The Big Debate – Creative Workers Unite and Take Over

Here’s my post in relation to The Big Debate event in Birmingham (2nd Nov). I was supposed to write this over on the Birmingham Post blog but I didn’t get round to starting it until the weekend before and then I discovered I lost the log-in to the Post’s blog. Ah well, here goes anyway:

big debate imageThe defining characteristic of the New Labour approach to the Creative Industries (although it’s hard to say that the previous Tory administrations had much of an approach at all) was to place the business owner at the centre of the universe. In effect to do what the Tories would have done anyway, and will do again, that is, champion the small businessman or woman over the workers.

Now I’m not intending to spark a worker’s revolt here but every aspect of government consultation on the creative industries over the last ten years concerned itself with placing industry at its heart. And quite right I suppose given the value that was suddenly placed on this set of thirteen sub-sectors (it’s worth remembering that before 1998 the ‘creative industries’ as a grouping didn’t exist). But in doing so I wonder if we kind of lost the point. I wonder if we’ve forgotten to focus on what’s creative about the creative industries.

Of course the most creative bit is the workers. Without voice at the government’s consultation table and without a union to recognise them they’re the ones feeding the machine and keeping British creative ‘stuff’ ahead of the game. They’re the ones toiling late into the night to maintain the cutting edge that New Labour traded on for so long. They kept the cool in Cool Britannia and still do.

I’m not arguing that those workers have been totally anonymous or silent all these years but given the number of creative industry initiatives they’ve really not had a chance to be heard. Yet one of the interesting aspects of the rise in social media has been to suddenly give them a platform. Everyone from receptionists to studio managers are blogging or on twitter or facebook. Their chatter foregrounds and exposes the creative process in a fascinating way. It shows the intricate web of relations that exist between what you might think of as competing companies. It reveals the kind of creative banter that makes the industry tick, gives it its heart.

Of course it doesn’t reveal long hours and low pay, not with their bosses also keeping a close watch on proceedings. But maybe that’s exactly what it could do; to galvanise and to give voice to the crucial role workers play. At the very least it demonstrates what a tight knit group there is within and across sub-sectors of the creative industries – and ‘tight knit’ is exactly what you need if and when you find you need to fight your corner.

I’ve always thought that given it’s a made up grouping we need strong sub-sectoral trade bodies rather than a single creative industries one. But perhaps what we actually need is a period where we focus less on business owners and instead value the hard work and creativity of creative workers. And given the Tories might be back at the helm, maybe what the workers need most of all is a Union.

Social Media’s hidden legacy

This is a cross-post from my blog at the Birmingham Post

Two things trouble me about social media. The first is that everyone I read or connect to via Twitter or Facebook or whatever, seems to be having a much more exciting life than me. It’s a world of gallery openings, launches, great nights out or simply wonderful sunny, lazy days untroubled by personal dramas or upheavals.

Not that I’m jealous of course. Well actually of course it’s because I’m jealous. I even get invited to some of the same events that my friends and colleagues go to I just never seem to get round to going to them – either through a lack of willing babysitters or, more likely, a general acceptance that I’m a long way from being renaissance man. A beer and night in front of the telly are usually all the cultural activity I can muster after a day at work.

The key thing that troubles me though is what historians will make of the social media footprints we’re leaving behind us. Specifically, I wonder what social historians will make of Birmingham and its people when they come to look back on our early 21st century twittering. I suspect they’ll immediately smell a rat – what, they’ll ask, are these people hiding? Was life really a joyous social whirlwind? What kind of lives did Birmingham people live and why didn’t they use the new media tools available to tell us about it?

If you lay out this city’s social media network in front of you it would be a bit like those formal, rigid family portraits that adorn our walls as they did our grandparents’ walls. That is, they conceal more than they reveal. The great academic Stuart Hall, himself linked to Birmingham through his time at Birmingham University’s Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies in the 1960s and 70s, pointed out how immigrant communities of the 1950s were represented by stiff family portraits, dressed in their Sunday best. What they concealed were lives plagued by prejudice, persecution and social injustice.

Of course Hall was talking about a medium that was already mature. Its rhetorical devices, particularly in portraiture, were already well established. If you popped into your local high street photographer back then the only input you had into the image-making process was what background you would be sat in front of. Social media on the other hand allows for endless choices of expression. Okay so with Twitter you’ve got a maximum of 140 characters but there’s nothing to stop you twittering all day if you want to.

Although social media platforms are in their earliest phases the historian’s gaze will inevitably turn to them as a source of evidence to tell stories about us, probably sooner than it did with photography. It took until the 1970s for academics to see value in personal photography as an area of study and immediately they realised the interesting stuff was behind the image rather that in it.

Plenty of people tell me Birmingham seems to have been quick on the uptake with Social Media. Both in terms of using and testing new services and in terms of having a small group of entrepreneurs who are trying to develop new social media applications from which there is business to be made.

But if we are at the forefront then we need to listen to ourselves now and again. At best we demonstrate the vibrancy of living in an exciting city with lots to offer but at worst it descends into a curious uncritical mush and represents our city as one with its head in the sand – too excitable to see the wheat from the chaf or tell the good times from the bad.

It’s time to think about what’s not being said. Not so much ‘Digital – More Power or Powerless’ but ‘Useful or Useless’.