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  Issue No 63 Official Organ of LaborNet 21 July 2000  




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The Soapbox

Lord David Puttman on The Creative Economy

The British filmmaker turned politician argues that the creative arts are the missing link in inventing a dynamic information society.


The social philosopher Edmund Burke once said that you could never plan the future by reference to the past. Certainly, if anybody had told me ten years ago that I would be standing here today facing the future as the Chairman of the UK's General Teaching Council and the National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts, and as a member of the legislature in the British House of Lords, I know that I would have thought they were completely barmy.

But now, having taken early retirement from the film industry, I am hugely enjoying facing up to the challenges of the world of education. In fact, these days, whenever I attend a film event, I am reminded of a story about Jack Benny, the American comedian who late in his career was driving up to the Warner Brothers Studios one night and said to the guard at the gate, "You know, I made a movie here once, it was called The Horn Blows at Midnight. Did you ever see it?" The guard answered, "See it, I goddam produced it."

I mention that story because it gives you a rough idea of how quickly my industry forgets. We are now in a period of immense change. Let me start off by offering you a trio of quite disparate symbols of the velocity of change that we are currently experiencing.

On January 10 this year, America Online, an upstart internet company once known as the cockroach of cyberspace, and less than a decade old, acquired ownership of Time magazine, the Warner Brothers movie studio and a host of other assets belonging to a media empire that had taken most of the twentieth century to create.

The value of the worldwide online economy is set to exceed one thousand billion dollars next year, and to triple that by the year 2003.

The United Nations estimates that more people around world will be seeking formal academic qualifications in just the next 25 years than have done in the whole of human history.

So it is hardly surprising that people respond to change in quite contradictory ways. It is said that when Robert Fulton tested his first steamboat on the Mississippi, a vast crowd on the river bank waited expectantly while engineers kept tinkering and making last minute adjustments to the machinery. Sceptics amongst the crowd eventually started shouting, "She will never start, she will never start." Finally, amidst clouds of smoke and sparks, the boat began to move sedately up the river. The watching throng were silent for a moment. And then they again yelling after it, 'She will never stop, she will never stop." This is the way that most people respond to change. Until the very last minute, they are convinced that it will never happen, and then when it actually does, they are immediately concerned that it is all hopelessly out of control.

Such is the pace of development today that it has been seriously suggested that we should now be measuring the rate of change in terms of dog years, based on the notion that one year of a dog's life is equivalent to roughly seven of human beings. And that since things are happening about seven times as fast as they used to, a dog year is probably the most appropriate measure of change.

This morning I would like to address three principal themes.

First, to reflect on the necessity of encouraging people to unlock the full creative potential of the new technologies, as applied to the cultural industries and the arts.

Second, to argue for the merits of technology as tools for education and training.

And third, to reflect on the absolute imperative to invest in training, if we are to create any kind of viable future for our cultural industries, indeed for the future of our developed economies in general.

Turning to my first theme, I am no longer a film producer. But if I were, I know that the merger between America Online and Time Warner would have shaken my world to its very foundations. In was, I think, the 10th of January and not the 1st that marked the beginning of the 21st century as we will come to know it.

The future of the information, entertainment and large parts of the communications industries will now be largely driven by the world of the dot-com wizards. Time Warner's vast stock of films, books, magazines and newspapers, not to mention the news gathering capability of CNN, will be pumped at high speed down telephone lines into literally hundreds of millions of homes across the world.

A genuinely global economy is taking shape, an economy fundamentally driven by just two things: information and images. And these in themselves are increasingly intertwined as ever greater volumes of information are conveyed through those images, and in particular through moving images. For me, the term 'creative economy' is just one of a number of shorthand ways of describing this convergence of information and images. As a result, we are already expanding our whole notion of what we mean by the labels content, culture and artist to embrace entirely new areas and disciplines. The world of work will never be quite the same again.

Worth mentioning parenthetically, that this has come very hard to my party, the Labour Party. It is essentially a party of industry, with a strong industrial base. Even today, if you ask most of my colleagues to close their eyes and imagine the world of work as they would prefer it, they will still see ten thousand men and a few women carrying lunch pails and going through factory gates each morning as the hooter sounds.

