches, platforms, networks, speed, and abundance.

I start by talking about business: how all this affects company, industries, and then institutions and how to react and find advantage in this change. But it will also affect life, and that is what I am writing in the last section of the book. I’m doing that starting today so, as always, I’d be grateful for your generous, wise, open, and abundant thoughts on the topic. Thanks.

: Other categories of ideas I think I’m dealing with in this ending on the impact of Google on society: its impact on our relations; on our attitudes, ethics, and skills; on our institutions and organization.

: LATER: In the comments, Sean says I should link to Richard Florida’s books on the creative class. I have to confess that I bought one of them but never got through it. Books are such an echo chamber.