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January 07, 2006

harnessing creative anarchy - an abject lesson

The following is really a "just so" story - it probably contradicts facts and reality, but it "rings true" for me, and is my way of structuring my memories and experiences. It's also, I think, a parable.

I've lived in Bondi now for 12 years, ever since returning to Australia after living in England and Italy, and traveling throughout Asia and Eastern Europe for well over 3 years.

Back then Bondi was very different from the tourist hotspot, cafe strewn, expensive place it is today.

One big difference was the Graffiti wall along the kilometer long beach front promenade. Several hundred metres long, it featured world recognized graffiti. Writing came and went, styles changed and morphed, and although what the writers did was strictly speaking vandalism, there was clearly an internal rule of law - people respected good work, and in my memory there was little bombing of other people's work. Perhaps because the work was not largely a form of gang related territory marking, as graffiti often is elsewhere in the world, but closer to forms of "pure" artistic expression.

In the mid to late 90's, Bondi changed. Long the home to solid lower middle class families, its proximity to the city, cleaned up beach and ocean, and burgeoning restaurant and cafe offerings meant the "gentrification" of the suburb. Which typically means the excision of the things which makes a suburb attractive and interesting and vibrant in the first place, in order to appeal to people who want the disneyfied experience. Families in particular moved away, to less expensive suburbs.
Gentrification happens. It's a function of economics, so for all its faults, I am not going to criticize it. That would be Canute-like.

But sometime during this period, some "genius" at the local government in this area decided that while the idea of the graffiti wall was edgy and cool, and an interesting part of Bondi, we could not have just anyone doing unsanctioned graffiti. Oh no, that would lead to chaos, anti social behavior, gangs, you know, all the stuff that hadn't happened over the previous decade or so. So in their infinite wisdom they put up signs along the wall which said "Only authorized murals allowed on this wall" (or words to this effect). And they started a project to sponsor new graffiti projects along the wall.

And the effect?

The quality of the writing plummeted. Crude, unimaginative, sexist rubbish appeared, stereotypical crap, lacking freshness, technical excellence, significantly worse than previous efforts. And along with that, bombing started - people would tag new "state sanctioned" graffiti, I suspect as acts of defiance, with an impunity compared with how the previously respected "unlawful" graffiti was treated. The whole ecosystem of the graffiti wall collapsed, and ironically, the very thing the local government was trying to prevent, chaos, disorder, anti social behavior, which was not previously occurring, occurred.

Now, at the outset I said this was a parable. For what?

We humans, it seems to me, have a genius for community - we create it spontaneously, in response to needs, interests and desires. Very few if any of us really need to be coerced to obey most laws (and where we do, it probably pays to look long and hard at these laws, and their implications, as I suspect laws which are routinely broken by otherwise law abiding members of society are probably in general imposed in the interests of a small sub-section of the society, against the interests of the broader society - remind you of anything?)

So if we have a genius for community, then governments, and other sources of authority should, on the whole, keep out of the way of communities, particularly ones which work, and when trying to change community and individual practices, pay careful attention to the "cowpaths" - existing practices, mores, and so on.

A similar lesson can be drawn for business. Right now, Yahoo, Google, Microsoft, News Ltd. and others are scrambling to buy communities (Flickr, LiveJournal, Delicious are not technologies, they are actually communities, as a very smart friend pointed out to me earlier last year.)

But I'll make a prediction based on my parable - these companies will really struggle to create new viable communities (Google, perhaps, has some chance, I think the others essentially will not be able to do it), and will also struggle to maintain communities they do purchase.

Why (and how does this relate to a graffiti wall in Bondi)?

Communities are emergent systems - they emerge from the needs, interests desires and connections between people - to meet those needs interests and desires. No one owns or governs them, they are not the function of an individual's or small group's will.

But companies are all about ownership and control - DRM, proprietary file formats, the balkanization of VOIP, with the mushrooming of competing, non interoperable systems - mirroring chat protocols, proprietary HTML extensions, and other rubbish foistered on the web during the last decade or so.

And so, these companies will establish "con-munities" ostensibly to fulfill the same functions as real communities, but always in the companies interests - to harness your creative output for their profit, to tax your drive for community to their profit. Not unlike the phenomenon of "astro turfing", the creation of bogus community groups (often harnessing the genuine passions of members of the community) to push for an outcome in a company's interest, which if they advocated for directly would doubtless roundly be defeated - it's extremely common by the way.

Now, I don't see anything wrong with gaining something in return for providing people with things they want or need - this to me is the essence of business - but that's not what we are talking about here. The "genius" of a company is to endeavor to maximize its profits in the short term, which is antithetical to the needs of a community. And to control whatever it owns.

