Are there new ideas in our C&binet?

Tomorrow the first C&binet forum will start a conversation around issues important to the creative economy. In particular, there will be a lot of discussion around making money from the arts in a digital world. The Internet has broken business models that were based on selling copies – books, CDs, DVDs, newspapers – and this is scary. After all, for many of us, our jobs are on the line. My field, book publishing, has come a little late to this party, and we’re still taking it all in.

So it’s a natural and common reaction, especially among book publishers, to fight the Internet, even though we may not think we’re fighting. The most common way we fight is by trying to recreate our old analog world in the new digital one. In particular, we want to hold on to the ability to control exactly the number of copies of our work that we sell. We think we can make technology do that, for instance by locking down products with DRM, or by breaking up markets by country-based IP ranges. These efforts may patch our business models, but they won’t fix them.

So let’s remember: It’s a mistake to think that the Internet has destroyed something we’ve always had. For only a brief moment in history, perhaps 150 years, we have tasted the moneyed joys of scale, as the industrial revolution gave us the ability to make thousands of copies of a book or a newspaper or a movie, and sell them one at a time, clocking up magnificent profits long after we’d set our duplication machines going. And we’ve let ourselves believe this is the natural way to make money: create a prototype, mass-produce copies, sell each copy.

It was a phase; a lucky overlap of two much longer eras in human history: the former age of the hand-made thing, and the age of the effortless, free copy that the Internet is making more real by the day. That phase was a band-aid on a particular form of capital and aristocracy – and the Internet is making us pull it off.

It is almost a pity that we have to keep our day jobs while we figure all this out. If we could take a distant view, and not worry about our salaries, perhaps we could more easily embrace all the good the Internet has to offer: a world of trans-national communication, universal access to education, political transparency, and massively reduced carbon-belching transport costs. We could recognise how it will emphasise (rather than diminish) our personal relationships, and encourage (not destroy) an industry for beautiful, crafted print and performance, and the intelligent curation of news and content in a world of over-abundance.

That’s the world that C&binet should help us usher in. So I hope we have the courage and imagination to strip off the band-aid quickly. I do not mean we should suddenly abandon money and our corporate ways, to quote Cory Doctorow, like ‘some patchouli-scented, fuzzy-headed, “information wants to be free” info-hippie‘. I mean we should use all the corporate smarts at our disposal – and there will be loads at C&binet – to find the businesses of the future, and not cry about what’s passed, rehashing our analog ways in digital form. Will more than half the presentations and meetings be about truly new ideas? If so, then C&binet will have been a success.