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John S. Johnson

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When Profit, Freedom, and Creativity Collide

Posted: 05/20/08 02:25 AM ET

Every year, Eyebeam, the arts and technology center I founded, honors someone who helps celebrate or perpetuate freedom and creativity. We do this because freedom and creativity can't be honored enough - and indeed aren't. Anyone involved in art or technology -- anyone trying to do something new -- knows that freedom and creativity go together.

True creativity isn't possible without freedom of thought; and true freedom is the result of a creative spark. Yet, there are many powerful forces in our culture that aren't comfortable with real freedom. They seek to narrowly define it, for instance, as "being free to shop where and when you like." They believe in the "free market," but not in marketing freedom of thought. They love it as a slogan in a speech, but not when it is put into practice.

And creativity is just fine when it comes to "creative accounting" or the creation of new kinds of banking products -- but not so much when the innovation is directed at something other than the bottom line.

At the heart of this discomfort with freedom and creativity lies our societal suspicion of anything that cannot be commodified or monetized. American culture is so good at monetizing things, it's become both our national pastime and our ultimate goal. If we could monetize a heartbeat, we'd do it in a heartbeat -- and make a gadgillion dollars in the process. Don't get me wrong. I'm not against profit being among our priorities, but as it eclipses every other ideal we are slowly but surely finding ourselves in the Never-Neverland of a world we don't recognize anymore.

Because freedom and creativity, when not in service of the money-making machine, are suddenly eyed as warily as a stranger in a small town. No longer seen as a virtue, they are suddenly seen as threats. To stasis. To groupthink. To the status quo. If this sounds like hyperbole, allow me to remind you of the gentleman who was hauled off in handcuffs from a shopping mall in Albany a few years ago for wearing a t-shirt that said: "Give peace a chance."

As I said, without real freedom we lose even the chance of creativity. And if there is one thing the world cannot afford to sacrifice at this perilous time, it's the potential for creative solutions and innovative ideas.

Fortunately, within this profit uber alles universe, streaking across the sky like shooting stars, are a few role models for those of us who want to start a business but want to continue to be a part of the movement to humanize the world.

Role models like Craig Newmark, this year's Eyebeam honoree. Craig is the founder of Craigslist, that remarkable place that connects people to people and to the things they are looking for. A long lost relative, a desperately needed kidney or a second hand Schwinn, a forlorn love poem... all of these have been looked for and found on Craigslist.

In a sense, Craigslist has become a mirror of our society -- and, as an inevitable result of that, it has achieved some notoriety among the set that prefer to abolish unwelcome reflections rather than deal with the real issues and problems the reflection has exposed.

In the meantime, Craigslist has fostered a community that is both local and international and has helped to provide millions of stories that illustrate that people, at heart, and when given the chance, are basically good and helpful and trustworthy.

But Craigslist has achieved an even greater notoriety for what it hasn't done. By some accounts, Craigslist is potentially worth over $2 billion but Craig and his business partner Jim Buckmaster have decided that attempting to monetize the site further would disrupt the beautiful community that's grown, and they have flat out said: "No thanks; we're fine just as we are." They have embraced the concept of Enough. The site generates enough money as it is to run well. They make enough money to live comfortably.

At first, their declarations of "enough" were met with stunned silence on Wall Street. There were many tilted heads and narrowed eyes as people assessed: "What's their angle? They must want more money! Okay, here's more money." But Craig and Jim just smiled and said, "Really... no thanks. Go invest in someone else." And that's when the accusations started: "They must be Communists!"

I find it very ironic that these Wall Street people, so mired in their own ideology that they are blind to a successful business choosing to chart a path different than the dictates of their Milton Friedman bible, are calling people Communists when they remind me of nothing so much as the old school Marxists who just couldn't see that their train was off the tracks. How out of whack must you be that you are scandalized by the idea of making a sustainable business that expresses your values and the values of your community?

In a sense, at the root of these attacks is the fact that Craig has articulated a powerful vision of how business can be -- and hopefully will be more often in the future. This is profoundly unsettling to the "He Who Has the Most Toys Wins" set.

I believe that Craig is living his values and, together with Jim and millions of other people, is shaping something genuine -- and frequently even beautiful -- for us all. By marshaling his creativity and embracing his freedom, Craig shows us that you don't have to be a starry eyed idealist to simply live your values.

 

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