GUEST POST: Is America Losing Its Creative Edge?

In a guest blog, Andrew Keen, advisor to media/technology coalition Arts & Labs, and Silicon Valley entrepreneur, broadcaster and author, says that policymakers should not lose sight of the fact that the Internet is a commercial good, as well as a social one, and that it is driven by creativity that can be undermined by technology.

Last week, at the Technology Policy Institute’s Aspen Summit (, policy makers and executives retreated to the mountains of Colorado to discuss whether the United States is losing its economic edge. While the speakers at the Summit ranged broadly the subject of this three day event held at the St. Regis hotel focused on a singular issue: the challenge of technological innovation in a global economy.

“I believe the 21st century is defined by technology”, Carly Fiorina argued in a powerful opening speech of the Summit ( . “I believe the 21st century is all about brainpower and innovation.”

In contrast with the industrial age of the 19th and 20th centuries, Fiorina suggested, national power in the global 21st century will be defined by policy makers’ ability to “keep up” with technological change and provide the necessary business environment for fostering the innovation to maintain American edge in the global economy.  Politics then, for Republican Senatorial candidate from California, should be about legislating to guarantee innovation, rather than concentrating on what she described, somewhat dismissively, as “social issues”.

I think Fiorina has a point about the importance of innovation and brainpower, but – as I argued in my own concluding speech ( of the Summit – I think we need to add an additional word to describe the key to American competitiveness in the 21st century. Yes, “innovation” is critical, but so too is the concept of “creativity”, a word which our most prescient futurists - from Richard Florida (  to Po Bronson (  – have made the heart of the new economy.

So what, exactly, does this word “creativity” mean?

When asked at the Summit about the main difference between politics and business, Fiorina joked that “in politics you get to make things up.” Joking aside, the definition of creativity is all about invention.  And Americans have, at least in the 20th century, been very good at making a significant economic profit from making things up. From the hit movies of Hollywood to the platinum discs of the music industry to the global blockbusters of the publishing business, American economic edge in the 20th century was partially defined by its global dominance of the entertainment industry.

Fiorina correctly suggested last week in Aspen that the challenge for policy makers is “keeping up” with the way in which technology is accelerating cultural and economic change.  So how can policy makers both protect and encourage American creativity?

As I argued in my 2007 book Cult of the Amateur- one critical area where American creativity is being undermined by technology is in the highly destructive impact of illegal Internet file-sharing on the entertainment industry. And this mass larceny is as economically catastrophic today as it was three years ago. Today, 63% of the musical content downloaded off the Internet is stolen, revenue from recorded music sales are down by almost half over the last ten years and, as a consequence, employment in the recorded music industry has fallen 60%. Thus, as Commerce Secretary Gary Locke acknowledged earlier this week in a speech at Belmont University in Nashville, Tennessee, fighting online theft is a “is a fundamental issue of America’s economic competitiveness.” It’s a battle that all politicians – from Gary Locke to Carly Fiorina to Barack Obama – absolutely must embrace if this country is to retain its economic edge in the 21st century.

But it’s not just piracy that threatens American creativity in the 21st century. In the three years since the publication of my book, it has become clearer and clearer that the Internet represents the future of the entertainment industry. The slow but inexorable convergence of television and the Internet, the meteoric growth of online video services like YouTube and Hulu, the flowering of the Android and iPhone app economy, the growing popularity of the  Kindle and the iPad, the resurrection of Pandora and the promise of Apple’s new Ping social music service all point to the vitality of the American digital economy in the 21st century. In ten years, physical creative products – whether books, photographs, newspapers, CDs or DVDs – will be rarities. Our entire entertainment economy is immigrating online. For better or worse, the future of American creativity lies in the digital sphere.Thus, as I argued in my Aspen speech last week, one of the great challenges for policy makers in the 21st century is to protect the rights of the creative class from the often unintended consequences of accelerated technological change. This certainly means focusing, as Commerce Secretary Gary Locke is doing, on the catastrophic impact of digital theft on not only the music business, but also on the entire creative sector - from book publishing, to animation, to photography to the movie industry.But it’s not just mass looting that is threatening American creativity in the 21st century digital economy. In the current furor over network neutrality, the broadband providers tend to be pitted against populist online movements in an increasingly frenzied debate about whether a rigidly flat and open Internet is a good or bad thing. Yet as I argued last week in Aspen, what’s often lost in this increasingly shrill debate are the rights and interests of the creative class whose very livelihood hinge on the higher security, better quality distribution and more reliable service of an Internet shaped by the free market. Yes, the Internet may be a social good offering the American people access to an open information network; but, equally importantly, the Internet represents the commercial platform for the creation, marketing, sales and distribution of the 21st century American creative economy.As an author, I want to use the Internet to maximize the economic return on the massive investment of time, brainpower and emotional energy that I put into my work. As a non-fiction writer who also integrates video and photography into my written work, I want the opportunity to invest in the highest quality online technology so that my creative work – which is my livelihood - is secure and easy for consumers to access and buy. As a professional creative artist, I want the right – if I so chose – to buy technology that enables me to distinguish my online work over the non-commercial work of amateurs.Carly Fiorina correctly argued at Aspen that “technology is fundamentally changing every aspect of our lives.” As I reiterated in my closing address at the Summit, this is particularly true of America’s professional creative class, whose brainpower and innovation is critical if this country is to maintain its competitiveness in the 21st century. Policy makers therefore have a responsibility for ensuring that the American entertainment industry maintains its global clout in the digital age. This is an economic rather than a social issue. A less creative America is a poorer America. If we let the music die, then this country’s edge will die with it.

John Eggerton

Contributing editor John Eggerton has been an editor and/or writer on media regulation, legislation and policy for over four decades, including covering the FCC, FTC, Congress, the major media trade associations, and the federal courts. In addition to Multichannel News and Broadcasting + Cable, his work has appeared in Radio World, TV Technology, TV Fax, This Week in Consumer Electronics, Variety and the Encyclopedia Britannica.