The idea of the type of fragmented industry and the type of fragmented world of work that we are now confronting is not so much anathema to them, but a foreign country.

But what this means above all is that we have to start treating the cultural industries (those sectors including the arts which create intellectual property) in an entirely different way. The creative economy has proved itself to be much more than a catchy political slogan. Its implications for the evolution of what we call creativity are almost impossible to underestimate.

The history of cinema offers an interesting and illuminating parallel. One hundred years ago, who would ever have dreamed that the kinematograph, that ghostly medium of moving images then just a few years old, would become one of one of the most influential, if not the most influential, cultural forms of the twentieth century. When one of the medium's founding fathers, Louis Lumiere, hired Felix Mesguish as his first cameraman, he warned him that he was not offering him a job with much in the way of prospects. Lumiere saw it as more of a fairground job, that might last six months, a year, perhaps more, but probably less.

Likewise, the custodians of traditional culture dismissed cinema as a mere novelty for the great unwashed, one more craze that would quite quickly burn itself out amid the gloomy city slums where it had most firmly taken root. In Europe, the development of film was for the most part left in the hands of scientists, inventors and magicians. In those early years, cinema was principally seen either as a scientific tool or as a device for producing mind-boggling visual tricks, the forerunner of today's special effects movies. In fact, it took quite a long time for cinema to realise its potential as a wholly distinct form of art and entertainment.

As it turned out, Lumiere was fairly accurate about Mesguish' personal job prospects but spectacularly wrong about cinema itself. Public appetite showed the way forward. The public very quickly grew tired of novelty films with a seemingly endless stream of dancing bears, boxing kangaroos and exploding policeman that passed for entertainment. They wanted stories, bigger and better stories. They flocked in their millions to the very first thrillers, most notably The Great Train Robbery made by Edwin Porter in 1903. Today, that film comes across as a crude attempt to film a relatively mediocre play in 12 minutes. But it had an enormous impact at the time it was first screened. Just over 25 years later, the release of The Jazz Singer marked the advent of sound in the form of feature-length talkies, and film took an enormous leap in a new direction. Then, 50 years after The Jazz Singer came Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Cinema again took another leap forward.

I believe that the stage we have reached in terms of the new digital technologies is somewhat similar to that moment just before The Great Train Robbery. We have made the leap well beyond the stage when the use of digital technology is a mere novelty - yet the real creative potential of these new technologies has as yet barely been tapped. Frankly, who would dare to predict what kind of stories, ideas and images will flow down the information highway just a few years from now. Once the real potential of the technology has been demonstrated, there is never any going back. The Great Train Robbery beckoned to the imagination of filmmakers like D W Griffith or Abel Ganz who, by a process of creative alchemy, were able to build on basic ideas and turn them into very sophisticated ways of telling stories using moving images.

But it is essential to remember that, at heart, technology is simply what makes the revolution possible. It is a bridge and not at all a destination. This recalls an observation made recently when someone asked, "Will computers actually make films one day?" "Most certainly," came the reply from the audience, "and other computers will flock to see them."

The advent of the creative economy heralds not just new ways of thinking and working together, but far more importantly, new ways of imagining the world. And yet the focus of pundits and policy makers is too often on technology as an instrument principally geared to making our lives more convenient, shrinking an ever increasing number of activities into an ever shorter period of time.

We need to be actively encouraging and nurturing the creative use of these technologies. This is every bit as important as promoting e-commerce or seizing business opportunities, important as those tasks are. Surely this present rather blinkered vision of development sells us all short.

As the history of cinema demonstrates, we can be sure of one thing. Change will, as ever, be driven by those with vision, courage and creativity, rather than by those who are merely well-informed and technically competent. It is worth reminding ourselves of a basic truth, that all information and communication technology will only ever be as good and as creative as the people who use it. This calls for a truly effective strategy to ensure that young people are equipped with the competence and the expertise to understand and benefit from these new technologies.

Which leads me to my second theme - the creative use of technology as tools for education and training.

Since education and young people are two of the topics you will be talking about for the rest of today and tomorrow, I thought it might be useful to offer some observations from my own experience.

I absolutely believe that interactive and digital media, online services and all the rest of it, are crucial to the future of learning. The world that I know best, that of the moving image, films and television, interactive media, will become evermore central to education and training.

