home | articles | thoughts | people | about us

Get a decent browser can't print this..?

Ideas: streamofconsciousness

The media may portray the Web as a wonderful, interactive place where we have limitless choice because we don't have to take what the TV producer has decided we should see next. But my definition of interactive includes not just the ability to choose, but also the ability to create...Intercreativity is the process of making things or solving problems together. If intercreativity is not just sitting there passively in front of a display screen, then intercreativity is not just sitting there in front of something "interactive".
Tim Berners-Lee (1999)


Intercreativity is an emergent property of human social groups. It is the ability that people have to make things that are bigger than themselves. The results of such activities range from books, software projects, films and religio-political or economic 'gatherings' to the meta-meta phenomena of all time, human language and culture. The idea behind The Idea Society itself manifests a belief in the collaborative power of human networks.

The familiar history of power relations is the history of competitive network evolution. Dominant groups have sought to disrupt and control the networks around them. Networks of commerce, networks of power and networks of belief, often overlaid as webs of interlocking and negotiated meaning.

Less weighty networks have traditionally survived by adopting strategies of subversion that allow their members to connect 'underground'. Today, this strategy is employed by groups ranging from fluid teen chat-room communities who avoid parental (or AOL) control, to corporate software production - the biggest industry the world has ever seen. Often the best ways for a new idea to survive within a corporation are to go underground (seek obscurity), to be independent (the 'skunkworks' strategy) or to be generated wholly outside (innovation consultants).

Today, the biggest impact of the internet, has been to promote connections between otherwise divided groups of people. The purpose of this essay (origin fr. essayer, try or weigh/measure) is to identify the conditions that allow intercreativity to flourish, and to explore some of the potential that this dynamic has to impact our collective futures.

Those people in my generation, who went to university in the 80s or 90s will know that meaning is emergent anyway. Good or bad, what a book 'says' is not just down to the madness (or genius) of an individual. If there is some sort of omniscient author or creator, what we see as the output can be radically different from what's originally intended. So why do we stick to the single-user mode of authorship? Is it habit? Is it that the structures of production, the value networks, market access and distribution chains are owned by people and organizations that have an interest in maintaining this arrangement? Is it human vanity? Is it religio-historical ('and x created...')?

Where did this mindset emerge from? Did it emerge along with writing and creation of 'texts' and, therefore, 'history', only to be more widely reinforced and solidified by the invention of the printing press some thousands of years later, and the commercialisation of culture and knowledge?

Is there an element of recognition and individuality at work here and, if so, what's that all about? Is that just an artefact of Renaissance European and later Cartesian trends or is it a deep-seated human need?

The thing is, isn't our insistence on primateur authorship all such a waste? Sure, individual authorship by unique beings or organisations seems to ensure a certain consistency and even quality of product (there is a kind of selection at work that weeds out 'unsuitable' releases by virtue of lack of interest); or is it that the lack of interest is actually a lack of organisational support for potentially disruptive offerings? Either way, the cost is that thousands (millions?) of hours of human creative time are wasted in the failures of the agent's in tray, the cutting room floor or the personal home page :-)

How much good stuff gets burnt on the altar of individual notoriety?

Other ways of creating

The oral tradition
Arguably, the world's most famous tragedy (the Illiad) and the world's first novel (the Odyssey) were 'written', not by one author but by a collection, or tradition, of itinerant minstrels. Actually, these are not really 'books' at all, or weren't until they were formalised and ossified by the Athenians in the 5th century BC. In a way, this is a bit like someone distributing the Linux 0.1 kernel on CD and development stopping there. Which raises an interesting side point; would that have happened if the GPL had not served as a deterrent to commercial exploitation? Anyway, we are quite used to the concept of intercreativity in an oral tradition, whether it be pre-classical Hellenic literature or the urban myths and jokes that go round our various circles of email contacts, eventually finding their way back to us. So what is it about an oral tradition that permits this?

1. Free communication?
2. Impermanence of the 'record'?
3. Improvisation & interpretation?
4. Distributed ownership?
5. Multiple audiences?

Open source software development
Arguably, the world's fastest web server, most efficient text editor, and most flexible operating system were written by hundreds of programmers working within Stallman's GNU project or related efforts under the General Public License, e.g. Linux. Is Linus a midpoint between omniscient author and devolved (hive-style) creative network? (sorry Linus)

Fluid collaborations for authors, moderated by a single editor. Interestingly an analogue version of the Net community idea that people = content. How different is this editor/staff writer relationship different from Linus' relationship with his 'lieutenants'? Is this just a matter of scale, driven by the fact that staff writers on a newspaper are paid (but what about freelance writers and other sources) or is it a quality difference?

Ad agencies and others
Some of the most consistent and commercially driven idea generation phenomena are creative teams in agencies. They sometimes appear to fracture the single-author paradigm by being in pairs. However, this may just be an artefact of a distinction in media - written versus visual, reflected in the split between copywriter and art director traditionally found in teams. Individual creativity is especially difficult to find in corporations, not because it is lacking but because it is so hard to pin down. Review the conference speakers in your area for a year. See how many people claim responsibility for inventing the Orange brand or the hyperlink.

The music industry
The music industry has seen a trend in consumption that I call 'compilation culture', the desire to be your own editor and to select from multiple choices. Some say that this is not pure intercreativity (notably, Tim Berners-Lee seems to suggest this) but the distinction seems to depend on the size of the units being produced. If the creative unit is, say, an album (not a concept invented by God - sic) or a flash memory card, then selection is a creative exercise, as Nick Hornby says. Sometimes the units are baselines, voice tracks or other samples from existing music that 'creatives' like Norman Cook engineer into new music. Does the global culture of re-releases, updated, re-mixed, re-mastered parallel the oral culture stalwarts of interpretation and redistribution? Does the third wave of manufactured artists represent the struggle of A&R departments to re-assert their worth after Napster? That is, after Napster demonstrated the possibility of fans routing around labels to connect with artists through channels not owned by the record companies.

Not the publish first world of competitive academia but the more collaborative side of group projects, like DARPA, NASA, CERN. From these it looks like the problem has to be a huge one for a group to want to tackle it. Is this 'altruism in the face of diversity' always productive, as it was in the flowering of Unix clones and web browsers in the face of dominating behaviour by AT&T and Microsoft in the late 80s - early 90s?

This, to paraphrase Christopher Locke, is the kind of stuff we think about at night when we should be sleeping; and it shows.


Copyright © 2000 by Simon Roberts.




home | articles | thoughts | people | about us