Let’s Be Ambitious, Adventurous and Unexpected: A Complaint About Digital Art and Entrepreneurialism

Some people in the arts are getting really excited about being “entrepreneurial”. It’s the sort of go ahead, sexy business talk that implies Getting Stuff Done and not sitting back and waiting for other people to make things happen. This is in part because Sir Peter Bazalgette, new Chair of Arts Council England, has described the way he wants the sector to change from a subsidised mindset to an entrepreneurial one:

Arts funding should be seen as “support and investment” rather than “subsidy” … “Subsidy sounds like a European wine lake,” he said. “It’s an old-fashioned, passive word that I’ve trained myself out of using.”

Instead, Bazalgette said he hopes to lead a new brand of “cultural entrepreneurs”…

(Interview with Sir Peter Bazalgette, Chair of Arts Council England, The Guardian, 23 Feb 2013)

Wikipedia defines “an entrepreneur” as:

an individual who organizes and operates a business or businesses, taking on financial risk to do so.

So, in this definition, entrepreneurs run businesses; profit-making entities that generate money because their managers have taken a series of calculated financial and other risks. I assume that Bazalgette means a bit more than that: that we should also see public money as investment; a catalyst, that is used to generate other money and more opportunities.

Now this is not how the public sector works; money is (by and large) fairly carefully managed in a risk averse way, with a lot of bureaucratic hoops and hurdles to stop unnecessary risks being taken and public money being wasted. And while some parts of the arts (even big institutions) are great at taking artistic risks – investing in talent and commissioning relative unknowns to create new work – digital work is often seen as an administrative, capital function: one the one hand, it’s a money pit into which millions of pounds can be sunk, on the other it could make us all millionaires if someone, finally, comes up with that mythical new business model. So digital work is often seen as a commercial or administrative function, and as a consequence is often not admitted into the native R&D processes of the arts: the workshops, the improvisation, the residencies that are there to create new kinds of art and nurture and develop talent. At Caper, we’ve tried to solve that problem with projects like Culture Hack and Happenstance, but this isn’t about our work. This is about being a cultural entrepreneur.

Now, the risk of being a cultural entrepreneur is that it can engender the wrong sort of risks; financial and management risks that rely on certainties, such as a known and desirable artistic product that attracts a known and desirable audience. For instance, it might seem easy to be a traditional money-making entrepreneur when you’re performing a Verdi opera to a roomful of bankers and charging them an extra £10 for a bottle of champagne; it’s a bit harder when you’re presenting an opera on a carpark roof in Peckham. And yet, actually, the people putting on the opera on the carpark are the real cultural entrepreneurs: they might be making less money than the people at the Royal Opera House at the end of the night, but they are creating an opportunity, making an audience, taking a risk. I mean, on the one hand, performing some Laurie Anderson to some hipsters near to an art college is a no-brainer (and, inexplicably, everyone loves a multi-story carpark these days – what’s that all about?), but it hasn’t happened before and (from what I hear) it was a wonderful, inspiring performance that everyone loved. 

As Martha Henson recently wrote, traditional, risk-averse civil-service procurement is death to digital innovation, and one of the problems is because all Digital Work is thrown into the same melting pot. I imagine few choreographers have been asked to provide three years of accounts before they create a new piece of dance or if Anish Kapoor has to explain his approach to environmental sustainability before installing a new piece. Yet at Caper we regularly have to file our financial details before anyone will talk to us about our ideas. Luckily we can do this, but the reality is that our year end accounts or our equal-opportunities policy don’t really tell you anything about our work, because we don’t just equate to service providers: we’re producers and curators and digital makers who are exploring the boundaries of digital work. You might get a working web site, but you should hopefully also get a little bit of magic.