The entertainment industry has established itself as probably the most effective and efficient means of addressing people ever created. This is particularly true of young people. If the skills involved in creating that entertainment are brought to bear on a new area such as education and training, then the opportunity exists for us to be phenomenally effective.

Above all, this will require a genuinely ambitious national strategy, one that ensures that young people are equipped with the confidence and the expertise to understand and benefit from all of these new technologies.

We must not come to see the impact of the computer on education as merely paralleling the impact of the calculator on arithmetic, that is to say speeding up and simplifying the process without offering any significant change to the process itself. If these technologies are properly used, with sensitively developed, intelligent and challenging content, then they have the potential to change the development of the whole educational process, and with it all of our national futures.

The irony is that the younger generation understand most of this instinctively. They are living the revolution. Computers are not seen just as games machines. In the United Kingdom, one third of those under 17 already use a personal computer in their leisure time for something quite other than playing computer games.

So what does all this mean to us?

More than 30 years ago, an early pioneer of virtual reality in the United States wrote that a display, connected to a digital computer, gives us the chance to gain familiarity with concepts not realisable in the physical world. It provides us with a looking glass into a mathematical wonderland. Now, as a child at school, it never occurred to me for one moment that mathematics might be any kind of wonderland. To me, and I suspect to most of my classmates, it was not much more than a confusing nightmare. To end that dismal situation for the majority of today's schoolchildren would be of no small consequence to society. The human race has barely begun to get to grips with the way that information technology can revolutionise learning, and by extension, the way it can change the way we think, communicate and create.

To my mind, the sum of a well-rounded education is significantly greater than merely the accumulation of different knowledge components. Education is about developing the perception, the attitudes and the ability to learn. That ability will allow a free spirit to emerge and, when it is ready, to really take flight. Developing understanding allows each individual to participate fully as a member of the human race. Unlocking the articulation of feelings (which I believe is best achieved through the arts) gives every student the ability to weather the sometimes very tricky journey that lies ahead of them.

Within any national education system, whether here in Australia, the UK or anywhere in the world, the arts are not necessary only as an autonomous part of a well-rounded education. By now, we all should have realised that the arts can no longer be viewed as a lightweight, pleasurable diversion from the more taxing, serious subjects of mathematics and science. Increasingly, research is showing how artificial that schism that we seem to have created between the arts and the sciences really is.

In the 1980s, I was a trustee of the Tate Gallery and I am now a trustee of the Science Museum. It fascinates me to see how many real similarities there are between the two, and that the sciences and the arts are complementary. We have been quite absurd in the United Kingdom to imagine them as alternative forms of development. And we have been even more absurd in forcing children at the age of 14 to decide whether they want to pursue their lives in one or the other, as if in some bizarre way they are mutually exclusive.

Even worse, we have allowed the arts and the sciences to become rivals for funding within a modern economy. Nothing could be more stupid.

I am by nature an optimist. I cannot help but remember something that Marcel Proust once wrote. He said, "We do not need new landscapes, we only need new eyes to see those that already exist." We know what we have to do. It is now about finding a new way of thinking about, and discovering, the means by which we can incorporate creativity and the arts into the whole of our learning process.

For instance, research shows that symmetrical or cordant sounds such as a Mozart piano concerto are transmitted faster to the brain's neurons than discordant information. Simply stated, music can help learning.

Many, many pieces of research done by employer organisations around the world set out quite clearly what today's employers in the developed world are looking for in our young people. Literacy and numeracy of course, but just as important are confidence, adaptability, personality, problem-solving capacity and communications skills. All of those qualities that just about any child exposed to good arts teaching acquire as a matter of course.

It might not be long before every company follows the accountancy giant PriceWaterhouse in asking as they did in a recent job advertisement in the United Kingdom, "Which musical instrument do you play?" Not if, but which. And how long will it be before other businesses follow the lead of the BBC whose senior management team was recently addressed by the conductor of the Boston Philharmonic, Ben Zander, on the use of music in management. As an aside, I was at a headship conference some years ago where Ben Zander has six hundred new principals and several government ministers sitting on their chairs singing Beethoven's Ode to Joy in German!

