LOLcats as Soulcraft

Apparently Clay Shirky is working on a new book. He tweeted a possible title today: LOLcats as Soulcraft. I’m not sure what the book will be about (or whether that was at all a serious suggestion) but as I interpret it, it dovetails with some ideas I’ve been thinking about.

“LOLcats as Soulcraft” appears to play off of the essay-turned-book “Shop Class as Soulcraft” by Matthew B. Crawford, which argues that working with one’s hands, craft work, is intellectually and emotionally satisfying in ways that other kinds of work–either abstract-but-circumscribed “knowledge work” or routinized physical work in the industrial capitalism mode–are not. Crawford argues that craft work connects makers to the objects they make and fosters, in the face of a consumer culture based on disposability and black box technology, an ethic of upkeep and repair and respect for fine workmanship.

Shirky, I imagine, would take that argument for the virtues of craft work and extend it to the virtues of building the virtual commons. Participation in the digital commons, creating LOLcats and YouTube videos and fan fiction and Wikipedia articles and citizen journalism and free software, etc., creates a new sort of relationship between cultural works and audience (or former audience, if you prefer). “If you have some sans-serif fonts on your computer, you can play this game, too.”

This line of thinking naturally leads to one of the main questions both Crawford and Shirky think deeply about: what will/should society look like in the future? In particular, what will economic life be like? The digital commons–as resource, but even more so as an ethic–has the potential to basically cut the legs out from under the knowledge economy that has been increasingly prioritized in rich-world culture (especially in education). Already, as Crawford points out, the logic of scientific management is being applied to “knowledge work”, essentially routinizing it and taking the soul out of it. And the more the digital commons can replace its capitalist counterparts, the harder it will be to find any paid work in areas like software and mainstream media, much less fulfilling work.

In the long run,the democratization of the tools of digital production and the extremely low costs of “mass producing” digital products means that we will be getting nearly everything that makes up the knowledge economy for free. So we may see an economy in the rich world that swings back towards physical goods and physical services. Modern mass production obviously can’t absorb many of those who will be displaced by the digital commons, so we will have to find new ways of getting by. Crawford’s hoped-for craft renaissance may part of that. Learning to use less stuff may be another part. Alternatively, we might see massive concentration of wealth in those companies that make most of our food and our physical stuff (and then possibly reforms to the political economy to redistribute much of that wealth). As long as people can meet their basic needs in the future economy (up to and including rich access to the digital commons), LOLcats–and everything else they symbolize for Shirky–could go a long way toward displacing the consumer culture need for limitless economic growth.

It’s pretty hard to imagine what changes are being sown by the rising digital commons, but I imagine Shirky has some good ideas.