Wednesday, February 3, 2010

The Cloud Culture Equation

There is a fascinating post on Edge, the Web site of the Edge Foundation. I found my way to them through a tweet about an article they published by Charles Leadbeater on the impact cloud computing will have on creativity. I know Leadbeater's work from my time in Private Sector affairs at Americans for the Arts, and before that the national Arts & Business Council. He is an internationally renowned expert on creativity and innovation. First off, I have to say, I was fascinated by Edge itself, a dense collection of provocative content from a global array of great minds; also quirky, eccentric, ideosycratic. It has been around since 1988, on the web since 1997 - how could I have missed it? Glad I stumbled onto it - it is now bookmarked!

He analyzes the growing emergence of "cloud computing" - computing where the information is stored remotely and everyone can access their data from anywhere, using an array of different platforms - and provides a useful metaphor - dividing up the different types of digital clouds, just as we classify different varieties of natural clouds.

He then looks at the issue of creativity and how it will be impacted by the trend. He says:

Culture is our ever-evolving store of images, texts and ideas through which we make sense and add meaning to our world. Our culture, in the broadest sense, helps us to frame and shape our identity, to say who we are, where and when we come from. Culture is not something we choose but find ourselves belonging to; it shapes what matters to us, and how we see the world. A culture that is alive is never entirely closed. As culture is vital to what matters to us and explaining who we are, so giving other people access to what we count as our culture is a vital way for us to understand one another, what we share and what makes us special.

If culture provides much of our sense of identity, then creativity helps to give us our sense of agency: who we want to be, what mark we want to leave. Culture gives us roots; creativity a sense of growth and possibility. Creativity gives us a way to add to and remake our cultural stock: it allows us to escape being entirely defined by our traditions.

I was totally entranced by these two paragraphs, so clearly delineating a definition of two words - "culture" and "creativity" that we tend to toss off without thought about their distinctions and relationship.

He then posits that the vast increase in access to the raw material of creation - images, text, video, information - combined with vastly enhanced access to whatever is created, combined with the huge growth in the "pro-am" movement and increased interest in participation in creation, not just passive consumption of art, will result in an explosion of creativity. Here is his equation:

The Cloud Culture Equation
More cultural heritage stored in digital form.
More accessible to more people.
People better equipped with more tools to add creatively to the collection.
Exponential growth in mass cultural expression
Cloud Culture.
Cloud computing will be like a giant machine for making clouds of culture.
But all is not sunny on the horizon. He then goes on to explain the dark lining in this cloud (or maybe I should have said "storm clouds are gathering" - too many temptations in the cloud metapor!):

Cloud culture should be a rare and delicate mix: more decentralised, plural and collaborative; less hierarchical, proprietary and money driven; the boundaries between amateur and professional, consumer and producer, grassroots and mainstream are breached, if not erased. Open source software communities and collaborative science, based on shared data sources and open access journals, point the way for what will be possible in other areas. 

Yet for all its promise that is no more than a possibility. Indeed the emergence of this new communication based power, vested in forms of mass collaboration in civil society, is already provoking a fierce struggle, as governments and companies, try to wrest control over the cloud away from citizens.

He identifies several threats to the :utopian" vision of cloud culture: totalarian regimes, as suggested above, that can use the cloud to retain their control over culture and power; copyright owners, who prevent free and open use of content for too long a period of time (though he is not advocating blanket elimination of copyright protection), and finally, the threat of the new media commercial interests (Google, Twitter, Facebook, etc.) who will try to control the cloud for their own profit, not public benefit. Again, he is not vilifying these interests, just cautioning that we need to be vigilant to ensure that the true potential of the cloud culture for a new kind of global, cross-cultural creativity revolution. I end with Leadbeater's closing words:

However there is still untold potential for us to enrich our own cultures, understand one another's cultures more fully and to enjoy greater freedom of cultural expression. That possibility, a new kind of global cultural commons, will only be kept open if we resist the threats to it from governments and companies, new and old, seeking to control cloud culture for their own ends. The new kinds of cultural relations the web seems to offer will only come about through thousands of struggles as citizens try to hold onto the possibility that at last it could be our culture not someone else's.

1 comment:

  1. Gary --

    Thanks so much for finding and sharing Charles Leadbeater's discussion of cultural clouds. This speaks to -- and moves forward -- the findings of NEA and Americans for the Arts that participation in the arts is growing in a very individualized and personal way. I'm going to check out the Edge Foundation next!

    Anne Ackerson