I’m old enough to remember when there was great excitement about the democratic cultural possibilities of the new interconnected cyber world. More than 20 years ago, I wrote a thesis suggesting those interacting with ‘the internet’ (we talked about it like that back then) could be commissioners – like a medieval noble negotiating with a painter about their own appearance in a classic triptych – co-designing the way in which they became part of the pages that they were viewing, rather than being forced to sit back and passively consume whatever a television station served up to them. (Yes, this was also long before Netflix.)
Social media: democratising knowledge
I’ve long been saying – certainly since the arrival of phones with cameras – that the possibility of competing with Rupert Murdoch or the Rothermeres was in everyone’s pocket. (With the added note that pictures of cute kittens would certainly help in spreading whatever message they chose.)
Yes, there’s a lot of consumerist, shallow tosh produced and watched on the social media channels, but there’s also a lot of fascinating, interesting, useful work produced by individuals working on their own, from their own passion and interest, sharing it with the world, and sometimes making a living from it.
If you haven’t looked at Tiktok (I have, to understand the demands for my own channel) I can tell you, just following my own interests, there are huge numbers of fascinating wildflower identification videos (I can now reliably identify a wide-leafed plantain as a result), lots of useful back and knee stretches, and a lot of very innovative gluten-free vegetarian recipes.
We’re used now to long gloomy prognostications about the dangers of the internet, the risks of the control of Tiktok and the dominance of Facebook, and seem almost to have lost sight of the continuing exciting democratic possibilities of the social media world. And this is happening. Many readers may well be sponsoring the work of a writer, artist or musician on Patreon, or many similar sites.
I know several alternative economists, scorning the strictures of academia, who fund their work that way. Many podcasters – among them ‘man in a shed’ amateur historian David Crowther of The History of England podcast (declaration of interest: I’m a long-time subscriber) – have turned their hobby into a career through regular subscriptions.
So many people are struggling financially now that this model may hit a rough patch, but let’s open our mind to possibilities – the ways in which are society might be different. Maybe the government could open up Arts Council funding, or university research grants, to democratic decision-making, at least in part? What if everyone had a sum each year to allocate to some creative or academic pursuit as they chose?
Supporting creative thinking
Artists and original thinkers are innately subversive of the status quo. Conversely, mainstream channels and the big commercial outfits encourage the idea of us all as passive consumers, not critical thinkers. They want us to buy, not to think.
Giving voters more knowledge, introducing the idea of critical thinking, providing the confidence to answer back, and the ability to imagine different kinds of society is not something desirable to those in power, even when the economic advantages (I so often hear Tories expounding the financial value of the creative sector, while cutting back the possibilities for people to learn about it) are obvious.
The desire to make schools into exam factories, to privilege science, technology and engineering subjects over humanities, to make education about ensuring pupils are ‘jobs-ready’ is not just an economic one. Critically examining social structures, seeing how they could be different, painting images of a different world are not something our current power structures want to encourage.
Envisioning a better future through creativity
Artists and creative people, allowed free rein rather than being corralled into an advertising agency or a game studio, are well equipped to see what’s wrong with our current society, and create images of how it could be different.
I saw a wonderful example of this at the Preston New Road anti-fracking camp, where waste plastic had been woven into a mesh fencing panel, creating a beautiful image of grazing sheep and cattle, green fields, sunshine and a rainbow. It was directly in front of a scene that had been like that, until a giant concrete pad had been poured, a drilling rig installed and HGVs set to rumbling in and out.
Yorkshire Bylines itself is of course an example of this – democratic media, reporting the world through a wide variety of eyes.
A further example, one that I’m currently taking a close interest in, is a publisher called Unbound. It provides a wonderful revision of a very old model of subscription publishing. In the 17th century and later, often a writer would get an aristocrat or a rich merchant to fund a publication, in return for a glowing encomium as a preface. With Unbound, a small sum can get many people’s name in the book, their funding collectively paying for the editing and printing, which then makes it available to others.
My interest? I’m seeking to publish a book setting out a political philosophy fit for the 21st century, called Change Everything: Common Sense Politics for the Age of Shocks. One chapter sets out some of the ideas in this article. So I have to ask: could you help? From £10 upwards, you’ll get your name in the book as a commissioner. And help to really annoy those who want keep our society just the way it is.