Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Economies of contribution: a developing research agenda

At the invitation of Scott Lash and Götz Bachmann (cultural studies, Goldsmiths), philosopher Bernard Stiegler (Centre Pompidou) and Robert Zimmer (computer science, Goldsmiths), a diverse group gathered at Goldsmiths for a day or two to consider the idea of economies of contribution. The workshop included perspectives from media, art, design, software and other fields of theory and practice. In their introduction, the organizers outlined the emergence of a shift from consumer capitalism to an economy of contribution raising questions such as
- Are movements such as Open Source and Wikipedia just detached phenomena, or are they the pioneers of a new economy?
- How do specific localities and regions shape different economies of contribution?
- What are the new power relations and new forms of exploitation?
- How can we use and shape this economy of contribution?
Recent work on open source, crowdsourcing and user-generated content of course was relevant. What was distinctive here was to bring together those with a focus on cultural production, understood as art, design, film, software and broadcast, whether done by professionals or amateurs (if those terms fit).

During the workshop, presentations of research and practice included work by media artist Graham Harwood (MediaShed), Bronac Ferran (who organized the CODE conference in Cambridge in 2001 which had laid out many of the issues); artist Neil Cummings, several of whose projects have questioned the role of cultural collections (see Capital, 2001, at Tate); and Matt Fuller whose work emphasizes the importance of the commons. From Tate, there were presentations by Jennifer Mundy (research), Anna Cutler (learning) and James Davies (online) describing how they are designing new forms of consumption/engagement/contribution to their collection. From Centre Pompidou, there was an overview of some of the technologies of annotation they are developing such as Lignes de Temps. Unfortunately I had to miss the second day and presentations by design/art/media practitioner David Garcia, media theorists from Goldsmiths and others.

My contribution (here, about 7 pages, PDF) was to suggest resources from management and organization literatures that might have something to offer this emerging area, such as practice theory and the turn to design. At a time when the debt-laden consumerist economy seems to be in a tailspin, it is time to pay attention to ways of practice and organizing, and invent new cultural forms that invite a range of modes of participation, engagement and contribution. Media artists - specifically those inventing cultural forms that create novel arrangements of people, software and objects enabling new sets of relations; and service designers - who foreground the involvement of stakeholders in co-designing arrangements of objects and people over time and space - have, I believe, something important and distinctive to offer in the face of these challenges.

Image: screengrab from my project Making a Difference at the University of Plymouth (2004)

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