One of the most annoying things in life is asking for permission: permission to build an extension, permission to volunteer at a school, permission to start a business. It’s always irritating to imagine some distant bureaucrat with little interest or understanding of your life in control of your fate.
Almost every sphere of life and work – from education to science to media to retail – involves us asking for permission every time we want make or do anything, whether it’s to start a project, raise funding or get access to the market. The ‘permission system’ suffocates creativity, but it’s so pervasive that we can hardly imagine a different world. Yet it’s finally being dismantled, brick by brick, by the internet, and we’re all going to benefit.
Imagine you’re a bright young filmmaker with a brilliant idea for a new documentary. When you approach a broadcaster, you find that they’re only concentrating on five subject areas this year, so you change your idea accordingly. After some emails, you finally get to pitch your idea to a commissioner who tells you that they’re already making a similar show, so you’ll either have to wait a year or change it drastically. You opt to change it, trying to ignore the feeling that this is a mistake.
Now the commissioner likes your idea, but they’ll have to check what channel controller thinks. A week passes, and unfortunately it seems that your idea doesn’t fit within the channel’s strategic priorities, but you should definitely try again.
After a few rounds of this, you become good at guessing what commissioners will like, and following some dedicated networking, you discover what the channel priorities really are. You learn how to craft ideas that will have the right mix of buzz and relevancy and risk, and you’re rewarded with commissions. In short, you’ve become an expert at creating mediocre ideas to order.
I don’t mean to be hard on the TV industry. The few commissioners that I know are all good people who want to do a good job. But when you’re bombarded by dozens of ideas a week and you always need to get permission from your bosses, it’s safer to stick with tried and tested idea than taking a risk – after all, they don’t want to get fired.
The same story applies to every other industry where the cost of production has been high and the amount of ’shelf space’ has been limited, whether for books or clothes or computer programmes. Back in the days where it used to cost a lot more to print a book or manufacture a new product and you could only fit so many into a shop, it made sense to be cautious and ensure that investments were made carefully; and since there were fewer people coming up with ideas, the ‘permission bottlenecks’ were also less of a problem.
But the world has changed. With new technology, the cost of producing consumer goods has plummeted; with the internet, we have unlimited shelf space; and with better education, we have billions of people who are capable of coming up with good ideas.
Almost every week now, we hear about some student who’s created a hit movie or iPhone app from their bedrooms. It’s hardly surprising – cutting-edge computers, cameras, and software have all become affordable (and just as importantly, accessible) to millions. When you can produce an entire radio show or game for free, you don’t need anyone’s investment or permission, giving you complete creative freedom; what’s more, initiatives like Creative Commons make it possible to ‘automatically’ licence music, photos, and artworks for your project.
It’s not stopping with media, either. The next revolution in production is likely to come from 3D printing, a technology that allows people to ‘print’ successive layers of plastics or metal to create fantastically complex and intricate 3D shapes. Thousands of people are already taking advantage of 3D printing services like Shapeways to create mechanical parts, prototypes, sculptures, and toys, at a cost and speed that would have been simply impossible just five years ago. Best of all, you don’t need permission to print your new 3D toy; companies are perfectly happy to just take your money.
Of course, some projects will still need serious investment, like producing a major movie or building custom cars, and the more money you need, the harder it gets to find someone who’ll share your vision and give you ‘permission’.
Once again, though, the internet is eliminating this bottleneck. Crowdfunding sites like Kickstarter and Indiegogo make it possible for creators to solicit pledges (a cross between pre-sales and donations) from anyone with a computer and a credit card. As long as there are a few dozen or hundred people in the entire world who like your idea, you can raise thousands of pounds, opening the door to much more niche or original or risky projects; and if your idea is popular, you can raise hundreds of thousands.
I’ve just started a project on Kickstarter myself, to help print a book I’m writing called A History of the Future in 100 Objects (inspired by the excellent Radio 4 show). In just four days, I raised my target of $2500 and donations are still coming in, mostly from people I’ve never met before. I didn’t need anyone’s permission to start that project – I just did it.
Access to Market
Making your product is only half of the challenge – getting access to the marketplace is just as important. Every aspiring inventor knows how difficult it is to convince retailers to display your product, even if you offer it for practically free. It didn’t matter how good your product was – you still needed permission from a buyer to sell it.
But now, Amazon and Apple have completely upended the system; the internet provides unlimited shelf space, making it possible to stock and display as many products as people want to sell. Why bother holding people up by making them ask for permission?
Some industries have proved more resistant; for example, people still understandably prefer to buy clothes and fashion accessories in person, leaving traditional retailers with outsize power. Yet even then, marketplaces like Etsy that sell handmade items (with over $300 million in sales last year) have proved that change is possible.
The TV industry is an interesting case, particularly in the UK where a handful of broadcasters like the BBC and ITV not only commission and fund the biggest programmes but also control the means of distribution. As a result, you can’t get anywhere without asking a whole host of commissioners and executives for permission. It’s a lot of power for only a few people to have, especially when they claim to speak for the public.