With that image in mind, let me offer you a couple of specific thoughts from my own work in the UK on how members of the creative community might genuinely contribute to the educational system. Together with colleagues, I have been nurturing an initiative that would involve music students spending a year working in primary schools in exchange for tuition fee support and a partial teaching qualification. In this way, helping to develop exactly those skills I have been talking about, confidence, adaptability, personality and the rest of it; and also solving a real crisis that we have in the teaching of music to primary school children. I have also been promoting an initiative to allow acting skills to become integrated into the very best of our teacher training. This helps teaches acquire a whole range of communication and presentation skills, which could be extraordinarily valuable to the future development of our educational system. If I have spotted one thing in my many visits to schools, it is that the very, very best teaching is effectively a performance.

Now to my third theme: the implications of all of this for a meaningful overall training strategy for the cultural industries, and most especially for the funding of such a strategy.

Whilst most of us acknowledge that quality training is just about as desirable as motherhood and apple pie, when it comes to actually paying for it, it takes an extraordinary amount of time and effort to persuade companies and individuals to invest serious money. In fact, the process of turning warm aspirations and promises into practical reality has proved one of the great disappointments of my working life.

For pretty much the whole of the 30 years that I spent working in the film industry in the United Kingdom and Hollywood and shooting films around the world, I have been committed to (and some would say a fanatical advocate of) high quality training. I have spent many hundreds of hours badgering individually and collectively the film, television and media sectors, policy makers, regulators and the government in an effort to pull together an adequately funded strategy which would ensure some form of coherent, ongoing professional development.

Talent and skills are, and always have been, the key to the future of the film, television and the entire creative industries. Talent and skills right across the board, not only in the technical and craft grades, but also among writers, directors, producers, on-screen talent and even a new generation of managers with a serious interest in marketing and finance. In Australia, as in the rest of the world, ultimately the only competitive advantage lies in the quality and the cost-effectiveness of your workforce. You can throw as much private and public money as you want into the arts, but a great deal of it is likely to be wasted unless that investment goes hand in glove with an all-embracing, properly thought through training strategy. The quality and the depth of your workforce and your creative skills base are the key to unloading this country's true potential, and that is true right across the arts and cultural industries.

I can only repeat, investment is absolutely critical. All too often employers, governments and indeed unions, are reluctant to invest. They have an almost myopic refusal to think in the long term. They seem unable to grasp their obligations to the industry that effectively generates their revenues. They are reluctant because they simply fail to understand the real and lasting benefits of a highly skilled and highly educated workforce. They are reluctant because they seem wilfully ignorant of what global competition is really all about.

It is the task of everyone working in the cultural sector to make the case for investment to employers, government and policy makers. Otherwise, there is a very serious danger that you will just get left behind, hopelessly under-equipped in an era of globalisation dominated by new technologies that exist principally to service the bottom line. But in truth, these technologies can help promote access and equality of opportunity in the sphere of the arts, a contribution every bit as valuable, indeed much, much, more so in my view than providing opportunities for a band of twenty-somethings to become paper millionaires overnight.

I would like to close by attempting to draw these three themes together.

We are living in a time of unprecedented technological change, of unprecedented movement and instability. But how we choose to use that movement is up to us. Surely, we are not going to allow our vision of a brave new world to be driven solely by the faceless technocrats of some Orwellian information society. In my view, and probably yours, that would be not much more than a disaster. Instead, it is that creative economy which should be at the heart of our vision, a vision in which individuals are valued for their ability to contribute to a sustainable human conception of the future, and not simply for their ability to deliver ever-faster streams of neatly-packaged bytes, which for the most part contribute little or nothing to the quality of our lives.

We live in challenging times, and these challenges are not just to our technological abilities, but also to our character and to those qualities which we will most need if we are to overcome the difficult and very, very competitive years ahead. By harnessing our creativity, our ingenuity and our imagination to the development of our educational systems, and by the imaginative use of technology within those systems, we can build a genuinely inclusive, vibrant, humane, social community, of which all of us will be genuinely proud to be a part.

