A new way of being?

John Seely Brown likes bricolage. In fact he likes it so much that he sees it “as a new way of being” that is going to become increasingly important as we move into the 21st Century. Bricolage, he says:
“…has to do with tinkering. Tinkering with a piece of concrete code, seeing whether you can make it better. Engaging in that bricolage until you have something that you think is better and then ship it back into the debate, and then if it is accepted, you increase the social capital for yourself. So this whole phenomenon is pretty interesting.”
I am inclined to agree with him about its growing importance. Digital technology makes many kinds of bricolage easier and more explicit. Where, perhaps, I disagree is that I believe bricolage has always been an important part of human creativity. This is the basis of my objections to proponents of strong IP.
Malcolm Gladwell writes interestingly about this in a piece about plagiarism, where he describes sitting with a friend in the music business, who was playing him examples of musical borrowings:
“My friend had hundreds of these examples. We could have sat in his living room playing at musical genealogy for hours. Did the examples upset him? Of course not, because he knew enough about music to know that these patterns of influence–cribbing, tweaking, transforming–were at the very heart of the creative process. True, copying could go too far. There were times when one artist was simply replicating the work of another, and to let that pass inhibited true creativity. But it was equally dangerous to be overly vigilant in policing creative expression, because if Led Zeppelin hadnt been free to mine the blues for inspiration we wouldn’t have got Whole Lotta Love, and if Kurt Cobain couldnt listen to More Than a Feeling and pick out and transform the part he really liked we wouldn’t have Smells Like Teen Spirit–and, in the evolution of rock, Smells Like Teen Spirit was a real step forward from More Than a Feeling. A successful music executive has to understand the distinction between borrowing that is transformative and borrowing that is merely derivative, …”
James Cambell, writing in the Guardian recently, describes the difficulties he had writing a biography of James Baldwin, because he was denied permission to use extracts from his letters. He contrasts how things are now with a more rigourous enforcement of copyright laws with earlier more relaxed times:
“Among my favourite biographies is Francis Steegmuller’s book on Guillaume Apollinaire, published in 1963, 45 years after Apollinaires death, when his work was still under copyright. Steegmuller draws on a wide range of written material, including entire poems and facsimiles of handwritten notes, all in the interests of creating a lifelike portrait. Little in Apollinaire: Poet Among the Painters, in which the biographer himself plays a graceful, self-effacing role, suggests that he was troubled by questions of intellectual property. The same may be said of many biographies of the time.”
So far as I can see Apollinaire and his heirs can only have benefited from Francis Steegmuller’s use of his work. Indeed, this could be seen as a model of the way creativity works as a social and cultural phenomenon. What is new is the way that the combination of digital technology and the internet can be seen as opening up the potential for a massive expansion of tinkering with human artefacts for the benefit of all of us.
Some years ago I wrote:
“With a digital medium such as hypermedia, not only is copying very easy, but once it has been copied, material can be very easily adapted, modified, changed or merged with other copied material. In 20 years time, one definition of literacy may be the ability to put together an interactive communication (using sound, images, animation and live action video as well as text). If this is the case, it will be largely because hypermedia is the supreme medium for bricolage.”
“… bricolage can be seen as a fundamental aspect of human creativity. Nothing that any of us creates is totally new. Everyone, including the most brilliant and original, draws on existing elements of the culture. What makes something new and original is the organization of those existing elements into new and original relationships, combined with the detail of their expression.”

Nothing since has made me change my mind.