Two new creative industries: blockchain and staged conflict

By Jason Potts and John Hartley

In the past decade, two new creative industries have come into being: blockchain (or distributed ledger technology) and staged conflict (e.g. internet forums for political fighting).

On the face of it, these perhaps don’t look like creative industries at all. Blockchain is the baffling protocol technology behind the cryptocurrencies responsible for much that is newly fraudulent and illegal in the world right now. And ‘staged conflict’ is the collective name we’re giving to the social media shouting-factory that is erupting into the factious and deeply uncivil political tribalisms responsible for much that is newly angry and bitter in the world right now.

Both are products of the internet — staged conflict is native to the second generation of the internet (a.k.a. social media), and blockchain is the third generation of the internet (a.k.a. Web3). Both are new but they are also distributed reinventions of ancient centralised protocols of social regulation and governance.

What are creative industries?

In 1998 the UK’s Department of Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) proposed a new administrative classification and mapping called the creative industries. The concept was intended to reconceptualise the relation between ‘The Arts’ and government. Instead of a ‘cultural view’ of the arts coupled to a political patronage model, creative industries reframed public investment through the lens of innovation policy. Creative industries were newly understood as producing new knowledge and driving innovation. That meant they had direct value as inputs into economic growth and transformation.

The creative industries do this through entrepreneurial pioneering of new digital technologies and through the economic value of creativity, and semiotic information. It was a reframing of a reality that had always been there, but misidentified from an economic policy perspective: previously treated as worthy freight to be carried, rather than as high-powered fuel for the main engine. So identification matters. If something is a creative industry, it’s important to know this so that we can get its policy settings right.

The DCMS’s creative industries were originally composed of 13 sectors. As of 2015 this has been refined to nine creative sectors, namely:

  1. Advertising and Marketing
  2. Architecture
  3. Crafts
  4. Design (product, fashion and graphic design)
  5. Film, TV, video, radio and photography
  6. IT, software and computer services
  7. Publishing
  8. Museums, galleries and libraries
  9. Music, performing and visual arts

The concept and measure of creative industries has over the past 20 years been refined by researchers, taken up by governments and enacted in policy the world over. Better and more accurate estimates have been made, and a broader and more serious policy agenda has developed. An extensive research program has traced this impact into creative industries production and occupations in other sectors — the so-called ‘trident methodology’ — so as to hunt down and measure the full extent of the creative industries and size it up for proper modern policy treatment. Some effort was focused on tracking new creative industries that were emerging from this generative digital maelstrom, but with a focus on content industries.

Yet there have always been boundary issues: for instance, whether the heritage arts and culture were properly included (yes), or whether creative pursuits such as food and gastronomy, or sports, ought to also be included (no). Less attention has been given to whether whole new creative industries might have emerged in the intervening 20 years. It is our claim that there are two such new sectors, which we propose adding to the list:

10. Blockchain

11. Staged conflict

As indicated, neither is obviously so. But they both fit the original and modern definition of creative industries in their constitutive elements of creative input and industrial endeavour, and in their consequence for innovation and economic dynamics.


Consider blockchain, arguably the single most significant new creative industry sector to emerge in the past two decades. It begins in 2008, with the Satoshi Nakamoto Whitepaper, and in 2009 with the release of bitcoin, a digital private money, or cryptocurrency, the engine behind which is blockchain. Blockchain technology can be defined as a multi-organisational database with a super audit trail and some embedded code. The technology comes out of open source software (it’s a combination of P2P networking, mathematics, databases and consensus algorithms), and thus fits within #6 on the 2015 nine-sector list.

Flickr | Mirko Tobias Schäfer

So, by the technical definition of the sector, blockchain is a pure creative industry (and has been somewhat mislabelled as fintech). It is a designed, creative product, made of software. Furthermore, it came from the deepest, purest sources of open source software culture, and spread through the internet, largely through amateur, outsider and hacker channels. Blockchain emerged from the cultural margins of the informal economy, and continues to grow and thrive there, while being rapidly co-opted into the corporate and government mainstream.