So, in all manner of ways, the arts and the cultural industries are of immense social significance, not simply because of the glories of the past, but more importantly, because of their huge potential for the future. In the end, our ability to exploit that potential lies in our fundamental confidence in ourselves. If all of us here this morning can develop sufficient confidence in our own future, we will be that much more likely to summon up the necessary energy to tackle our industry's future. The more energy we have, the more likely we are to recognise the opportunities and to grab them. And the more we see and take those opportunities, the more confidence we are likely to acquire, and so on.

We can in this way create something approaching a truly virtuous circle in which the economic and the cultural benefits alike could in the end be quite enormous.

William Morris, the great artist and educationist and one of my personal heroes, looked forward to a time when all men would be artists, and the audience for art would be nothing short of the whole people. The arts and education are inextricably intertwined. That has always been true in a cultural sense, but evidence from around the world suggests that in the 21st century, a successful meshing of arts and education is likely to become ever more essential to social stability and economic success.

Much more can and must be done if we are to take advantage of the extraordinary stimulus the arts and our individual creativity can offer to the next generation. That is the task that faces all of us here today, and it is a very, very challenging task, one that will call upon every ounce of our creativity, intellect and will.

I hope that I have gone at least some way towards persuading all of you that it is a genuinely worthwhile challenge. Were we to succeed, it would have incalculable benefits not just for our economic well-being, but more importantly, for the fundamental quality of all of our lives.

Somehow or other, we have to bridge the gap that exists between the aspiration for a well-trained, well-educated competitive, intelligent and thoughtful society and the resources that all of us need to actually provide it. At the moment, the gap between the aspiration and the resources is colossal. Our job is to convince government, employers and the rest to bridge that gap and give us all a shot at the future.

Lord David Putnam, who is the Junior Minister for Education in the British Government and patron of Skillset, CREATE Australia's equivalent for the UK film and broadcast industries. Putnam's film production credits include Chariots of Fire, The Killing Fields, Local Hero and Midnight Express.

This speech was CREATE Australia's third national conference which was held on April 6-7 at the Victorian Arts Centre in Melbourne.


*   View entire issue - print all of the articles!

*   Issue 63 contents

In this issue
*  Interview: Paul Keating's Big Picture
The former Prime Minister is still painting on a broad canvass. He talks to Workers Online about the new economy, fair trade and political chi.
*  Unions: War in the West
Only six months after signing individual staff contracts, the gloss has worn off for some of BHP's Pilbara iron ore workers.
*  Environment: Farmers Fudge DNA Dangers
Farmers have missed the chance to have a meaningful debate into the use of genetically modified crops.
*  International: 'Dot Union' Proposal on the Table
ICANN, the global governing body of Internet domains, has released the following expression of interest in proposing a top-level domain for trade unions
*  Economics: Edge of the Abyss
Political economist Frank Stilwell argues that a constellation of events gives good reason to be worried about the Australian economy.
*  History: Taming the Tigers
Prominent labour historian, Dr Ming Chan, is visiting Australia to report on how workers are faring in the new Hong Kong.
*  Review: Music is Crap
It's already the second half of the first year in the new millenium. Who would have ever predicted a crisis in the popular music industry when we are at such an advanced stage ?
*  Satire: Last Kosovars Found Behind Couch
State Emergency Services personnel were called to a house in Brighton this morning, where the last five remaining Kosovar refugees have been found wedged behind a couch.

»  Unions Lead Ethical Investment Push
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»  Third World Conditions For Rural Workers
»  Downer's Fiji Muddle Deepens
»  Hotel Worker Survey Questions Olympics Preparation
»  BHP Holds Gun to Kembla's Head
»  A Burning Issue as Joy Campaign Goes National
»  Garbos Forced to Ditch Early Start
»  Telstra - Making it Sleazier For You
»  Inquiry Blows Lid on Long Distance Trucking
»  Cab Company Highlights Labor Hire Quandry
»  What Olympics Jobs? Asks the AWU
»  Republican Elections Called for August
»  STOP PRESS: Landmark Legal Ruling on Asbestos

»  The Soapbox
»  Sport
»  Trades Hall
»  Tool Shed

Letters to the editor
»  Fair Go on Fair Trade
»  Fair Trade a Protectionist Smokescreen
»  Maxine's Tool Time
»  Telstra Rats
»  Man in a Handmade Suit
»  The Ideological Sound

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