I was once involved in a project called Presence in which we were given quite a lot of EU money to investigate how the social needs of elderly people might be met by the Internet. One of our test sites was a small village in Italy, called Peccioli. When our design team first visited the village they located some elderly people and told them proudly: ‘we’ve come to help you with the Internet’. And the elderly people said: piss off; we do not need your patronising help, you designers you. Or words to that effect. We learned that elderly people in Italy are less socially isolated, and feel less in need of added-on connectivity, than almost anywhere else in Europe – apart from Greece and Portugal.
I was reminded of the Peccioli episode when reading Europe In The Creative Age One of its highlights is a league table of creative economies in Sweden comes top, followed by USA, Finland, Netherlands, Denmark, Germany, and Belgium. What caught my eye were the league table’s losers. Italy and Portugal, with less than 15 percent of their workforce in the Creative Class, are ‘performing below the norm’; Greece, too (along with Spain and Austria) ‘appears to be in a difficult position’.
Well, that depends on what you measure. I was reminded, when reading Europe In The Creative Age, of another league table published in September on the occasion of World Suicide Prevention Day. Now the two league tables do not match each other one-to-one but, on paper at least, suicide rates are highest where the creative industries are strongest. Suicide rates are higher, and the creative industries are stronger, in North America than in Latin America, and in northern European countries compared to southern ones. Industrialized countries tend to have a higher suicide rate, and much stronger creative industries, than poor, developing countries. India’s suicide rate, for example, is half the global average – but her public relations industry is pitifully small.
Is there a connection? Where the creative industries are strongest, citizens do seem to be miserable as hell. As I reported a few days ago (see my story of 9 December, below) more than eight out of ten Americans believe that society’s priorities are ‘out of whack’; 93 percent agree that Americans are too focused on working and making money, and not enough on family and community; more than 8 in 10 say they would be more satisfied with life if they just had less stress; and 95 percent agree that today’s youth are too focused on buying and consuming.
Tom Bentley, in his introduction to Europe In The Creative Age, writes that the rise of the creative class ‘goes to the heart of what a shift to a new economy really means’. Surely the opposite is the case. The activities lumped together as creative industries are characterised by a Fordist, point-to-mass, one-to-many model of production: advertising, architecture, crafts, design, designer fashion, public relations, marketing, film and video, interactive leisure software, music, performing arts, publishing, and so on.
According to the British Council, in Nurturing the Creative Economy, the Creative Industries are ‘those that have their origin in individual creativity, skill and talent, and that have a potential for wealth creation through the generation and exploitation of intellectual property’.
The words that jump out at me here – Individual, Wealth Creation, Property – do not exactly smack of social solidarity.
Some will argue that I’m getting cause and effect mixed up. The authors of Europe In The Creative Age, for example, are good guys at heart: they devote considerable space to the proposition that tolerance is a necessary condition for competitive advantage. And another British think-tank, Comedia, argues that there is now ‘substantial evidence that cultural activities help engender social and human capital, transform organizational capacity to handle and respond to change, and can strengthen social cohesion’.
That proposition may well be true. And it’s not as if I’m arguing that culture or creativity are a bad thing. The problem is that policy makers and planners are interpreting the Creative Class / Creative Industries concepts in weird ways. I recently saw a map from TNO on which were plotted, ward-by-ward, the number of creative individuals in Amsterdam. Holland’s national technology research organization has discovered that there are 223 artists in Zaanstad, and that 20.9 percent of the workforce in Hilversum is a member of the creative class. TNO does not mention that Hilversum is where the Big Brother format was invented and, all over Europe, city planners are drawing lines round derelict areas and labeling them creativity districts.
I don’t suggest that rise of the creative class drives people to suicide. What I do suggest is that this class is an integral part, if not the driver, of a consumer culture that makes most people pretty damn miserable. And many of the people who determine where resources are to go have got the wrong end of the stick.