Blockchain is the most newly formed protean landmass to erupt from the deep digital oceans of the internet. And while new species of blockchain platforms and applications continue to develop in finance and trade sectors of the economy, offering new payments channels and digital infrastructure for supply chains, a significant range are also emerging from the creative industries.

These are coming from the music industry — such as Ujo Music — in visual arts — such as — and in collective story-telling — such as Cellarius.

Now blockchain is indeed an institutional or governance technology that forms a new economic infrastructure for creative industries, and its impact will be to significantly enhance the capabilities and productivity of the sector. But the case we argue here is not the use of blockchain in the creative industries, as in the examples above of music, visual arts and publishing, but the deeper notion that blockchain is itself a new creative industry.

The argument for blockchain as a creative industry is seen more clearly when considered in the context of creative economic production that drives and shapes innovation and economic dynamics. Blockchain technology can be described in terms of software algorithms and mathematics, but fundamentally it is a new technology for making social truth, or intersubjective facts that are necessary to organise and coordinate (i.e. govern) society through shared agreements.

It is not the use of blockchain in arts and culture that makes it a creative industry, but rather it is the creative use of blockchain technology to reimagine new social forms of organisation and cooperation, new types of transactions and sources of value and ways of living build on distributed rather than centralised ledgers, and through fault-tolerant protocols rather than hierarchic mechanisms of power.

Blockchain could in this sense also be included in #2 architecture (as new architectures of money and organisation) or in #4 design (institutional or mechanism design) or #7 publishing (append-only publishing of social consensus). But this is an emerging and distinct set of skills, knowledge and capabilities as creative inputs, and a distinct set of outputs as platforms, protocols, wallets, smart contracts, DAOs and Dapps, and so on that it seems reasonable to see this as a distinct sector. It has strong public good and charitable outputs, as well as commercial and market facing endeavours.

As new digital infrastructure blockchain will have significant innovation effect. It will do so through inevitable disruption to a range of markets, business models, organisational forms and policy models. The DIY-user-hacker class, already fully immersed in the creative and digital economies, is turning to blockchain as a rule-changing apparatus that they can make for themselves.

Staged conflict

Politics, understood as a media product, is also a ‘creative industry’ in the form of what we call ‘staged conflict’. It’s a product of the internet (digital semiosphere); it is designed, creative, made of software, amateur, outsider-centric, hacker-made, at the cultural margins but available for co-option into government and corporate mainstream, viz.: Breitbart ->Bannon ->Trump.

Staged conflict has restored popular politics to the boisterous status it enjoyed in the past (see Hartley 2018). Democratic politics was founded on spectacle and entertainment, sex and scandal, aimed at the creation of like-mindedness among youth, migrants and newly industrialised citizens whose allegiances were interpellated as much by the opportunity for exploit and contest as by rousing ideological rhetoric, with the added attraction at rallies and conventions of meeting compatible others among a population of strangers. ‘The stage’ in this era of staged conflict was a potent political force in its own right, identified by no less an observer than Alexis de Tocqueville as the likely venue for popular revolt against established elites.

‘Staged conflict’ may be understood for present purposes to refer to the contemporary amalgam of:

  • Authoritarian, anti-immigration populist tribalism (Trump, Brexit … etc.)
  • Online hate speech, trolling, misogyny, cyberbullying etc.
  • Commercialisation of affinity groups assembled by ‘conflict entrepreneurs’ into alt-right (Breitbart) and the alt-left (Occupy, Antifa)
  • Capitalisation of surveillance data and psychometric profiles that identify which identity group affiliation to assign you to and target messages.

It’s no longer a matter of conflict leading to resolution via political compromise, but of push and push back as a new participant- and spectator-sport, where the performance of difference and opposition becomes an end in itself. This has spawned creative industriousness on a scale that is transforming media organisations, platforms and protocols as well as representative politics.

Politics is not conducted — if it ever was — in a neutral ‘public sphere’, defining the regulatory space of cities or nations, but via celebrities, stories, stunts and spectacle in entertainment formats, technological affordances and digital affinity-groups, spilling across news feeds not to inform but to provoke those who differ.

Staged conflict, as a creative industry, takes these regulatory models and institutional architectures developed in the political context and finds new opportunities for assembling groups into tensioned conflict as a source of productive creativity.

