Thursday, May 19, 2005

Transformations

"As a political poster artist, it is important for me to remind myself of ways to develop art that speaks to a mass base of people, so that my the art becomes something functional and not something to be purchased and sold. My posters don't belong in galleries, they belong in schools, in the streets. Art in this country is commodified and transformed into something for commercial consumption. Our role as artists is to use our art to transform and inform a radical consciousness and to move the people."

-- Favianna, via Social Design Notes

While I do think it's possible to "move the people" with commercial products, the mass commodification of radical ideas and marginal practices is not without consequence. Here's Fortune magazine on The Amazing Rise of the Do-It-Yourself Economy :

"[A] number of factors are coming together to empower amateurs in a way never before possible, blurring the lines between those who make and those who take. Unlike the dot-com fortune hunters of the late 1990s, these do-it-yourselfers aren't deluding themselves with oversized visions of what they might achieve. Instead, they're simply finding a way - in this mass-produced, Wal-Mart world - to take power back, prove that they can make the products that they want to consume, have fun doing so, and, just maybe, make a few dollars...

A few large companies, too, are finding ways to tap into the movement. While most of the leading-edge DIYers view open-source software as their inspiration, Microsoft sees a role for itself. The company's Visual Studio Express software - slated for official release later this year - is designed to bring coding to the masses... Microsoft estimates there are six million professional developers and 18 million amateurs: hobbyists, tinkerers, students. The company hopes to make Visual Studio Express the Esperanto of amateur builders. Brian Keller, product manager for Visual Studio, says he looks forward to the day when "my mom can sit down and watch a video and learn how to build an RFID reader for herself."

Don't get me wrong. Generally I stand behind what some folks call 'mass amateurisation' - or more specifically I support challenges to traditional professional expertise. But when Microsoft or the BBC want me to "play" with their products it's different from when I play with my friends and peers. Not necessarily worse, and wonderful in all sorts of ways, but different nonetheless. Started as basically DIY efforts, Flickr has become Flickr/Yahoo and Dodgeball has become Dodgeball/Google. Blogging the latest conference I attended or building patio furniture from the latest issue of Ready-Made is different than squatter entrepreneurship. Assembled relations shift, will continue to shift, and that's never a neutral occurrence. And you know what? When I moderated the Designing for Hackability panel at DIS last summer, I could not engage one single person on the implications of commodifying the hacker or DIY ethic. In worst case scenarios I was shut down by the claim that such concerns were utterly irrelevant. The Man: 1 Radicals: 0.

Update 20/05/05. Interesting discussion here.

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