Putting the creativity back in creative capitalism
Although the conversation here takes place under the banner of â€˜creative capitalismâ€™ there has been relatively little discussion of creativity in the ordinary sense of the term. Yet the relationship between creativity and capitalism has rarely been more complex and interesting than it is today.
The central technical innovation of the past twenty years or so has been the rise of the Internet, and particularly the various incarnations of the World Wide Web. Without the Internet and the Web it is unlikely that we would have seen any significant recovery from the productivity growth slowdown of the 1970s and 1980s.
Yet neither the Internet nor the Web was a product of the market economy, and even now the relationship between market incentives and the social contribution made by Internet-related activities is tenuous at best.
Both the Internet and the Web developed as non-commercial activities, outstripping or absorbing a variety of commercial competitors (Genie, Delphi, AOL and so on) before being opened up to commercial use in the mid-1990s. And even since large-scale commercial involvement began, most of the exciting innovation continues to come from noncommercial users (blogs and wikis, for example) or from non-commercial content producers (YouTube, Flickr and so on). By contrast, heavily funded commercial innovations such as push technology and portals have failed or declined into insignificance.
The dominant driver of the Internet economy is not profit-seeking innovation but individual and collective creativity. Creativity is, and always has been, driven by a wide range of motives, some altruistic and others, like the desire to display superior skill, rather less so. Trying to tie all of these motives to direct monetary rewards is futile and, if pushed too far, counterproductive (More on this from me and Dan Hunter here, with discussion here and here).
Of course, corporations still have a large role to play in the economy of the Internet. A company like Google, for example, provides services that cannot easily be replicated by users acting either individually or collectively. But Google depends crucially and directly on the content created by users and more generally on the goodwill of the Internet community.
If these assets were lost, Google would be vulnerable to displacement; Microsoftâ€™s loss of its seemingly unassailable dominance of both personal computing and the Internet software market is an illustration. Googleâ€™s slogan â€˜donâ€™t be evilâ€™ and its sensitivity to criticism, for example over its compliance with Chinese censorship laws, illustrates the point. Equally, so do the many products Google creates and gives away, with no obvious path to future profit.
So, more than in the past, it makes sense for corporations to cultivate diffuse goodwill, rather than focusing solely on profit, perhaps modified by the need to buy off powerful interests. In the context of an economy where creative collaboration is central, this canâ€™t be done through a neat separation of targets and instruments, with a charitable PR-oriented effort bolted on to a profit-maximising corporation.
Extending all of this to the challenge of helping poor countries develop creates further challenges. Companies will need to do more than bring corporate expertise to bear on the problem. They will also need to mobilise contributions of skills and resources from outside the company. If such contributors are not to feel exploited and abused, the project canâ€™t be directly tied to the goal of profit maximisation. All this may yet be a bridge too far.
Richard Posner recognises much of this but argues that corporate managers should instead adopt a hypocritical pose of general concern until they have secured a userbase large enough to be locked in, then exploit it to maximise profits. There are a several problems here. First, sincerity is not as easy to fake as all that, particularly in an organisation where you canâ€™t let everyone in on the joke. Second, setting up a monopoly by stealth, then extracting the maximum rent is a trick that can be pulled off at most once. Finally, if the managers of a company are chosen to be capable of successfully conning the public in the interests of shareholders, why would anyone expect them to forgo the chance to enrich themselves at shareholdersâ€™ expense.