At the moment, the arts are relatively good at investing in art and artists. To create new, relevant digital work (and by this, I don’t mean ticketing or CRM systems or content-delivery networks or any major infrastructure, for which GDS indisputably provides the model) the arts need to invest in and cultivate the makers. There is a vast opportunity in investing in the people who don’t (yet) call themselves artists, but who have a virtuoso level of technical skill and are willing and ready to play: willing to be adventurous and curious and responsive and generous with their skills because the arts are helping them to deepen and further their practice and create beautiful, challenging things. (Inevitably, my reference point here is James Bridle’s work: curious digital exploration that has grown into provocative and awe-inspiring art.)

But the problem here is that the word digital still equates to business model in lots of peoples’ minds. Every chief exec of a major arts organisation seems to think they are one great idea away from a digital IPO and becoming Martha Lane Fox, which means that digital innovation in the arts is not really innovation at all, just bricks and clicks or apps or video on-demand that someone hopes someone might pay for one day. And it means that the word “entrepreneur” starts to pop up any time some might be about to open a laptop. For instance:

Each project hosted at Hack the Barbican is completely self-resourced, with its creators acting entrepreneurially to secure the materials and skills they need. (Hack the Barbican website)

Now, in the interests of full disclosure, our proposal for Hack the Barbican was turned down, because it required too much support to be realised. And I don’t mind that at all, because life is sometimes a bit tough like that, but I do mind the fact that they’re equating people giving their time and expertise for free, and begging, borrowing, stealing and paying for their own equipment, with being entrepreneurial. When Serge and Larry were starting Google they didn’t do it by giving away some time to a local arts centre; they did it by investing their time and money, and the time and money of their friends and investors, into making a product and releasing it to the world. Neither the Barbican nor the people who they’ve invited to play are being entrepreneurial just by doing stuff for free. I have no problem with doing free stuff and, unfortunately, do it quite a lot of the time, but it’s not entrepreneurial. Doing stuff for free gets in the way of being entrepreneurial. Asking people for their time is no different to asking for their money: it’s either fun or charity or a bit of both, but it’s no different to subsidy.  When I’ve run hackathons, where people participate for free, the quid pro quo is that they get opportunities, new working relationships, beer, pizza, ridiculous prizes and a really good time.  And I’m sure the people doing Hack the Barbican are getting stuff back (I mean, they’re getting to Hack the Barbican, which is quite cool) but they aren’t being entrepreneurs.

So where am I going with this? I guess there are three conclusions:

1)  Entrepreneurialism involves both risk and investment. Not every entrepreneurial enterprise is successful (if it were, we would literally all be millionaires now) and there are probably as many bankrupts out there as there are millionaires. And so shifting towards “cultural entrepreneurialism” can’t just be about making money or about short-term gains; it needs to involve artistic risk-taking, inventiveness and adventurousness. It should be as much about audacious and challenging experimentation as it is about market-stall level no-brainers and clear commercial opportunity. It should be about spotting opportunities and turning the stuff we have into even better stuff.

2) Being “digital” doesn’t necessarily equate with being entrepreneurial. Digital work can be artistic, educational, fun, a waste of time, a way to generate money, and none or all of the above. It’s like saying that paper is entrepreneurial because money gets printed on it.

3) The established arts are terrible at “Digital R&D” but wonderful at nurturing and supporting and creating other kinds of inventive and surprising work. It’s not a big shift to be brave enough to start playing and improvising and investing in digital work in the way that fine art or theatre has traditionally been supported. It’s not all about creating audiences or creating new business models, but about surprising new work. The Shed at the NT is committed to producing “adventurous, ambitious and unexpected” theatre; to secure the future of the arts, we need to create the same space and support for digital work.

Start with a YES and see where it takes you

There’s a sudden rash of news coverage about things private girls’ schools are doing to make their pupils more confident and resilient. Oxford High School has a bafflingly named initiative called “The Death of Little Miss Perfect” to encourage girls to realise that “being perfect is the enemy of learning” and Putney High School is giving girls comedy lessons to “improve their resiliency and become greater risk takers”.

Meanwhile, Professor Athene Donald has written about women turning down invitations to speak, and how this contributes to the relatively small overall number of women speaking at conferences:

Although the number of women invited was more or less in line with the numbers of fairly senior women in the field, about half had declined; this was a noticeably higher proportion than amongst the male invitees. Thus the actual number of women who spoke in these prestigious slots was far below any appropriate benchmark.

