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On Creative Mythmaking

CHRISTOPHER SCANLON

Richard Florida, The Flight of the Creative Class: The New Global Competition for Talent, HarperBusiness, 2005

Launching the latest in its line of G5 Power Mac computers, Apple stores in the US were plastered with posters of the new machine, the side panel removed to reveal the two processors that power it. Accompanying this model example of techno-fetishism was the slogan, ‘The New Power Mac G5. Engineered for the Creative Class’.

Apple’s pitch to the creative class owes much to the efforts of Richard Florida, professor of public policy at George Mason University. In recent years, Florida has carved a niche for himself raising the class consciousness of graphic designers, software engineers, research scientists, business entrepreneurs, writers and academics and assorted other people involved in intellectual forms of work.

Florida’s most sustained version of his creativity thesis is The Rise of the Creative Class (2003), an updated argument about the centrality of knowledge workers to advanced economies in the same vein as Daniel Bell’s The Coming of Post-Industrial Society and Robert Reich’s The Work of Nations. By Florida’s reckoning such workers currently account for around one-third of the US workforce.

Although billed as serious social science, at many points over its lumbering 400 or so pages, The Rise of the Creative Class reads like an extended PR document for graphic designers, architects, software engineers, ad execs, writers, artists and assorted other ‘creative’ professionals.

Rise was followed by Cities and the Creative Class, a more succinct though considerably drier re-statement of the same basic ideas. Addressed primarily to civic leaders and city planners, the book was filled out with statistics, case-studies and replies to critics unconvinced by the first book.

In spite of this prolificacy, Florida’s ‘creative capital theory’ as he calls it, is fairly prosaic stuff. A species of human capital theory, it argues that economic prosperity is dependent on the knowledge and skills that individuals possess. Florida argues that where in the industrial economy the key to economic prosperity lay in attracting large industry to employ people, in the so-called ‘creative economy’ the economic success of regions and cities is about attracting talented and creative people.

Creative people, according to Florida, choose to live in particular places for quite specific reasons. Successful places, he argues, have three factors in common: a concentration of talent,  particularly writers, artists, musicians and designers; technology, that is, high-tech firms, and tolerance, measured through numbers of gay people, which can be happily contracted to the ‘3T’s’. Florida’s key message is that is that in a less secure, fast-shifting labour market where people can move from one job to another, policy makers and planners ought to use lifestyle as a lever to attract certain kinds of workers to a city or region.

The Flight of the Creative Class adds   little to Florida’s overall argument, except to take aim at current US policies which, in his view, are undermining the US’s ability to attract creative talent from around the globe. Overzealous security and immigration controls, the influence of Christian fundamentalism on policy, regressive policies on gay and lesbian and women’s rights are, according to Florida, turning talented people away from the US.

Although he refuses all political labels, Florida’s is a fine example of the kind of chirrupy, optimistic liberalism, which despite its many shortcomings is far more preferable than the social arrangements preferred by the Hobbesian-state-of-nature-plus-the-futures-market vision of society offered by neo-cons. In contrast, Florida seeks to defend an idea of the US based on principles of diversity and openness.

Nevertheless, there are a number of significant omissions in his account which become glaringly evident when he comes to give specific examples of creative people.

In the first place, his account is biased toward the business and tech sectors; Apple’s ad people did their homework when they came up with the pitch to the creative class. More alarmingly, it seems that for Florida, there is a relationship between masculinity and creativity; almost all of the examples of creative souls he comes up with are men.

I’m happy to be corrected on this point, but I counted just two examples of creative women: Aretha Franklin and Helena Rubenstein. Compare this with Andrew Carnegie, George Soros, Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos, Bill Gates, Raymond Yang (the founder of a Shanghai-based mobile phone company), Google-founder Sergey Brin, Hotmail co-founder Sabeer Bhatia, Yahoo’s Jerry Yang, Pierre Omidyar; film directors Peter Jackson and George Lucas; musicians John Coltrane, Ray Charles, Led Zeppelin, Cream, and Geffen Records founder David Geffen; inventor Linus Torvalds, who wrote the kernel of the freely distributed Linux computer operating system, Albert Einstein and so on.

Despite this rather telling omission, Flight of the Creative Class is in many ways the best of Florida’s three books on creativity, which is not to say it is a good book. Its main strength is to offer a more critical account of the rise of the knowledge economy, and the way it works against many people. While increasing inequalities were noted in the previous two books, they tended to be passed over in a cursory fashion. This book sees Florida acknowledge the structural connection between the rise of intellectual labour and growing inequality. Such inequalities, he writes, are ‘built into the very fabric of the unmitigated rise of the creative economy, a direct if harsh reflection of the kind of work that generates wealth in our global economy’.

His solution though — disperse creativity throughout the economy and increase investment in education — is unconvincing. Though he doesn’t ‘expect every human being to write great symphonies or design monumental buildings’, Florida does argue for ‘a broadening of the very definition of creativity, one that will ennoble and encourage the everyday efforts of “ordinary” occupations’.

This is fine as far as it goes, but you get the feeling that the broadening of the definition of ‘creativity’ might end as a form of empty flattery, a way to pretend that people are engaged in creative work whatever they do, no matter how routine and repetitive.

Even those forms of employment which may at first blush seem to be  the pinnacle of creativity, are not necessarily the nirvana that Florida portrays them to be. For example, designing a couple of websites may be a creative endeavour for someone who’s never created one before. It may even be a liberating experience for someone intimidated by information technology.

It is less interesting when you’ve mastered the design techniques and have to churn new ones out for impatient clients. Maintaining the same websites can be positively dreary, involving the kind of repetition which, if the boosters of creativity are to be believed, is a relic of the Fordist production line. In short, just because work involves a computer, a high-speed internet connection and requires a bit of coding or design skill doesn’t make it inherently creative. It can, and often is, just as boring and repetitive as the fitting side panels to a Leyland P76 — and in many instances, it lacks even the most basic social  interaction that such manual labour afforded.

That’s not to say that the production line was superior to web design. The point rather is to ward against the kinds of overstatement and exaggeration that so often crop up in this kind of discussion; a tendency that is all too current to Florida.

Take, for example, his claim that ‘The key factor of the global economy is no longer goods, services, or flows of capital, but the competition for people’. The use of the phrase ‘key factor’ is ambiguous, though it gives the impression that goods, services and flows of capital have been — at least to a degree — displaced by talented individuals as the source of economic growth.

This is a rather attractive idea, conjuring a future in economies will be freed from the constraints imposed by the dependence on brute matter and driven by seemingly inexhaustible power of human creativity.

However, such a claim is difficult to square with the fact that the United States, aided and abetted by some of the countries which rank highly on Florida’s creativity index — including the UK and Australia — is currently engaged in an enormously expensive war and occupation of Iraq; a war in which securing natural resources has not been incidental. Until countries go to war to secure the services of creative people, such claims will remain the stuff of fantasy.

In spite of this significant omission, Florida’s book boils down to an argument of the economic sense of the US acting as a good international citizen while living up to its nationalist myths of openness, diversity and mobility. It’s not a convincing story, but then again, nationalist myths rarely are.

At best, Flight of the Creative Class offers a more attractive face of the US than that on offer from the neo-cons, though this is hardly a major achievement, and falls far short of making up for the even less convincing assumption that the knowledge economy is going to save us.

 

Christopher Scanlon is a co-editor of Arena Magazine

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