Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Sense of Community II: Arts Factories

One of the interesting historic notes discussed in Rise of the Creative Class is how the original Factory came into being. Obviously, in the original market days, labor was divided into a community: someone would gather raw materials, sell it to a merchant, and the merchant would sell it to an artisan to turn into a finished good.

As the level of finished good grew in complexity, it might go through multiple of these stages: someone gathers raw materials, sells it to a merchant, merchant sells it to an artistan who turns it into a refined good, refined good is sold to a merchant, merchant sells it to another artisan who finishes the good. This was called factoring.

Eventually, someone figured out that the middle-man could be skilled by assembling all of the parts of a product’s development under one roof: in a factory. Now a factory owner buys the raw material, and his workers usher the raw material through all of the steps of its development until the end.

However, it is clear that in the developed world, this model is breaking down, as it is no longer profitable to employ men in a factory at wages they are accustomed to. The cost of each worker has gotten too big. Partly, this is because of the conditions of the worker: back when each artisan was self-employed, he set his own hours and conditions, and would work to produce as much as he needed to support himself. But the factory aims to maximize its own profits, which makes the hours and conditions increasingly difficult.

On a seemingly unrelated subject, my brother and I came to discuss the armies of amateurs who now exist, and seem to want to do valuable but low-quality jobs for no pay. For instance, whereas an amateur couldn’t compete full-time making furniture, because Ikea would drive him out of business, he could create small amounts of low-quality and low-cost items to sell informally, so long has he does this in his leisure time aside from a sustaining job. Once a man takes up this sort of job outside of work hours, he no longer has quite the same pressure to make ends meet through his furniture business, and therefore is free to enjoy himself and make as little or as much as he needs.

As a mindgame, I asked my brother to consider whether it would be possible for a company or project to harness the armies of amateurs to contribute bits of work, remotely, at their own pace. This is the equivalent of Factoring, but without the factory.

It was only later that I realized that this is already being done, largely through the power of the internet. For instance, Wikipedia harnesses large amounts of amateur experts, without compensation, to create a repository of knowledge. Each person contributes in their free time, without expecting pay, up to their abilities.

Other open source projects are equally Factoring projects: Linux, for instance, is entirely built by programmers in their free time pushing around bits of code to build an operating system which now competes with Windows and OS X.

I also came across a curious real-world example of this as well. In Alaska, my family came across a beautiful small Musk Oxen farm. This farm operated by raising musk oxen, then sending those raw materials to various indigenous tribes to be knitted into sweaters or blankets. These tribesfolk were paid the same no matter how much they put out—they were only required to make at least one sweater or blanket. Then the blankets/sweaters are sent back to the farm, which gathers them all and sells them. This co-op structure is basically using an army of skilled amateurs to convert furs into sweaters.

Now, since this is an arts blog aiming to discuss the development of arts communities, it is time for me to cut to the chase. What I am getting at is that this model could be used to build an arts community. Rather than creating a single, complex organization (an arts Factory), the arts could be “Factored” out to a distributed number of arts amateurs, who contribute as much or as little. But once they’ve contributed, they’ve got a tie (at least a weak tie, possibly even a strong tie) in to the arts community.

When I had the conversation with Walt (at <100k Project) and some of Walt’s friends about arts community development, the idea I came up with at the time is to have a project that goes out into the community to collect stories and present them as part of an evening of theater. In a way, this is factoring, inasmuch as it factors the job of the playwright into the community. This is what The Laramie Project did, although the Laramie Project was sort of factoring colonization, because the results of their work left their community (StoryCorps is the same way—and came up for criticism for Walt for this same reason).

At any rate, this is a model for a small number of artists to build a larger arts community. By factoring out the creative work, they start to create an arts community that lives outside of themselves. At the same time, they lower the participation threshold, which is one of the most important barriers to the creation of an arts community.