As far as I know, there’s not any conclusive research about the reason more women turn down invitations to speak at conferences. The lack of childcare provision is often given as a reason, but it seems unlikely that every woman who has turned down an invitation either has children or a problem getting her childcare to fit around her commitments. There are probably as many reasons as there are women, but confidence and resilience almost certainly come into the mix as frequently as questions of childcare or time management.

The coincidence of these stories reminded me of Tina Fey’s “Rules of Improvisation” from her memoir Bossypants. Here’s a slightly edited extract from pages 84 and 85. I’ve added some bold to the bits that seem most important:

The first rule of improvisation is AGREE. Always agree and SAY YES. When you’re improvising, this means you are required to agree with whatever your partner has created… Now, obviously in real life you’re not always going to agree with everything everyone says. But the Rule of Agreement reminds you to “respect what your partner has created” and to at least start from an open-minded place. Start with a YES and see where it takes you. 

The second rule of improvisation is not only to say yes, but YES, AND. You are are supposed to agree and then add something of your own. … To me, YES, AND means don’t be afraid to contribute. It’s your responsibility to contribute. Always make sure you’re adding something to the discussion. Your initiations are worthwhile.

The next rule is MAKE STATEMENTS. This is a positive way of saying, “Don’t ask questions all the time.” If we’re in a scene and I say, “Who are you? Where are we? What are we doing here? What’s in that box?” I’m putting pressure on you to come up with all the answers.

In other words, whatever the problem, be part of the solution. Don’t just sit around raising questions and pointing out obstacles. … MAKE STATEMENTS also applies to us women: Speak in statements instead of apologetic questions. No one wants to go to a doctor who says, “I’m going to be your surgeon? I’m here to talk to you about your procedure? I was first in my class at Johns Hopkins, so?” Make statements with your actions and your voice. 

… this leads us to the best rule:

THERE ARE NO MISTAKES, only opportunities. … In improv, there are no mistakes, only beautiful happy accidents.

This seems like as good a manifesto as any.

On Going to Conferences

I really like white men who are aged between 35 and 45. In fact, I like them much so that I live with one and number many of them among my best friends. They’re great, some of them are brilliant, visionary practitioners, and I don’t want it to sound like I’m having a downer on them. But – and this may come as a shock to some of you – they aren’t the only people in the world, and they certainly aren’t the only people who work in design or technology.

I know – right?

There are young people, women, people from different ethnic backgrounds – all sorts of crazy stuff is going on in work places all over the country and, more shockingly, all around the Old Street area that either doesn’t include or isn’t the sole preserve of this fairly small group of people. And the thing is that everyone knows that except for some people who organise conferences.

Now, I’ve organised quite a few events and I know how easy it is to ask your friends to do stuff. For a start, your friends are your friends because they’re brilliant. They’re your friends because they’re the best people you know. So it seems quite tempting to think, “I’m going to organise an event and just ask my friends, or people like my friends, to speak, because they are all totally awesome and everyone else will think so too.”


Well, no. Not right. Or at least, not for me.

I’ve stopped buying tickets to things that are just talks by long lists of guys with one-syllable names. And that’s a shame, because lots of these guys with one-syllable names are completely brilliant, and I want to hear what they have to say. But I don’t only want to hear what they have to say. Obviously I could deal with this myself by going to a wide range of events, but – frankly – who has the time? I say “hurray for established practitioners who happen to be men, but they aren’t everyone in the world who’s doing interesting stuff, so please can we stop pretending that they are.”

