The Role of the Artist in Tech

When I was in Barcelona for Mobile World Congress in March, I attended the ‘Content is King’ panel at the “4 years from now” exhibition. Included in the discussion were representatives of Cisneros, Playbuzz, and Kantar. All three men had much to say about formats and platforms for delivery, and everyone agreed that “good content” is key when it comes to virality and reach. But when asked about how “good content” is produced, there was a lot of shrugging, and the dismissive response: “we leave art to the artists.”

The role of the arts and artists in our culture and economy has never been more precarious, or more important. That’s saying something, because arts and artists have always been important to the advancement of culture and technology. Arguably, “the arts” are the very foundation of civilization, but in the New Economy, I consistently see them undervalued and ignored in favor of pouring resources into tech and marketing of said tech. “Creatives” who are able to make a living in this world largely work in product design or marketing.

One of the reasons I have stamped the words Content Strategist on my forehead is that I truly believe this role is an important bridge between technology and the arts. The internet — and all of the connected apps — do one thing universally: deliver content. So who makes that content? Who decides what has value? Where do the elusive artists who produce “good content” come from?

During the renaissance, artists depended completely on patrons, who were often wealthy tradesmen. Artists lived well, because art was valued culturally. Patrons of the arts were esteemed citizens, and artists were revered. There’s a much greater gap between wealth and art today. Paying jobs for artists and writers are expected to grow by 3% in the United States between 2012 and 2022, while the average growth rate for all jobs is 11%. (Bureau of Labor Statistics).

Those artists who make the content that is the engine of the internet are almost universally undervalued. Kids with webcams, writers toiling in obscurity, photographers, $50-a-post bloggers, even journalists are rarely the ones to profit from the content they produce. User-generated-content is a goldmine with very little gold in it. You get what you pay for, which is large volumes of mediocre content.

“Draw what you see, not what you know” is one of the tenets of visual art instruction. Studying the arts teaches us to “think different” as per Apple’s dictum. Learning to test our own perceptions expands our horizons of possibility and allows us to innovate. Science is about testing and discarding hypotheses. The arts are about expanding boundaries. Consider how many real scientific discoveries were first hatched in sci-fi stories. And yet we are increasingly steered away from arts education and career paths. Because you can’t make any money at it… even though this art — this content — is the lifeblood of the information economy, from LOLcats on up.

Google recently announced changes to page rankings to favor pages containing verifiable facts. The ethical implications of crowdsourcing “truth” is a bigger topic than this post will carry, but I question whether facts really qualify as better content. I suppose most people Google when they need specific information, as opposed to editorial or creative content, so facts probably trump great writing and beautiful imagery in those cases. But treating artistic content with the respect it deserves is still something the internet hasn’t figured out how to handle.

My point? We should pay (well) for good writing and other artistic output. But here’s the rub: only if it’s good. The marketplace for works of art will always be fickle and prone to trendiness, but the world of information commerce needs thoughtful editors, curators, and moderators whose interests are not purely commercial. The people who run the internet need to have education that goes beyond STEM. Let’s not throw out the humanities just yet.