That’s why YouView, the ‘next-generation Freeview’, is so important to the broadcasters that fund it (BBC, ITV, C4, and Five); they’re absolutely terrified of a future where people turn on their Google or Apple TV and, instead of being welcomed by BBC1, they’re shown video content from YouTube and Netflix that could have been made by anyone, anywhere. Filmmakers won’t need broadcasters’ permission to reach an audience – and broadcasters will have lost control.
YouView is the one thing that will ensure the first five channels on TV will still belong to the old broadcasters, at least for a few more precious years. Unfortunately for them, YouView’s launch has slipped into 2012 (hardly surprising given the terrible track record of British broadcasters’ forays into technology).
The defence of the ‘permission system’ lies in the belief that the best way of allocating limited resources is by getting experts to figure out what the market wants, having them identify the best ideas, and then doling out money accordingly.
But not only is technology rendering this system superfluous; the plain fact is that the system never worked well in the first place. Publishers and commissioners like to imagine that their skills and experience are the only way to unearth the diamonds in the rough, conveniently ignoring that fact that Harry Potter was rejected by twelve publishing houses before Bloomsbury picked it up, and that the majority of what’s printed and on TV is mediocre.
Let’s face it, no-one can really predict what the market will want. JK Rowling didn’t think “I know what, wizards and boarding schools are fashionable!” before she wrote the fastest selling books in history; Philip Pullman didn’t worry about whether a subtle, complex story about sin and free will would work for children. But what publishers and commissioners can do is echo buzzwords and fund me-too products like reality shows and action blockbusters, which succeed largely thanks to expensive marketing and a lack of alternatives. Thankfully, the success of films like The King’s Speech and Inception shows that audiences are not quite as stupid as we might imagine.
So, if you can’t reliably predict success, what do you do? A recent study of highly successful entrepreneurs by Saras Sarasvathy suggests that making a product and putting it out into the market as soon as possible is the best strategy; when asked about what kind of market research they would conduct for a hypothetical product, one entrepreneur said:
“OK, I need to know which of their various groups of students, trainees, and individuals would be most interested so I can target the audience a little bit more. What other information… I’ve never done consumer marketing, so I don’t really know. I think probably… I think mostly I’d just try to… I would… I wouldn’t do all this, actually. I’d just go sell it. I don’t believe in market research. Somebody once told me the only thing you need is a customer. Instead of asking all the questions, I’d try and make some sales. I’d learn a lot, you know: which people, what were the obstacles, what were the questions, which prices work better. Even before I started production. So my market research would actually be hands-on actual selling.”
That’s real capitalism. What we have right now isn’t capitalism or a free market, it’s an unholy mashup of a (poorly) planned economy and an oligopoly, and it even extends to completely different sectors like academic research, where you often have to abase yourself before trend-driven, risk-averse, time-poor funding committees.
With every extra person who can say ‘no’ to an idea, the more likely it is that mediocrity will prevail. That’s the problem when companies and governments become too large – there are too many people whose job it is to simply say ‘no’. The notable exceptions are publishers like Amazon and Apple, who have learned that it pays to be permissive.
Navigating the obstacle course of everyone who can say ‘no’ has a truly chilling effect on creativity. You start doubting your ideas, and you enter a tiring game of guessing what the gatekeepers want rather than what you think or hope will be successfully. You stop caring. As a person who designs games and writes for a living, it’s hard to overstate exactly how liberating it is to be freed from the permission system.
The brave new ‘permissive world’ isn’t perfect, though. Freedom can be overwhelming, and creatives will be exposed to more competition (such as the 300,000 iPhone apps). But these downsides are more than balanced out by the fact that you can take on more creative risk; and that when the middlemen are taken out of the equation, you waste less time and earn more per sale, making niche ideas more viable. You don’t need a million buyers to be successful – just a thousand true fans can be enough. Your success no longer rests on the whims of a few ‘experts’.
A permissive world will let us pursue projects we truly care about, and that can only mean good things for the power and quality of our work. Once upon a time, any artist who bucked the system and demanded creative control over their work ended up on a one-way trip into penury. No longer.
This isn’t the first time that the permission system has changed. In the 19th century, the Academie des Beaux-Arts in Paris dominated the world of art; to succeed, artists had to toe the line and stick to traditional, approved painting styles. It was only when Monet, Renoir, Pissaro and Sisley scandalously created a new, independent association to exhibit their works directly to the public that Impressionism – and arguably, modern art as a whole – could truly flower.
People, throughout all the ages, have chafed against the need to gain permission to create what they want. When we’re young, we’re amazed and furious at how unfair and arbritrary this is, but as we grow older, we internalise the rules and start censoring our own ideas.
Ultimately, we become part of the permission system. We begin to say ‘no’ to others because that’s what we grew up with, and that’s the way the world works. For many, it’s profoundly frightening to think that one day, they won’t be able to say ‘no’ – what will they do? What will happen to their jobs?
But there is a different way. We can give people freedom, we can save money and time, and we can unlock a wealth of creativity, just by saying one simple word: ‘yes’.