Lots of stuff is changing, and I feel that technology events are, slowly, becoming more equal. Or at least, I feel that people in my bit of Twitter who talk about them are aware of the need for equality – but then, of course, I’m friends with people like me, so they would think that. So it’s quite a shock when I see a brilliant looking conference* that I really want to go to and I scroll down the list of speakers and there they are, one after another, man man man man, and then I think – no. I’m not going to go to that. Obviously sexism is only one part of the equality jigsaw, but it’s the part I’m most interested in and affected by. And one of the reasons I won’t go is because it feels as if the vision of the event as a whole will be limited. Clearly I don’t think that all men in the same age bracket think the same thing (I mean, duh) but it may very well mean that whoever has organised the event hasn’t fished very far outside of their immediate pool, and – in my experience – that will make it, in totality, an ultimately less interesting event.

This post is a knee-jerk reaction to seeing it happen again – and again. I’ve been having this debate for so long now that I actually find it quite boring, and can’t really believe I’m having to say the same things again. And lots of other people are saying them as well.

At Caper, we’re working with some partners to do something longer-term about this, which we’ll be announcing later in the year (and please, get in touch if you’re interested in partnering or funding something in this area), and after Playful last year, Greg Povey started a directory of women speakers that people can add their names to if they’re interested in speaking. But in the meantime, I’m going to continue being baffled and confused by this sort of thing, but – more powerfully, I hope – I’m also going to vote with my money and my attention, and stop attending events that don’t even attempt some level of diversity.

*Updated: I was linking to a specific event, but I’ve taken that out, for the sake of even-handedness, as this applies to a lot of events and singling one out seemed unfair.

Books Do Furnish A Room

I spent Saturday with Matt, my long-suffering partner, bar-code scanning and organising the majority of the physical books in our flat.

There were a few reasons for doing this.

1) We couldn’t find anything and it was impossible to know what we had: the number of times one of us had said, “I’m sure we’ve got x but I don’t know where it is” had been increasing exponentially, and it was definitely now quicker to buy another copy or an electronic version than it was to sift through all the other books.

2) I wanted to have remote access to a list of all the books we own. I’m an obsessively completist reader with a terrible memory: once I find a fiction author whose work I like, I tend to read everything they’ve ever written and everything about them in fairly short order, but still be caught out when standing in a bookshop, unable to remember exactly where I’m up to in a sequence, or which books I have or haven’t read.

3) I’ve started making a searchable database of my cookery books (more of which shortly).

4) In some way, I want to feel ready – when the time comes – to just hit a button and upload all of these books to a Kindle.

What did we find?

We found about 30 books that don’t belong to us, about 10 duplicates (if you were wondering how many times can one person ready “Americana” by Don DeLillo and not remember it’s the same book, the answer is “three” ), and a further 150 or so that we don’t want or need, which are now bagged up, ready to go to book heaven.

Some books waiting to go to the second-hand shop

That left 1,062 others, which are now distributed across five book cases and separated into 16 categories. Fourteen of these categories are (for the time being) organised by alphabetical order of author, with the exception of one or two, which are organised by subject, as that seemed to make things easier to find.

We scanned all the books using Delicious Library. This cross-references each ISBN against the book’s record in Amazon. We had probably around 20 pamphlets and booklets and very old books that were unfindable in the database, and – depending on how much energy we had at the time – we may or may not have those entered by hand.

I then did a (very hurried) first pass at categorising the books we had scanned in Delicious Library into “shelves”. These shelves more-or-less equate to the categories we shelved the real books into, but not quite – partly due to laziness, but also because, without following a strict taxonomy, categorising things on a screen feels different to categorising physical objects. In real life, for instance, we have a shelf of “feminist theory”, which is subsumed into “theory and essays” in Delicious Library, and we also have a motley end-of-shelf selection of oddments and children’s books that I haven’t categorised at all. It’s partly because there’s an imperative to put the physical books away, so you have to make a call one way or another, whereas the records can sit, idly uncategorised, without really getting in the way. Also, where we happened to have biographical or theoretical books about a particular author, in real life we shelved that book alongside the books they had written – a nuance that doesn’t make sense in Delicious, where there’s no need for these arbitrary clusters, as you can keyword search the entire library.

