A DIY guide for creative citizens: Another reason to sign up for our September conference.

May 29th, 2014 by Jerome Turner in Research | no comments


This post is by the project’s Principal Investigator, Professor Ian Hargreaves

Excellent day’s discussion in Bristol with some authors of DIY Citizenship, a new book from MIT Press which tackles many of the same issues as our Creative Citizens project.

Professor Megan Boler (University of Toronto) was at the Bristol Pervasive Media Studio to open the session with an overview of the book’s ideas, illustrated by the specifics of her own work on fan cultures surrounding TV political satire.

The book’s co-editor, Matt Ratto, a leading thinker in the ‘critical making’ movement joined us by Skype. The structure of the workshop was designed to generate dialogue between DIY Citizenship thinking and our emerging ideas about creative citizenship.

I tried to sort out the areas where our work on creative citizens and the DIY citizens team overlaps and where it diverges or adopts different priorities.

The list of overlaps is much longer than the list of points of divergence.  Among the things we have in common are these concerns:

  • Productive wrestling with terminology.  The DIY authors have challenged each other on the risk that DIY can seem to imply that everything flows from the lone individual.  Some prefer the more comradely DIT (Do it Together) or DIWO (Do it With Others).  They also entertain terms such as ‘cultural citizenship’ and even ‘aesthetic citizenship,’  which make the creative citizen radar crackle. This encourages me to think that the term ‘creative citizenship’ avoids the potential misinterpretation of DIY as ‘atomistic’ (though, to be fair, you could argue that all citizenship is by definition social or relational).  I came away thinking that the word ‘creative’ is robust, covering a very wide range of activities, by individuals mostly engaged in collaboration, but with a clear indication of agency and civic contribution.
  • John Hartley.  I haven’t had the chance to text mine the DIY book, but I would say that John is the single most cited reference among this work’s 46 contributors.  John, of course, is also a member of our group and will co-edit with me  the book we are currently putting together about creative citizenship. What do the DIY crew say about John’s work, which has its origins in cultural studies but has extended far into domains such as journalism and, more recently, economics.  John’s new book is about Cultural Science, where with Jason Potts he moves into the relevance for cultural perspectives of evolutionary science.  The DIY authors range between those(the majority) who find John’s work foundational and those who confine themselves to summarising it as proclaiming a world of ‘semiotic self determination,’ insufficiently critical of the global economy’s servicing of consumer tastes. I’m delighted to be working with John on creative citizenship, which even provided us with an excuse a few weeks ago to join in the Dylan Thomas centenary celebrations with a trip to Laugharne for the wonderful National Theatre Wales Raw Material event.
  • Technology. There’s a lot for us to enjoy and to learn from the DIY team’s  writing on this theme, particularly on the subject of ‘critical making.’ I love some of the examples called upon here, especially the reference to the machine whose only design purpose is to be able to switch itself off and the chair which has a seat thick with spikes, retractable only on production of your credit card. I’m looking forward to seeing what our creative citizens tech writers will conclude about the politics of technology, at the level of real-life community adoption, as well as in a bigger landscape.  I think our work will say a lot about how creative citizens adapt and ‘make do’ with unfashionable and even ‘worn out’ technologies, re-cycling them in ways that people find useful.
  • Fans.  This is a big subject in the DIY collection, with a contribution from Henry Jenkins about the Harry Potter fan network, arguing for its contribution to civics through play and entertainment. Our creative citizens project doesn’t focus on fans, but this thinking is clearly aligned with our direction of travel.  Fan networks are great examples of creative citizenship.
  • Media is a big theme for both teams of researchers and writers.  There’s an uneasy current running through both projects about the political implications for social media of debates about human/citizen rights and the power of the large technology companies over data, audiences and market structures.  This concern reflects the provisional character and the open source preferences of the hacker (or in yet another neologism, the ‘maktivist’) polity, which sits in tension with the unavoidable fact that Facebook, Google et al offer an on-the-ground, pervasive reality.
  • News is given a lot of space in the DIY collection and hyperlocal news is one of our three sites of research, so there are interesting comparisons to be made here. Our work will, I think go beyond what’s in this collection, getting to grips with the nature of the new information ecology at the local/community level. This is an important site of the ‘de-professionalising’ aspect of online cultures.
  • Tools and methods. One of the strongest threads running through the DIY story is the emphasis upon ‘participation.’  Our work, I think, steps more firmly beyond that into ‘co-creation’ as a methodology and, by intention at least, as an ethical/social commitment.  We hope to add significantly to this important debate.
  • And finally, politics. This is the most complex area and it infiltrates all aspects of the DIY study and our own work, although often in quite subtle ways. One line of argument says that acts of DIY citizenship are, by definition and inevitable outcome, ‘cultures or communities of resistance.’  So, to take an example, the feminist zines discussed in a couple of chapters of the DIY book situate themselves as a matter of definition in this political narrative.  But elsewhere in the DIY collection, we read about the blog (or ‘perzine’) of Jody La Ferriere, described here as “a suburban office worker, mother and resident of Massachussetts.”  Jodie’s blog covers things like ‘my favourite Xmas music” and “famous people who have a first name for a last name.”  This is content which attracts the label ‘mundane’ or, sometimes, ‘banal.’  It’s a fair adjective to use about a lot of the outputs of creative citizenship, which does not prevent some it from also being exceptional, inspiring or even heroic.  What Jean Burgess calls ‘everyday acts’ and other spectacles (eg public ‘dance-offs’) which John Hartley has called ‘silly citizenship’ are very much in the fold, so far as creative citizenship is concerned.  There’s a lot more to say about politics than can be said here.  In all of my own work about the internet, from intellectual property issues to questions of infrastructure regulation, I encounter increasingly complex and demanding issues concerning the ‘politics of the machine.’  The outcome of these political tensions will greatly affect our prosperity, our quality of life, our rights and out sense of who we are.

So what are the areas of non-overlap between the agenda of DIY Citizens and Creative Citizens?   I came up with just two things which are big pre-occupations for our work, but less markedly so for the DIY group.  These are: ‘value’ and ‘the economy.’

Our explicit concern about these matters is scripted into our research question which asks how creative citizenship ‘generates value for communities within a changing media landscape” and “how this pursuit of value can be intensified, propagated and sustained.’ That takes us into the workings of the creative economy, formally defined in the Creative Economy Manifesto I wrote last year with colleagues from NESTA as the inputs of creative workers across the whole of the economy (2.5m jobs in the UK and roughly 10 per cent of gross value added in the entire economy).  One aspect of my interest in creative citizenship is to understand the scale of the additional economic contribution of the activities of creative citizens, who are uncounted in the NESTA figures because most of the ‘work’ is unremunerated.  This is the grass-roots of the creative economy, invisible to statisticians and so, inevitably, neglected when it comes to discussion about the investment of public money in community-level enterprise. This is the plot-line the authors of the Big Society programme missed.

That, however, is not the whole story. We are also interested in the many other types of non-economic ‘value’ that creative citizens contribute. This dovetails into the AHRC-funded project led by Professor Geoff Crossick and we hope to make a useful contribution to that discussion too.  As someone pointed out in the Bristol workshop, we must never overlook the intrinsic connection between our ‘values’ and the value contributed by the pursuit of those values.

This is a long blog.  What’s its bottom line?

Get yourself a copy of DIY Citizenship: critical making and social media ed Ratto and Boler.  MIT Press. 2014.  And register for Creative Citizens; the Conference at the Royal College of  Art in London on September 18/19 this year.

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