Truth and discovery on networks

What will these new creative industries do? How will they affect the economy, culture and society? The surprising answer is this: they will govern and regulate truth and new knowledge.

Or more precisely, they are new user-centred architectures and infrastructure for the manufacture of truth within complex systems and the organisation of knowledge for the purposes of innovation. Blockchain and staged conflict are for the most part native to digital networks, and constitute storage and regulatory protocols for the digital semiosphere. Blockchain verifies knowledge; staged conflict changes it.

Blockchain and staged conflict both contribute to the infrastructure and organisation of how knowledge is made in groups and innovation occurs through the organisation of tensions between them (see Hartley and Potts 2014).

Blockchain is fundamentally a technology of record-keeping of intersubjective facts in a social context that have meaning only when we can all agree on them, such as identity and property rights, and that need to be continually tracked and referenced. It does so with distributed protocols, and so is a way of building and maintaining institutions of truth without the need for institutions of power.

Truth changes from an absolute value, arbitrated by priesthood or expert, or even an ‘objective’ property of external things, to a self-organising effect of ‘robust networks’, where the more users there are, the more certitude there should be. That which users accept as true becomes a guarantor of decentralised trust in user-centric networks, as long as transactions can be verified. If this works, then truth is something that can be ‘agreed’ via tamperproof blockchain protocols and can be applied to any truth-discourse based on evidence and documents. If so, then truth, as consensually agreed accuracy, becomes a value that can be tokenised and rewarded; thereby providing an ‘incentive’ for more truth, as it were. Staged conflict then becomes a distributed crucible for manufacturing such truth.

Staged conflict is a regulatory mechanism to assemble and direct (to ‘stage’) knowledge tensions between groups (‘conflict’) through the transformative and disruptive effects of rule-breakers in political and cultural systems towards a resolution that changes knowledge. Staged conflict — including the stage for focusing interaction and the protocols for creating and releasing tension — is in this sense a regulatory mechanism for innovation.

What is striking about this new architecture of order and production is that it is built to be distributed, and therefore to scale. Blockchain is a decentralised distributed network protocol — there is no centre of hierarchic control. Staged conflict utterly relies on the manufacture of differences in semiosis between distinct groups to focus tension and friction. But to build a global human system, governance is needed so that intersubjective social truths hold across interoperable networks, and tensions are regulated across dynamic systems. Blockchain and staged conflict are both protocol-based creative industries.

Mapping new creative industries

The concept of the creative industries was born with the early utopian potential of digital culture and the World Wide Web, and the romantic-libertarian optimism of ‘bottom-up’ activism of maker-culture and DIY creative enterprise and community-level arts practice.

This has now given way to the grimmer realities of surveillance culture, global terrorism, climate change and the Anthropocene, and the post-truth world of politically extreme populist uprisings with growing threats to the Westphalian consensus.

Two new creative industries mark this shift. Blockchain represents a creative citizen-led endeavour to recapture and rebuild civic infrastructure for intersubjective record-keeping, upon which new social and economic orders can be rebuilt. Staged conflict is a new model of innovation and regulation built on digital technologies to make groups and pit them against each other in dramatic but productive — i.e. creative destructive — semiotic spectacles.

This suggests a new research program, and mapping exercise. Who big are these new creative industries? How fast are they growing? What is their demographic and geographic distribution? What is their cultural geography, and how closely does it map to other creative industries? What organisational forms to they take? What economic measures of value can be attached? These are all things yet unknown.

And finally, what policy settings might be adapted to facilitate and harness their potential?

Governments around the world are presently having an extremely difficult time figuring out how to regulate and develop policy settings for blockchain. In part, this is because it is unclear what it is — for instance, is it really about money, or assets and taxation, or about security, or privacy? Each implies a very different regulatory agency and approach. By arguing that blockchain is a creative industry it provides a clear policy focus.

Similarly, online mobs and the spectacle of political polarisation have been seen as cultural problems for sociological fretting, rather than as the entrepreneurial shoots of new industrial forms. This shift in perspective helps us to understand how staging conflict can be productive and not only disruptive.

Jason Potts is from the RMIT Blockchain Innovation Hub. John Hartley is from Curtin University.

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