Some real bookshelves
The same books, in Delicious Library

Looking at the stats, there are 1,062 books in the library as a whole but only 1,048 on the shelves, which means that I either let my eye run over 14 titles or couldn’t decide where to put them. For now, each book is only shelved once in the virtual library, although it might be more useful to, at a later date, tag them across multiple shelves. However, while we still have the books available and categorised on the physical shelves, that doesn’t seem like an imperative. Finally, I uploaded the 1,048 shelved books to a new Library Thing profile, where they sit untagged but searchable by keyword.

So, what have I learnt?

Matt’s taste is a lot more plural than mine. As I mentioned, I have a sort of monomania and will read exhaustively by and about a single writer, whereas he tends to read around a subject more deeply.

“W” takes up a disproportionate amount of space in our fiction shelves, including fairly thorough runs of Edith Wharton, Dorothy Whipple, PG Wodehouse and Virginia Woolf.

Of 1,062 books, only 39% are straightforward Fiction, with Crime and Thrillers representing an additional 6.9% and Poetry and Drama another 14%. This leaves 41% non-fiction books scattered over 13 categories. Of these the largest categories are Theory and Essays, Cookery, Music, and History and Culture – although “Theory and Essays” and “History and Culture” are very badly defined and almost interchangeable.

I have possibly thousands of recipes that are written on bits of paper, torn out of magazines or photocopied from books. I’ve been trying to sort these out for years. This hasn’t helped.

A few of my “collected” recipes

Searchable mind

Assuming I’ve read about 50% of the books that we own, I should know quite a lot of stuff. As I get older, my on-demand memory is becoming much slower to access (it generally gets there, after an hour or a day, but it can be tedious sending these slow queries out into the night). I would like, eventually, to be able to efficiently query the things I’ve read and come back with an answer to a specific question. This is different to googling: it’s looking through my store of acquired-ish knowledge and finding the thing that I want. In some ways, this is a step towards that.

At Christmas, I spent about a week cross-referencing recipes from all the Italian recipe books I own into a database. This took a long time because physical indexes tend to be non-standard (one man’s zucchini is another’s courgette, and descriptions of techniques and terminology differ from author to author), so I had to reclassify the recipes as well as physically parse each index. The reason for this is that I’d like to search the 70 cookery books that I own and just those books without having to open every single one and look through the Index. I don’t want Google to return every goddam BBC Good Food recipe first: I want a self-selected group of texts, that responds to my self-defined interests. In the end, I didn’t get further than about 7 or 8 books, but I’d like to return to this – or be able to purchase licenses from the 8 or 9 publishers responsible who have published these 70 books, so I can get searchable copies without having to purchase them again.


It will probably take me a few months or years to figure out whether all this scanning has any inherent value, or whether we’ll be able to keep it up. At the moment I’m feeling slightly smug and organised, which is nice (and unusual). But mostly, this has made me aware of how frustrated I am that the books I own or have read aren’t persistent objects that transfer seamlessly from the physical to the digital space. Scanning in some ISBN codes won’t solve that or give me a photographic memory, but it might make me more prepared as and when persistence becomes an option.

UPDATE – 10 September 

Just over a month has passed, and a few things have happened:

1) We’ve managed to keep the physical books on the shelves in more-or-less the right order. It would, of course, be quite an achievement to move over 1,000 books into different places in such a short period of time, but I’m surprised we’ve kept it up for this long, frankly. More to the point, there are lots of advantages to doing so: I can count at least a dozen times I’ve been able to put my hand immediately on a book that I was wondering about/wanting to check something in; I’ve found a few books I’d written off as long lost and actually been able to read them; it makes putting new (in fact, any) books away a lot easier, as they all have a place.

2) Bar code scanning is much harder. I would anticipate that we’ve had another 10 or so books come into the house in the last month. They haven’t been scanned and I’m not sure I could tell you what all of them were in order to retrospectively do the scanning. Ideally we need a system such as labels or tags (or library labels! The concept of which I find very attractive, but which – I imagine – may signal the end of my relationship) so that we know what we’ve scanned and what we haven’t, or the equivalent of an “uncatalogued shelf” – but in its own way, as we don’t live in a library with a librarian, that might be the beginning of its own sort of chaos.

