Science Fiction Repair Shop: Invisible Hand Around Your Throat Dept.


Paul Krugman and Brad DeLong were not the first folks to point out that Adam Smith's notions of the "invisible hand" have been misquoted and used drastically out of context. Smith was making an argument against the idea that you can, in DeLong's words, "make your country wealthier by imposing tariffs and other restrictions on imports". Not, as so commonly claimed, that the market as a whole is a rational actor, because it's plain it isn't — and neither are the individuals who participate in it. If it were all so rational, then finance would be more akin to a well-suppported computer program that only occasionally hiccups, and not the rollercoaster of risk- and profit-taking we're all too familiar with.

Given that the "invisible hand" doesn't exist in the form we think it does, why then do we put such faith in the market as an arbiter of the value of creative work? Because it's easier to do that then to assess such value for ourselves. A number means one less thing to think about.

None of this is about malice. It's not possible to read every book, or watch every movie. Bestseller lists and boxoffice receipts may not have been originally compiled for the sake of creating such assessments, but that's become one of their handy side benefits — especially from the point of view of those who risk the money to make such things in the first place. For them, creativity has become a game of moneyball, where the aim of the game is to maximize profit and minimize risk.

But the effects of that game-playing on creativity generally are not trivial. The more the fruits of such work become the culture we are forced to live with, the less the chance anything else ever bubbles to the surface. You know that drill by now.

Forming this thesis has helped me come to another conclusion. Institutions that defend creativity for its own sake are doubly crucial in a world where so much of what we experience as "creative" is really just a form of monetization of a property. Real creativity is a little like my take on real imagination: imagination is more than just making stuff up, but also involves observing. Creativity at its best is not just about monetizing a property effectively, but making something wholly new, which in turn widens everyone's perceptions a bit.

This isn't my way of saying we should throw gasoline on the Star Trek and Star Wars tie-in shelves — more that those things shouldn't be the zenith, the ideal, to which any SF&F creation should aspire to. That's like saying the best possible doll is a Barbie, because everyone knows what they're like and they're so easily (or at least routinely) reproduced.

But books are not Barbie dolls, although we sure like to think they can be. Deep down, we love the idea that all creative things can be reduced to a replicable formula, because it means the rest of us can do that too. Not only does this reduce creative work to the level of a paint-by-numbers kit, it insults those who actually create something. It implies their effort isn't valuable, and that there's nothing to be learned from them that doesn't consist of mere competent mimesmanship.

But the really crucial part of this, for me, is the way value and cost are nothing alike. Nobody can really assess the absolute value of a public park, the Lila Acheson Wallace Collection, or Channel Thirteen — at least, not in the sense of producing something that benefits the world. The real value of such things is invisible in the same way telling someone "Have a nice day" at the grocery store isn't quantifiable. It may not add up to anything measurable (at leat not by any metric you know you), but for all you know those words might well have reached someone who hasn't had a single good thing happen to them all morning — unless you measure the skin off your nose in micrometers.

A cynic is someone who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing, and a society founded on cynicism has its head not in the sand but in wet cement.


Tags: art business creativity




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This page contains a single entry by Serdar in the category Science Fiction Repair Shop, published on June 6, 2013 10:00 AM.

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