Escaping cults


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Ha I know this post by Oli wasn’t at all meant as a challenge or critique, but now I feel like I’ve been invoked! Sorry, Oli, you’ve rubbed the lamp. Equally, this response isn’t just about that blog, but an expression of a number of thoughts I’ve been having recently, and an interview I did along these lines recently with Cory Doctorow.

When I was a teenager I lived with a religious cult for a while. I did some of the practices, and found myself beginning to agree with some of the ideas, even if some of it never rang true (e.g. typically for cults, books by anyone other than the leader were banned.) I had some extremely exciting experiences and some thoroughly weird ones and I got a bit drawn in. I gave a lot of my personal stuff away. But eventually I decided enough was enough and one night I threw my rucksack over the fence, dived after it, and sprinted across fields until I found a pay phone. When I finally got to my dad’s house late that night I was very, very hungry and polished off a mixing bowl full of tabbouleh with a big spoon.

I’ve been thinking about cults again recently, in respect to individuality, the internet and society. The internet enables our individuality up to a point and social media is structured to be flattering, but even the internet values us much more highly en masse. Everything is rewarded far more if you absolve your individuality and participate in a posse. People are alright, but how can we get MORE people? Everywhere you go, the message is: “Hi, nice to meet you! We love you! Next time please bring your friends.”

It’s a socially sanctioned, largely unquestioned, recruitment drive towards attracting crowds, and against personal experiences that the masses may not enjoy. Cults don’t care who you are, they want numbers and your money. Give cults money because keep cults going, because cults. In exchange for your cash/work etc they promise a happier life free of responsibility – and what they will actually give you, if you manage to hang onto some of your autonomy, is anxiety and self-doubt.

I’ve been thinking about whether I’m asking people to support ‘creativity’. I think it’s more serious than that. I’m recommending people attempt to break out of a cult of expected behaviour. Obviously my motivation is to get their money so that I can keep doing this, because I fucking love it. No mystery why I’d try to sell you something with an exciting prospect attached, and in that way I’m a bit like a cult leader myself.

But buying into a new thing is an act of individualism, so there’s an exciting proof for the buyer and a sort of identity statement, in supporting this stuff they realise they can still do something surprising, reject convention a little bit, and question the received norms about what/how they should spend their money and what sort of thing they ‘should’ be reading. It’s not just a deferred promise – a tantalising carrot into what ‘could be’ in the future, for the general world. It’s something that happens the second you back it, because it happens to you, on an individual level. You are what you do, and you have more choice than you think.

On the other hand, our all-permeating social cult will reward anything generally helpful to its own perpetuation and subtly resist ideas that it doesn’t seem to need right now. Tech will do well, even creative tech, because a generation of ‘coders’ is a great money spinner. The arts are celebrated to the extent they fill our leisure time and drive industry, and suppressed to the extent they promote philosophical discourse about the status quo. Some individuals will break free of the cult, but no one will ever be completely deprogrammed, because the money people have literally all the influence.

Appealing to the individual inside to go against the grain is a colossal challenge. It is so, so, hard to buck establishment trends – not because these works aren’t useful enough for society – art and entertainment have thrived and been ‘useful’ in lots of ways since forever – but because mainstream entertainment has ready revenue channels, and what succeeds and what doesn’t isn’t decided by individual supporters.

So my frustrations aren’t with individual supporters, but with a world in which people can only endorse what has already been endorsed. I keep thinking about how outside books were banned from the commune.

Anyway, that’s a bit of a different conundrum to ‘It’s good to be creative because creative’. I don’t think anyone who contributes to the ‘creative economy’ thinks about it as a separate entity to the regular economy at all. They (we) are just trying to make money like everyone else, but often because it’s coming from individuals and demands individualistic thought to be appreciated, there will need to be an appeal on an individual level – a kind of: “Well, how does it make you feel? What sort of person do you want to be?” angle on it. Certainly, I don’t think it’s inherently good to be creative. I don’t think everyone should learn to code. I see an awful lot of awful art that quite rightly doesn’t sell, and I think a lot people would be a hell of a lot happier if they knocked the creativity impulse on the head a bit more and went to work for The Man.

But I guess ‘creative’ has become a way of describing a kind of industry that tries to open communication channels between the individual artist and the individual buyer. I don’t know though, it could just as easily mean ‘a West End theatre production’ or ‘the latest Lady Gaga album’. I don’t think I’m in a special ‘creator’ or ‘maker’ enclave really, because in the production sense what I’m doing is very conventional and as old as time! I’m just independent media, trying to get a leg-up from the mainstream media, and if it comes across as individual-to-individual that’s partly just because I don’t have a budget for Max Clifford to put the message out on my behalf.

Very little of the HC project is about making, the ‘maker movement’ etc. I’m not principally interested in covering hobbyist hardware, the kind of stuff the funded tech media already covers very well (though if some of the lesser-known projects also have a fascinating or surprising philosophical point, I’ll cover them for that reason). I’m more interested in publishing a confusing article about an experimental space probe created by a scientist obsessed with ghosts, or an artist who can make you think your hand has been severed, or what’s inside a prisoner ankle bracelet, or top tips on everyday deception from a penetration tester. The message is much more about thinking differently and having permission to enjoy really interesting stuff, even though WIRED didn’t feature it, it’s not announcing itself as part of the new vanguard, the writer hasn’t spoken at TED, or whatever. And when do writers get to the point that they’re courted by TED-sized press? Not before they have a following, or an expected following after the show. Again and again, the crowd is the mostly highly valued thing in our society. Join us! (Bring your mates.)

I don’t think frustrated small businesses generally imagine they have a *superior* right to cultivate a successful, alternative, creativity-based punk economy making hemp clothes on a disused oil rig somewhere, but maybe they think they ought to have the *same* right as those who are regularly dished out sacks of money to print gigantic posters of running shoes, because of the unjust truth that money comes from an *assumption* about what’s good, rather than what just is. Society gives out cash to things that it believes will amplify cash. You might make the best hemp clothes in the world, but if you can’t afford to make a poster about it, word won’t even reach your local vegan cafe.

Society also favours groupthink, group-communication, networks, sharing, consistency, collaboration; anything that allows us to pool as much as possible and be as similar to each other as possible. You buy those trainers because it’ll help you be more like all the other trainers people. They’re never really yours. Website versions of magazines aren’t magazines, they’re shared and sharable. They’re a way of holding hands with everyone else – don’t worry, you’re not the only person reading this! You never need to be alone! Join us.

While there are obvious survival benefits, groups, maybe not surprisingly, actively freak me out. I can’t believe it’s just me.

When it comes to leisure and entertainment, funding and quality just don’t equate.  The most expensive events, clothes, theatre shows, etc are by no means necessarily the best ones. This is why I say I think Hack Circus isn’t cool. It offers a challenge to the individual – it’s not just a t shirt with ‘I am unique’ on it, it’s an *actual* statement about not going with the crowd.

It is also not at all radical, and doesn’t relate particularly to the maker movement. It’s just a media business, like many before it. The unusual thing is, as Oli says, that I go into these things without a safety net, when I feel the time and appetite is right, powered by the knowledge that there are others who think the same way and work in ways society would rather they didn’t.

One thought on “Escaping cults

  1. Pingback: Love this (& all of) what @finalbullet has written about cults, commerce & the creative economy | One Size Fits One

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