3) We sold about 100 books to our local secondhand bookshop for the princely sum of £25, which works out at 25p a book. Also, the man in my local secondhand shop wasn’t all that keen on interwar female writers (which is a shame, as I am), so there will be a lot of Rosamund Lehman etc making it to a Barnados near you very shortly.

I Miss The Guardian Editors

I bought The Guardian yesterday for the first time in months. It was a bit like bumping into an old boyfriend and finding that the years have been unkind: recognisably the same, but thinner, less interesting and still going on about the same things it had been five years ago.

My love affair with The Guardian (which, until then, I had read for nearly 20 years) started to wane about a year ago. First, The Observer became a shadow of itself; then the editor of the “Weekend” magazine appeared to go on extended leave, leaving the magazine to replicate the same edition every week; and slowly the newspaper – particularly the Saturday edition – started to lose substance. And by substance I don’t particularly mean pages: it began to feel as if all of the editors had left the building. As if no one was putting care and attention into choosing what went onto the page; no one was returning articles to columnists that had clearly been dashed off over lunch; and no one was thinking anything more than “will this do?”.

The thing that bought the relationship to a staggering halt was the iPad edition. It seemed to have been designed with no thought to what was good about a newspaper. For a start, there wasn’t a crossword. The category headings were strangely ordered, giving – for me – undue prominence to sections like Obituaries, a section I never seek out but often read, because it appears at the right point; an opportunity to reflect and look backwards after the hurly burly of news and current affairs. It appeared to lose the idea of serendipity that a really good newspaper (like a really good radio station) offers as a matter of course: while I will happily continue turning the pages of a paper to the end and allow a Business article to catch my eye, I will almost never click on a tab marked “Business”. My self-identified interests are narrow, and I want them to be challenged by a good newspaper editor who shows me the things I should care about. And, most sadly of all, it didn’t feel as if there was anything to read, the layout of the pages confirming the sparseness of the content. On the ultimately paginating and scrollable device, it felt as if there was nothing longer than three-or four-hundred words.

I still look at The Guardian homepage most days, but I’m clicking through less and less often. While my requirement for rolling current affairs in one place has been lessened by Twitter, my interest in comment and analysis (the sort of article that is still interesting to read the day or the week or the month after an event) certainly hasn’t. My interest in what I will now lazily call Proper Journalism and Good Editing certainly remains, and it’s lack of a sense of an editor that pervades both the website and the newspaper.

A 5-minute visit to The Guardian site on Friday afternoon – while I was putting off the last email of the day at my desk – allowed me to glance at a whole slew of articles that I found again in the main newspaper on Saturday. A rather charming piece by Zoe Williams about the town with the lowest male:female ratio in Britain (not exactly a time sensitive scoop) was on the homepage at 5pm on Friday afternoon and in the newspaper on Saturday. A little bit of scheduling could have sent the online version live at midnight on Friday; putting it there on the afternoon of the day before felt like an admission that there was nothing much interesting to say, that they needed to fill a gap so were doing it with whatever came to hand. Surrendering to the importance of churn without having anything of substance to churn.

I notice I’m reading more of The New York Times, which still publishes longer articles filled with investigative reporting, comment and debate. The fact that I’m a reasonably avid reader of Twitter means, I think, that headlines pass before my eyes throughout the course of most days: I’m absorbing the ebb and flow of the news cycle without often needing to click through, so I have more time to read proper stuff. I don’t need to spend 30 minutes each day finding out what happened the day before, because the intake of that kind of news has sped up to almost the pace of my heartbeat. So I have a spare 30 minutes to engage in proper analysis, compelling storytelling and long-form discussion.

The sort of thing I would like to read needs good commissioners – the sort of editors who challenge their contributors and look at the ways stories unfold over the time, the sort with the courage to sack their columnists and find someone new, the sort who commission long-form articles for the magazine rather than simply take extracts from books. I have spare attention and want to use it up; I want to be challenged and provoked by big crashing waves, not provided with additional flotsam that I need to push out of the way.

