April 30, 2008

Personal essay: Creativity is the new leisure.

(Every day, I like to post at least a thousand words of original content to the CCLaP website; on the days I don't have a review of a book or movie ready, I thought I would try other material, such as this series of personal essays, looking at a topic in the arts from my life that I think you might find relevant or entertaining too. You can click here for a master list of all personal essays now written, if you're interested.)

Sunken Gardens Park, Chicago
Sunken Gardens Park, in the Ravenswood Manor neighborhood of Chicago. Established 1917.

So let me start by admitting that I'm not the biggest overall fan of cultural columnist Clay Shirky; I find a lot of his work to be more snotty and self-congratulatory than insightful, and the people who love his work the most tend to be the same people in daily life who really rub me the wrong way. That said, he has a new essay out this week, a transcript from a recent address he gave at The Web 2.0 Conference, that has everyone talking; and I'm fascinated with it as well, in that he talks about a subject I too have been spending a lot of time in the last year thinking about, but that I hadn't been able to find a way to express very well. Basically his argument is this -- that every human has a supply of what he calls "cognitive surplus," the so-called "down time" of our daily lives that we can do anything with, and that for decades we have spent that surplus mostly on passive entertainment, things like watching television and reading books. And there was nothing wrong with this when it first started happening, at the beginning of the Industrial Age, because it was actually a step up from what people were doing with their cognitive surplus before (which was mostly drinking and fighting, if they had any surplus at all); but we no longer live in the Industrial Age, we live in the Information Age, and thus do we once again need to profoundly rethink how we as a species are going to spend all that cognitive free time. That's basically where the participatory arts comes into play, Shirky argues, things like homemade videos at YouTube and basement electronic music, and why it is that things like the traditional television, film and music industries are literally hemorrhaging customers these days, despite whatever it is that they try doing to change the situation.

And the reason all this gets me to thinking of stuff I've been recently pondering, see, goes all the way back to March 2007, when I finally quit smoking in my personal life; it was because of that that I started bicycling a lot more seriously here in Chicago, which in turn got me to doing a series of customized bike maps for use in Google Maps and Google Earth, which in turn got me to visiting a plethora of Chicago's 500 public parks over the course of last summer. No, that's not a misprint; the city of Chicago really does own and maintain over 500 unique public green spaces, at a grand budget of a third of a billion dollars a year, making it one of the largest if not the largest city park system in the entirety of North America. But see, the secret to understanding how such a system works is to understand that most of these parks are tiny; not much larger than a typical residential lot, in fact, often situated right in the middle of a residential neighborhood, containing not much more than perhaps a playground, baseball field, and benches for the local seniors.

In fact, the more I looked into the history of Chicago's park system last year, so that I could include the information in my bike maps, the more I realized that the entire thing is the way it is mostly due to a series of now-defunct private neighborhood organizations, ones that sorta just appeared magically in an ad-hoc way during the Victorian Age in literally dozens of regions across the city at once. Because, see, for those who don't know, Chicago in the 1800s was the center of what we now consider an extremely important movement in the history of urban development (especially in these green "sustainable" times of ours), the City Beautiful movement, the bold pioneers who eventually brought about what we now consider the best things about city living, things like parks and libraries, public transit, streetlamps, zoning laws, indoor plumbing and a whole lot more. None of these things were considered important during the beginning of the Industrial Age, because everyone was too busy simply trying to create some kind of order to the sudden chaos of a million people living together in a tiny little area for the first time; that's why you saw things like rampant pollution at the beginning of the Industrial Age, sewage flowing in the streets, child factory workers, corruption from one end of the government to the other, cities basically turned into little hellholes.

The members of the City Beautiful movement stood up and dared to envision a different fate for humanity; they envisioned a day when all this machinery and industrialization would eventually benefit all the humans involved, not just the greedy owners at the top, leading to a society rich in leisure time and flush with public resources to fill that time. Because let's remember, that was the entire promise of the Industrial Age in the first place, and why all those people submitted themselves to such horrible conditions; the idea was that if you could remove the day-to-day machine-like toil from most humans' lives, as it existed in the Agricultural Age right before, people would be able to devote that time instead to reading, watching plays, listening to music, participating in sports, and otherwise improving their minds and bodies. (And by the way, if you ever need a profound reminder of just how much machine-like toil went into the daily lives of most humans during the Agricultural Age, just watch sometime one of those PBS reality shows like "Frontier House" -- they do a great job of showing why we should never ever romanticize those times.)

