Creativity and the Social Contract

As a writer, photographer and generally creative person, I would like nothing better than an enforceable, predictable social contract that codifies the relationship between creator and society at large. But the fact of the matter is that in this day and age it’s just not reasonable to expect anything other than a rather ephemeral set of notions that rely on nothing more than the goodwill of the majority of the audience.

In short, I don’t think we really have any choice but to do what minstrels, painters, actors and countless other artists have done since time immemorial: Throw ourselves at the mercy of society and rely on the kindness of strangers to make a living out of a lifestyle. It’s often unjust and occasionally cruel, but I just don’t see a workable alternative.

Tangled up amidst all the talk about the imminent demise of newspapers, the subversive effect of Free, the purported damage done by Peer to Peer ‘leeches’ and various other riffs on the imbalance that new technology has created between creator and consumer is the often unexamined conclusion that copyright as a regime for encouraging creativity in modern society is simply unworkable on the Internet.

That leaves us with two options: We can continue to tinker with copyright, attempting to redefine fair use, to place reasonable penalties (or at least disincentives) on unauthorised copying… ultimately, to renegotiate the compromise that lies at the heart of the concept.

That’s a commendable, fundamentally reasonable approach that unfortunately ignores the fact that digital information is immune to copyright enforcement. The practical ‘right’ to make copies is the very essence of digital technology. Its usefulness is predicated on the fact that data is infinitely mutable and that copies cost as close to nothing as makes no difference. To pretend that we can place anything more than voluntary limits on this capability is dangerously naive.

Alternatively, we can scrap copyright, go back to first principles and examine in detail what the rights of the creator really are.

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The Devil at our Shoulder

Anybody who’s opened a newspaper in the last few years will recognise the characters and events portrayed in 40 Dei, Wan Smolbag Theatre’s latest stage production. Smolbag’s greatest gift to us is its ability to show us our own world. The play is populated by the same reprobates, righteous hypocrites, prostitutes, politicians and just plain folks as we find in any neighbourhood in Port Vila.

We all walk with the Devil at our shoulder. Without surrendering to dogmatic, moralistic finger-wagging, 40 Dei confronts us with the knowledge that the most insidious enemy to Vanuatu society lies within it, not without. Until we recognise that there are no easy answers to the complex afflictions of a society in transition, until we accept that prostitutes, prisoners and penitents alike are all our family, until we recognise our own weakness in the face of venality and ambition, we will never completely be whole.

In the words of the immortal Walt Kelly, “We have met the enemy and it is us.”

[Originally published in the Vanuatu Daily Post’s Weekender Edition.]

ABOUT THIS SHOW: 40 Dei plays at Wan Smolbag Haos in Tagabe on Wednesdays, Fridays and Saturdays. The show starts at 6:30 p.m. Tickets are 50 vatu for adults, students and children. Because of its popularity, attendees should arrive at least one hour before show time to be guaranteed seating.

The thematic heart of 40 Dei (40 Days), Wan Smolbag’s powerful new play, is the story of Jesus’ 40 days of suffering and temptation in the desert. With Satan constantly at his side, Jesus fasted, contemplated and steadfastly resisted the Devil’s threats and inducements. Even in the extremities of suffering, he accepted his humanity, refusing assistance either from above or below.

As the New Testament tells it, Jesus embarked on this pilgrimage of suffering immediately after his baptism. It was, in a sense, his preparation to enter into the world. We first meet Matthew, the protagonist in Jo Dorras’ stark, deeply probing script, as he emerges from his own moral desert, a wasted youth of faithlessness, drinking and violence.

Lying on the roadside, bloody, filthy, half-clothed, Matthew presents a repulsive figure. Only Lei, a pastor’s daughter, sees him for what he is – a lost soul. Ignoring imprecations to leave this filth, this ‘doti blong taon’ where he lies, she instead recalls the parable of the Good Samaritan to her father.

Matthew awakes from his stupor to a vision of love – a beautiful young woman beside him, joyous music and light emerging from a nearby chapel. He is transformed, and decides at that moment to leave his errant past behind, to seek redemption and salvation.

But as with Jesus in the desert, the Devil is always at his side. And Matthew is human, all too human. Beset by difficulties, he tries to navigate the narrow passage between hypocritical moral rectitude and the nihilistic, hopeless existence of his young friends.

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