I cannot, as yet, bring myself to spend my money with Murdoch or succumb to The Telegraph, so I don’t read a newspaper at all. A Tory government of the kind we have now should provide an easy heyday for liberal journalism, so I hope The Guardian editors come back. I miss them.

Convective Heat of Ideas

For the last few days, there have only been two ideas doing the rounds in my Twitter stream. One of these is the New Aesthetic, the other is the idea that Instagram being bought by Facebook is a sign of the Apocalypse.

Given that I follow more than 900 accounts, that doesn’t seem like many ideas.

On the one hand, that might indicate that my Twitter community is very self-reflecting, or it might – when I subdivide the accounts into different sorts – seem entirely reasonable. After discounting the dormant accounts, the lurkers, the bots and the corporate nonsense, it’s reasonable to assume that I only follow around 300 real, live people. And of those 300, it seems possible that only 10% are in the business of actively propagating big new ideas on a regular basis. So actually, two ideas in the week after Easter – when every sensible person is on holiday – might even be quite a lot. But it’s felt quite claustrophobic – as if the edges of my Twitter world have been rubbing up against each other and that world has become a bit too small.

As everyone knows, Twitter can change like the wind on a beach in Norfolk. This makes it all the more interesting when ideas or concepts persist and dominate. If furious moral approbation on Twitter is a storm, then these more persistent ideas could be described as slow, incoming weather fronts. They may not be a permanent fixture, but they certainly loom with a force that makes them feel as if they’re here to stay.

So it seems (to abruptly change metaphors) as if these ideas move around Twitter by way of convection. The convective heat of an idea gets passed from one tweet to another until the whole pot is boiling with the same heat. And sometimes that pot gets hot enough to heat the ones around it. And by and large this seems to work something like this:

1) Someone has an idea (this might be conveyed in e.g. a tweet, a blog post, a video or a newspaper article)

2) The idea starts to get passed on, being either retweeted or rephrased and linked to

3) The idea then starts to get absorbed. At this point, it might turn into a hashtag – a common point of reference for everyone who has observed the idea go through phases 1 and 2

4) People start to respond with their own ideas, commentary or interpretation

5) The original idea is modified and extended

6) There’s a backlash or a counter-movement

This process could take months (as with the New Aesthetic), days or hours. Inevitably, the number of people who modify or thoughtfully respond to an idea is much smaller than the number of people who pass it on.

Or at least, that is how it works in my Twitter world. Probably no different to how ideas have been disseminated for centuries, but sped up, I think, by the fact that these 140 character molecules can bounce around more efficiently – travelling from head to head until no one can quite tell who thought the original idea in the first place.

Will Ebooks Ruin My Love Life?

Lots of people have been complaining about “frictionless sharing” lately, those posts added to your Facebook or Twitter stream telling you that someone has read so-and-so, listened to something else or checked in at the end of their road. Posts like this are the equivalent of sharing your implicit personal activity bot, and they are made all the more curious by the actual selection process behind every (allegedly frictionless) share. No one ever checks in to say they’ve been to the toilet or read a particularly shaming bit of gossip in The Daily Mail. We only seem to be casual with the good stuff, the things that shape our reputations and build our approved sense of self.

I’ve travelled on a lot of tube trains this week, and have twice been surprised by the books I’ve seen people reading: the first was The Twelve Caesars by Suetonius and the second was William and Mary, by I can’t remember who, but in the exact same edition that was in my school library. Both readers seemed gripped and delighted, oblivious to the train full of overcoats and commuting armpits, despite neither book seeming likely to be a passport to enthralled escape. Both covers stayed with me, a nice change to the sea of One Day and Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.