Now, let's not forget, it wasn't the City Beautiful people working in a vacuum that made their successes come about, but actually a complex combination of a whole host of different factors: the emerging middle class, rapidly rising literacy rates among the general population, a sudden much better understanding about public health and how pollution and sewage affect it. That in turn led to the organic formation of all these neighborhood park organizations at the same time, most of them founded by earnest City Beautiful members in that neighborhood and all of them dedicated to the same purpose -- to buying up little lots in their neighborhood every time one went up for sale, and turning it into a public green space instead of letting yet another polluting factory or slaughterhouse get built. By the time the 1920s rolled around, in fact, there were something like 30 of these neighborhood park organizations in existence, maintaining roughly half of the green spaces now currently found in our city; the Great Depression in the 1930s, then, pretty much bankrupted all these private organizations, inspiring the city to take over all the spaces under a unified Park District governmental office. And that's the way it's stayed ever since, with the now government-run Chicago Park District to this day still having the policy of buying up vacant lots in blighted neighborhoods and turning them into community mini-parks. Which is why Chicago has over 500 public green spaces, and why it takes a third of a billion dollars a year to maintain them all.

So what does any of this have to do with Clay Shirky and YouTube? Well, I'll tell you: because I along with most educated people now believe that we have entered yet another new age of human development, one most people call the "Information Age," that probably started after World War II but we're just now getting around to noticing and acknowledging. And just as the Industrial Age before supplanted a lot of the realities about the world that people took for granted in the Agricultural Age, so too is a lot of paradigm-shifting bound to take place during the decades you and I are living through, with for example the traditional entertainment industries going down hard and fast very early in this transitional period. And that's because I'm coming to believe something rather profound about our so-called "leisure time," and more and more starting to form a specific opinion that I can express, that Shirky expresses quite elegantly in his idea of "cognitive surplus;" that rising education and intelligence among the population as a whole, and the dropping costs of bandwidth and tech equipment, is turning a bigger and bigger portion of the population into not just consumers of culture but part-time producers of it.

And really, all you have to do to understand my point is look at some of the cold raw numbers that currently exist: the 60 million blogs being updated at least weekly or whatever the number now is, the two billion photos at Flickr, the 400,000 paper books that were published last year. When you look at what's going on from the top all the way to the bottom of society these days -- all the way from doctorates penning articles at Wikipedia to your mom writing a caption at I Can Haz Cheezburger -- you can clearly see that creativity itself is becoming more and more a daily part of most people's leisure time, that the paradigm of the "professional artist" is rapidly falling apart in these Web 2.0 times. People are no longer satisfied with the old idea of sitting back, listening to a story that a "full-time artist" tells them, then handing money over to that artist for telling them the story; they like writing stories themselves now too, or at least adding to the beginnings that those full-time artists started for them.

Let's make no mistake, this is bound to cause major disruptions in how we currently view the arts, and especially the idea of pursuing the arts for a living; not just bad news for all the corporate entertainment entities that currently exist, but eventually bad news to any individual who continues to think of creativity as a full-time stand-alone job. Just as the largest job type on the planet during the Information Age is bound to switch from "manager" to "editor," so too will creativity and intelligent analysis become at least a small part of everyone's daily lives, with the "professional" artist bound to fulfill a very different role than the one they currently do. This is why there's such a panic right now, after all, among the snarkiest of the academes and intellectuals (the people I like to call "Luddites 2.0"), because they realize that their reigns as the "arbiters of culture" are coming to a close; you know, all those Chicken Littles who think the world's ending just because your niece keeps uploading goofy cellphone videos to her MySpace account. Yes, technically the world is coming to an end because of such videos, but I mean the world as such Industrial-Age cultural gatekeepers understand it; we're simply entering a different world, that's all, one where the definition of "creativity" will change as much as the term "free time" did in the 1800s. Like Shirky, I too think this is generally for the better, and will eventually result in a smarter and happier humanity; always better, as he says, to at least be sitting in your basement pretending to be an elf while interacting and creating, than sitting in your basement thinking about whether Ginger or Mary Ann was hotter.

Anyway, just some food for thought; as always, I encourage you to leave your own thoughts and opinions in the comments below.

Filed by Jason Pettus at 9:54 AM, April 30, 2008. Filed under: Arts news |