24 May 2012

The Utopian University

Musician Tom Milsom recently wrote on his Tumblr:

I just wanna make shit

I don’t want money

I want to be able to live in a nice place and eat and fund US tours and stuff but apart from that


Pirate my music if you can’t afford it, cause it all comes round eventually in like goodwill and stuff, I don’t mind

I just want people to be able to enjoy what I do in the best possible environment

This really got me thinking. It’s a sentiment you often hear expressed among creative folks, and yet it never really seems to be addressed. I’ve been wishing for ages that there were some kind of patronage system for creative people—to do for makers what Y Combinator does for tech startups.

Creative people mostly just want the opportunity to create without being bothered by irrelevancies. Art colonies fill this need somewhat—you apply for a fellowship and get space and potentially funding for a summer to work on whatever you want. But this is, by nature, small-scale.

No matter how hard you wish oh wish for something, nobody is going to make it for you. But if you have a problem, and you fix it yourself, other people will come to you and say “Take my money!” or at least that’s the hope.

So what is my problem?

In order to create, I have to work on stuff not immediately related to my creations.

Even as a programmer, who can ostensibly create value out of just caffeine and time, most of my ideas are not easy to monetise. My hobby project right now is the compiler and tools for a new programming language. Whatever money I stand to make from that would be in book sales or donations.

So I, like many, cannot reasonably hope that my creative pursuits will ever be self-sustaining. And that’s fine, though I do envy Tom in that he is successful enough as a musician to continue being a musician.

Now, I could solve this problem by aggressively contacting investors to set up some kind of über-patronage venture fund thing for creators. That is, to my mind, the obvious solution.

But I don’t think it would scale. At all. In fact, I think it would be a spectacular failure.

Sure, the idea is straightforward. You apply with a portfolio. If accepted, you get a small amount of funding (say around $10,000) for a dozen-odd weeks to work on a particular project. That’s enough to ensure you have a place to live, food to eat, and the equipment and materials you need to work. Your patrons get a stake in anything you produce during that time.

But that’s not an attractive proposition for the people who would actually provide the funding. They have no way to force creators to stay on task. Worse, they won’t necessarily have the experience to know what to do with rights in widely varying projects.

And at the end of the season, they won’t have equity in a business. They’ll have rights in an album, or a game—a product with no business around it and no guarantee of growth unless somebody does some aggressive marketing. Which costs more money. That’s why specialised creative industries exist—record companies being the number one example. You make, we market.

Why would you, as an investor, buy a stake in something unless you expected it to be worth at least as much as you paid? This hypothetical patronage group would necessarily become a seed funding platform for creative startups, not just creative individuals in general. Even barring the other potential problems with that, it’s not what I want.

What I really want, quite frankly, is a Utopian University where creators can freely live and work and drink and mate and generally forget about the outside world. Creators create, the University helps market, the public buys, and the dollars come back to fund the whole shebang.

In order to keep everyone motivated, creators would be held accountable for their productivity—if you aren’t making progress on anything, you get the boot, or have to take a leave of absence. Call it an “artistic GPA” requirement.

That is something I think could work—with substantial initial funding, careful planning, and the right people behind it. I have no idea how to make it happen, but it will remain in the back of my mind as a long-term goal. And of course I’d love to hear a better idea.


  1. What you may be wishing for is a basic income, because everyone is valuable to society even when they don't have anything to sell.

    1. I’m not wholly in favour of a basic income, because people are notoriously contrarian when it comes to motivation. If you offer people enough to live on, they will be less motivated to strive for self-improvement. Thus the requirement that people contribute somehow to the ongoing existence of the University.

    2. That's a common misconception. If you ask people what they would do if they had a basic income, most say they would keep working. Yet when you ask those same people what others would do, they think most of them would quit their jobs and go surfing.

      Self-improvement is a goal in itself, most people will still strive for it. The basic income even helps it because it suppresses the need to earn money in ways that are contrary to self-improvement and common interest.

    3. Alright, that sounds reasonable. But I didn’t say people would slack off altogether. I only said they would be less motivated, which is definitely true for me and some people I know. Maybe my acquaintances aren’t a good representative sample.

      Still, holding people accountable for what they create is a model that would work today, in the absence of a basic income, so I think it’s a more realistic immediate goal.

    4. I agree that, in a way, people would be less motivated. My point was that it's not really a problem. It could even be a good thing to slow down a little.

      Your idea certainly is interesting. The purpose of my comments was to say that given the choice I'd rather have a basic income because it solves more problems.

  2. Unfortunately, the requirement that people contribute something to the ongoing existence of the university, makes the university impossible. The only way to make this work is to use a basic income model, like the other anon suggested. Lots of great art is completely unappreciated in its time, how many picassos would the university kick out because they "weren't producing enough art"?

    1. I think the chance of artwork going completely unappreciated is very much lessened nowadays by the fact that we can distribute our work so easily to so many people. Tom Milsom is fairly successful even though the experimental nature of his music probably doesn’t appeal to a majority of people.

  3. I must be confused, but isn't this how universities operate already (to some extent)?

    1. Not really; at a conventional university, you directly pay tuition, housing, and meals. I’m proposing a place where housing and meals are provided, if you can create sufficient value to the community.

  4. You should read Anathem by Neal Stephenson. It's more of a math monastery then an utopian university though.