Book covers are the ultimate in frictionless sharing, a mixture of the accidental and intentional. After the moment of purchase, it’s as if the cover was made for the people sitting opposite you on the tube to admire, leaving their vapour trails behind them, making a literal post in the activity feed of your life. The choice of what to read, and how to angle the jacket, is created by the same mix of overt and covert intention as allowing Spotify to publish your playlist to Facebook. It’s a very British kind of showing off.

Meanwhile, The Guardian tells us that, “Ebook sales are being driven by downmarket genre fiction”. To my knowledge, the easy availability of paper has never made Bend, Sinister a sensation on The Sunday Times bestseller list, so it would be peculiar if difficult literary fiction was made more popular by the existence of Kindles and Nooks. Difficult books provoke difficult thoughts, and people’s willingness to think those is unlikely to be changed by the surface that the words appear on.

But the popularity of genre ebooks might indicate that one-click purchasing is more instinctive, more closely connected to pleasure seeking; less oriented towards our intention to improve or impress and more aware of our need for gratification. A secret read of a Robert Ludlum ebook doesn’t take up any space on your bookshelf or post to your activity feed. It’s traceless, more intimate, intended only for the eyes of its reader.

Who Reads Exhibition Catalogues?

This presents a challenge for high culture, which has long relied on the status inferred from physical souvenirs.

Since we haven’t installed tracking devices in exhibition catalogues or opera DVDs, we don’t know if anyone ever opens them once they get home. We know they buy them – possibly in a moment of well-meaning excitement, as a souvenir or a promise of future intellectual engagement – but we don’t know if they ever sit at home and watch The Ring Cycle on a Tuesday night. A minority will, but the majority will let the DVD linger reassuringly on their shelf while they watch Downton Abbey. It’s either a comfortable reminder of cultural aspirations or an awkward guilt trip, depending on how you’re feeling that day.

If you’re anything like me, then CDs of difficult modern music and hardback editions of The Letters of ee cummings are the kind of purchases you make for the life you wished you had: the one in which you had more time, were less tired and less interested in who was going to win The Great British Bake Off. In the digital world, these tokens are more difficult to negotiate. In fact, any one who has ever bought a Penguin Classics mug (“look! I can even make literary allusions while drinking a cup of tea!”) is a model of this mode: defining and identifying themselves through cultural products, signifying themselves through a range of overtly stated preference.

This system of signs is difficult to recreate in a world of frictionless sharing. It’s the sort of thing MySpace was made for (“here are all the cool bands I say I like, but really I’m listening to Christina Aguilera”) but which has been lost by the specificity of activity posts, and hidden by the anonymity of digital artefacts. So while we can certainly edit out our trips to the toilet and our glimpses of The Daily Mail, we don’t yet have a way of editing in the things we haven’t done or of motivating ourselves to do better. For instance, while you might allow an unread copy of Sorrows of Young Werther to languish prominently on your bookshelf, you would probably (I hope) draw the line at tweeting, “I’m thinking about reading some Goethe at some unspecified time in the future.”

For arts organisations who trade in high culture, doing a brisk(ish) trade in art books and monographs and six-hour opera recordings is a little like trading in dreams. It’s selling things that people might get round to experiencing in the future, but which in all likelihood will stay wrapped up. It seems possible that that market will get smaller as the intention gap starts to close, as the things we want right now are delivered to us with greater immediacy.

Besides making money out of pretension, there’s an opportunity here to create some new souvenirs. Perhaps a Kindle cover with a built-in LED to show the title of the book you’re reading or a Global Hypercolour t-shirt that lists the playlist from your iPod. Rather than filling your activity feed with drab lists of the coffee shops you’ve checked in to, it might be fun to share small, unimportant details ambiently and accidentally with the people in the coffee shop you’re in right now.

Apart from anything else, if everyone’s reading things in secret on their Kindle, it will be a lot more difficult to develop random crushes on strangers. And if we only share what we think are the good bits, then the real good bits – the things might be charming or funny or pompous or all of the above – might get lost in our ruthless self-curation. If no one can tell what you’re reading on the tube, then we may as well let our implicit activity bots take over. So we should remember to leave more accidental clues.