I hope though, that genuine communities will find a way to continue to emerge and thrive online, and not find themselves, like the graffiti wall, destroyed by government regulation. For instance privacy and semi anonymity are often fundamental to communities, yet I can imagine the continuing erosion of privacy, and our right to anonymity online - all of course in the name of stopping "terror", or protecting children, or whatever other population control techniques you cynically care to name, and the attendant impact on communities.

To contradict Margaret Thatcher "there is no such thing as nation, only family and community". The things which bring us together truly are, in my experience, greater than those which divide us - we just haven't all worked out what they are yet. Which is the lesson the parable of the lost wall of Bondi teaches me.

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Comments

Welcome to the real world.

Posted by: Mike WS | Jan 8, 2006 6:46:19 AM

I'm glad you see it, too....in order to thrive, a community has to have space to express freely...it's so simple, but so "scary" to make space for expression....I had no idea about the bondi wall...my idea was that there is a need for a pulse wall of some sort in any community, organization, institution, in order for it to recognize itself, and to get the feed for the important ideas needed to thrive.....
b o n o

Posted by: bonojerry | Jan 12, 2006 1:45:45 PM

What you're articulating is called the social contract, i.e. individuals combine their abilities and resources in order to meet their needs and achieve their goals. Now it’s purely theoretical but it functions right from the basic family group all the way up to nation states and to a limited extent humanity as a whole, it also exists in primate groups so it’s ancient. Now the health of any social group depends on how effectively the social contract operates in meeting the needs of the individuals with in it. Sounds like the community centred around the graffiti wall felt that their needs had been shoved down the shit hole, social contract broken, result predictable!

Posted by: Cristos | Jan 15, 2006 1:15:31 AM

Cristos,

thanks for the thoughtful comment.

The analogy of a social compact, which I think is Locke's (maybe Hume's, it's a long time since I studied first year philosophy) seems to me predicated on the idea of a mediator - afterall, contracts only maake sense in the context of a formal rule of law, an entity which will uphold promises.

An idea I like along these lines is the "moral economy", as initially developed by British historian E. P. Thompson. I've written on the moral economy before when it comes to software piracy, and touch on it's ideas in the present article obliquely, when I say "I suspect laws which are routinely broken by otherwise law abiding members of society are probably in general imposed in the interests of a small sub-section of the society, against the interests of the broader society".

john

Posted by: john Allsopp | Jan 15, 2006 1:06:13 PM

I was first exposed to the idea of the social contract via Hobbes many years ago and you’re right and he did admit that technically it wasn’t a contract as there was no formal legally binding document to tie the parties; however that did not detract from the potential and actual consequences of not honouring the principals of this unwritten agreement. Also I have altered Hobbes original intention in that his idea of a contract was one that existed between a prince and his people which might be acceptable in an age of absolute rulers but we live under a different political system today, yes? So I’ve extended the scope of the contract to infer an unwritten agreement between all members of society as it should be under a democracy, well in an ideal world anyway. Unfortunately it would appear that not even our political leaders really understand the concept let alone the general citizenry, a flaw we may yet have to pay a price for. Such is the conclusion of my pessimism. I do hope I’m wrong for my daughter’s sake.

Posted by: Cristos | Jan 16, 2006 1:26:30 AM

I was first exposed to the idea of the social contract via Hobbes many years ago and you’re right and he did admit that technically it wasn’t a contract as there was no formal legally binding document to tie the parties; however that did not detract from the potential and actual consequences of not honouring the principals of this unwritten agreement. Also I have altered Hobbes original intention in that his idea of a contract was one that existed between a prince and his people which might be acceptable in an age of absolute rulers but we live under a different political system today, yes? So I’ve extended the scope of the contract to infer an unwritten agreement between all members of society as it should be under a democracy, well in an ideal world anyway. Unfortunately it would appear that not even our political leaders really understand the concept let alone the general citizenry, a flaw we may yet have to pay a price for. Such is the conclusion of my pessimism. I do hope I’m wrong for my daughter’s sake.

Posted by: Cristos | Jan 16, 2006 1:28:04 AM

sorry about that double entry, I think it was caused by an extension I have installed in Firefox please delete the double if you wish.

Posted by: Cristos | Jan 16, 2006 1:31:48 AM

Great post, John. I often feel that the best days of the net were the earliest, before the adult supervision turned up ;) Back when you could get intelligent discussion as well as flames in newsgroups, and people really felt anonymous. Yet their online persona was that much stronger.

There is a public art project in Queensland which sees local artists painting traffic signal boxes. It has reduced crap tagging graffiti, but personally I still prefer the sticker art that gets whacked on the light poles next to the boxes. Those are so much more..... authentic :)

Posted by: Ben Buchanan | Jan 18, 2006 1:24:21 AM