3 June 2005. The Austrian government has hosted a WSIS contributory conference on "ICTs and Creativity" that ended today. Though the organizers had invited many more corporate representatives than civil society activists and real creative people, the draft "Vienna Conclusions" started an interesting discussion about concepts like "content" or "creativity".
Looking for business models for the content industry
At first, it looked like an attempt of the big players in the private sector to take over the WSIS discussions. A conference sponsored by the Austrian government who wants to establish the theme of the "information economy" as a major part of the WSIS discussion, corporate sponsorship from Telekom Austria to Microsoft and Cisco, and a draft conference declaration that was full of terms like "quality content", "rights of creators" or the "illusion of the free information and communication space". This looked pretty much like a desperate content industry that sees its revenue shrinking and wants official help. Did anybody say "music industry"? No mention of wikis, blogging or podcasting as the really interesting latest developments in using ICTs creatively to generate content, and no real hint at other than economic incentives to be creative and share your ideas and expressions with the rest of the world.
The first presentations and discussions also pointed into that direction. The workshop on "eBroadcasting and eMonopolisation: Creative Diversity in Mainstream Cultural Industries" was like a business seminar about how to survive as an old-school mass media communication channel in a changing environment. Pay TV, mobile applications, and a community that trusts your TV or radio station were among the recommendations. But if you listened closer, you could see and hear the cracks in the old system, and the crackle became louder and louder over the two days. When the representative of the biggest public TV station in Austria says that consumers are not willing anymore to listen to mass media broadcast, there is some understanding developing. There was also talk about how classical broadcasting can meet audience participation, and that the new model will have to be based on the co-production of content with audience or community participation instead of an exclusive role of journalists or talk show hosts.
Is there anything like "quality content" or a "content gap"?
"ICT + Creativity = Content" was the motto of the conference, and the Vienna Conclusions are also playing this formula game in the subtitles. But this reasoning in mathematical metaphors has its limits. Nii Narku Quaynor from Network Computer Systems Ltd in Ghana had the laughters on his side when he asked in the final plenary: "Does this mean that Content minus Creatvity equals ICT?" The participants of the workshop on "eCulture, Creative Content and DigiArts" - the only one that actually had "art" in the title - also voiced their criticism of the overall approach of the conference. As rapporteur Gerfried Stocker from the Ars Electronica Center in Linz said, the idea that "quality content" equals economic value is a too economistic view, and it is plainly wrong.
And what is "quality content" at all? If you think about music and Vienna, is that limited to Mozart, or do techno punks also categorize under "quality"? Ronny Coven from the WSIS civil society media caucus also asked to specify "quality content" to make sure it does not collide with freedom of expression. "Think in worst case scenarios when you think about WSIS host country Tunisia", he added.
The concept of the "content gap" and the "content poor" likewise is questionable. Participants from Africa and elsewhere repeatedly insisted that people without access to ICTs are not "content-poor". They instead can have a very rich and vibrant oral or written culture. By the way: The best novels are still from the time when people did not have internet, sometimes not even a typewriter.
"Content" without containers anymore
John Perry Barlow from the Electronic Frontier Foundation and others made clear that there are many other reasons for becoming creative than a business model. "If I go to conferences on 'intellectual property', I am normally the only one who ever has created anything. You just meet lawyers who try to tell you that people become creative because they want money", he said. Barlow used to be a songwriter for the Grateful Dead, and he never did this because of the royalties. The band even became famous for allowing bootleggers to get the best spots for their private recordings. "We don't know too much about why people create" was Barlow's conclusion. Distributed collaborative production models like the Wikipedia at least show clearly that there are other incentives than money to create quality content.
But what is "content" anyway? John Perry Barlow was again the one who in the end pulled the strings together and spoke out what many participants felt. He got more and more nervous in the closing session, until he finally jumped up and almost shouted "I can not stand the use of the word 'content' for human expression. It is no coincidence that this term is becoming used at exactly the moment in history when the containers are disappearing." Because this came back as a recurring theme during the two days, programme chair Peter Bruck had to admit in the closing session that "content is an abstraction from social relations that is made available through electronic media". Not more, not less. But it is an important part of the online world anyhow, and the way we frame our thinking about it defines strategies and approaches for the future.
The discussion about content and the disappearing containers was also a good hint at the several signs of crisis of the old content economy that was based on physical products. The challenge ahead, as the participants of one workshop agreed, "is to develop an economy of sharing, collaboration and service that will, at least in the near term, coexist with the traditional economy of scarcity, control and technological restrictions." While this does not sound new to anybody who has followed the discussions and statements of civil society in the WSIS process, the remarkable news is that this sentence was collaboratively written and agreed by the representatives from Creative Commons Austria, the Free Software Foundation Europe and Richard Owens, director of the "Copyright E-Commerce Technology and Management" division at WIPO. Finally, there is some progress, it seems. (Full disclosure: Yours truly was in charge of producing the first draft as the workshop rapporteur).
Two Declarations from Vienna
The "Vienna Conclusions" will be further edited in the coming days to include the discussions and workshop outcomes. The document in the end will be pretty long - about 20 pages - and it remains to be seen if and how the different views and perspectives can be incorporated in order to have a coherent message. The conclusions will be presented to the Tunis WSIS summit by the Austrian government, but will probably be published long before.
Austrian civil society groups in the meantime were not inactive. A team around the annual "Chaos Control" symposium has also drafted a "Vienna Declaration" that consists of "10 Theses on Freedom of Information". It is much more to the point, much more concise, and much more outspoken than at the latest draft of the "Vienna Conclusions". "Limitations to copyright are fundamental requirements for social and economic progress" - to give just one example. This declaration will be publicly released on 15 June, but you can already sign it now.
So in the end, it was the usual picture from the WSIS process: Civil society shows what is imaginable and speaks out clearly, while the official conference comes up with fuzzy wording and less vision, but a broader group of supporters. The best contribution of the official Vienna conference might not be the final document, but the fact that it sparked a lively debate on the transition from the old industrial to the new information society, a society that includes creative use of ICTs, but is not limited to business models.