It is very difficult to build a coherent theory of social and economic dynamics that is respectful of both the deep-rooted transformation of modern societies and the necessity to preserve and protect institutions. While von Hippel, in Democratizing Innovation
(2005), made the point that end-users now constituted an asset for innovative organizations (as their passion for specific practices and artefacts may be used to generate the variety out of which enterprises develop new products and services), the widening breadth of potential inventors and innovators creates localized "vacuums" which may prove to be damaging in the long run.
In the music industry, for instance, the numeric revolution which paralleled the wide expansion of internet-based file-sharing tools has transformed the way artists and industry players do business. During recent years, the void left due to the polarization of attitudes (Metallica suing Napster, Radiohead handing out their albums for free) has generated numerous new alternatives that strive to promote the cultural products while securing sufficient financing for sustainable operation. In certain cases, smaller labels unable to adapt to this "revolution" have disappeared
, leaving scores of niche genres with no other choice than to either self-promote, sell-out to majors, or cease to exist.
In the perspective of a schumpeterian "creative destruction", this phenomenon is neither surprising nor questionable. While we move through the current transformation of information, knowledge and culture, and while this produces winners and losers based on the ability of each one to anticipate and adapt, we must accept this fate and take entrepreneurial failure as the sign of healthily renewing economic dynamism. In the present circumstance, one of the most significant macroeconomic consequence is the transition from so-called "traditional", mechanistic enterprises based on Tayloristic principles, towards increasingly knowledge-based, creative endeavours. On a more case-by-case basis, on the other hand, the destructive component of the process leaves certain actors wanting (and more often than not, this applies to single socio-economic categories of actors). This, most will agree, cautions post-facto State intervention in order to facilitate the transitional dimension of the process.
What is more difficult to anticipate are the consequences of letting crucial institutions fail. Crucial, in this case, refers not to major, central actors, but rather to the vast ecology of highly specialized and localized actors which constitute the basis for variety generation and bottom-up emergence. When a small label fails, for instance, the negative externalities generated by the lost knowledge and the potential disappearance of unique collections of titles by far exceed the positive effects of the economic reorganization that follows. The social duties of such frail intermediaries as curators of rare content - unique actors in the complex process of cultural production - would most probably caution preemptive support from a social welfare point of view.
The difficult task of selecting winners and losers poses the question of how we may (if at all) create exceptional rules for the preservation of certain structures in order to preserve the benefits that rise from their activity. In a fast-changing world, what 'tradition' and 'heritage' yields is yet to be defined specifically in terms of contemporary value. But our ignorance, or rather our inability to determine precisely what these "relics" mean, is by far outweighed by the potential loss incurred if we do nothing. Just like the value of an hypothetical "last polar bear on earth" poses difficult questions for economists, a "cultural precautionary principle" might have to be defined. If you can't save them all, save just one, goes the saying. Well maybe we should. (FG)
Artist : Tim Knepp
With special thanks to Catherine Martel and Ashley Ziai for their advice on language, and to Stéphane Tartelin for a passionate conversation on the issue.