Is Technology Killing Creativity?

It is impossible for technology to kill creativity. Creativity always precedes technology. The notion that technology can kill creativity is like worrying that a tree can kill the sun. Creativity is the force that drives technology.

What is creativity?

Common definition: ability to produce something new through imaginative skill, whether a new solution to a problem, a new method or device, or a new artistic object or form. The term generally refers to a richness of ideas and originality of thinking. If you can’t digest all that easily, don’t worry. I couldn’t either. There are many definitions of creativity and they are all complex and wordy but I think Einstein said it best. “Creativity is seeing what everyone else has seen, and thinking what no one else has thought.” That’s creativity in a nutshell. (Einstein, quoted in Creativity, Design and Business Performance.)

Perceptions of the creative type

The term creative, when applied to a human usually provokes the image of the artistic type: the writer, the musician, and the painter among others. And conversely, it is often assumed that the engineer, businessman, or scientist is not creative, but it can be quite the opposite. In my observation it is more often than not the successful person who is creative, not a particular type of person. When looking at the definition of creativity you can see that creativity is not the ability to draw well, or have long hair, but the ability to produce something new whether it be a song or a better business model or a safer car. All of these advances come from creative minds.

Creativity is the ability to solve problems in a unique way and is not limited to the arts. The fine arts are more about self-expression and not necessarily problem solving. In any case, creativity in expression and problem solving has been greatly enhanced and unleashed by technology.

Creativity always precedes technology

When man first observed that a sharp stick could kill an animal or be used to pick his teeth he was making that leap from observing to being creative. Someone had to have the idea of using a log as a roller before they actually used it that way. Then came the Roller 2.0 or Wheel 1.0 depending on who you ask. The point is that the wheel didn’t stop creativity, creativity gave us the wooden wheel, then the wagon wheel, then the bicycle tire, then the car tire…

Apparent loss of Creativity

You may hear people lamenting the loss of creativity, but that is only a perceived loss of creativity. People love citing the abundance of bad books, unoriginal art, crappy videos, and terrible songs found on the Internet but they are wrong. There are more people expressing creativity today than ever before in history. Don’t confuse quantity and creative expression with quality. Furthermore, while it may appear that the quality of creative output has suffered a serious decline, it hasn’t. There are just so many people expressing themselves creatively, and we have access to it all, so it seems that there is nothing out there but a mountain of crap. In my experience there is significantly more quality creative output available than ever before.

Creativity needs inspiration

We have a lot of that available now. 24 hours a day we can find inspiration in the form of books, blogs, images, movies, music, art, photographs, you name it. Inspiration is very important to creativity and despite the wealth of electronic inspiration available, this is one area where I can see the danger of creativity being stunted by technology.

Hands on experience is vital to creativity. You can’t adequately describe a pounding jungle rain, or the feeling of walking past an abandoned house alone at night, or the smell of a bathroom at a gas station, unless you’ve experienced them. There are so many smells, feelings, sensations, etc. which make you a much better creator that you just can’t get from sitting in front of a screen. The fuel of artistic creativity is inspiration and the ingredients for inspiration are knowledge and experience. We have a vast amount of knowledge at our fingertips. We just have to make sure we have plenty of real-life experience. The loss of inspiration can diminish creativity but that is a case of technology distracting us from tactile sources of inspiration, not replacing or destroying creativity.

Will technology replace the artist?

Technology will not replace the artist (at least not in the near future) or creative types; it in fact requires more of us. A programmer can write more complex and refined code that will do many mundane functions, even mimicking creativity, but that ability to mimic is nothing more than coded instructions and there is a limit to what they can do. Real human creativity can make leaps and jumps and associations that a program can’t.

For example, there are applications that can take a photo and make it look like a hand sketched portrait, and they can look very, very convincing. These programs are prime examples of technology and its limits. No matter how good the program, there are still many decisions that a human will make differently, whereas the computer plows on through carrying out all of its instructions in the same exact way each time. What’s being coded is a mechanical process, not creativity. In the case of the sketch programs, an artist sat with a programmer and they studied pictures together. The artist explained to the programmer that given certain aspects and elements of an image he would sketch or draw them in a certain way. He might explain hundreds of variables and how they apply to shadow and light. The programmer then wrote the code that will analyze lights and darks, contrast, colors, and even focus and density of detail. But when a series of images are fed through it the program will approach the task the exact same way each time whereas an artist will always do something different. They might be in a good or bad mood that day, maybe biased towards eyes and not lips, or have trouble drawing nostrils, or the picture evokes a certain reaction, not to mention the training and personal background of the artist. All contribute to the uniqueness of the piece.

Creativity is being accelerated by technology, not stifled

Photoshop and Word are both pieces of software that make creating vastly easier and quicker, and feature tools that can do some of the mechanical work for us, but they don’t replace creativity. Just as Leonardo Da Vinci used the best tools and techniques of his day, artists having progressed past rubbing dirt and ash on cave walls, are also moving past paints and brushes and using tablets and touch screens. Technology changes, creativity doesn’t.

We are losing the arts

There is something very substantial feeling about an old oil painting or antique book and I mourn their diminishment in the modern world. But those are losses of technology and not creativity.

We are evolving our processes. I hate to see the dark room go the way of the telephone booth. I remember working in a dark room and I loved the atmosphere, but that is all personal and sentimental. Besides, there will always be diehard traditionalist that will keep the old ways alive, just as there are still those who like to handcraft wood, leather, and participate in other archaic processes for the satisfaction of it and to keep the old ways alive. I am not saying it’s a good thing that processes are dying off, quite the contrary. I think it is important for a myriad of reasons to keep old processes alive. But there are many benefits to the evolution of these processes.

The barrier of cost and accessibility have plummeted for almost any creative endeavor. Writing, art, music, photography, you name it and technology has made it cheap, even free, to express oneself.

I am not sure of the ecological impact, but all those chemicals used in the dark room were often dumped down the drain. Books were hand typed, and even when computers and email attachments were first coming out, publishers still expected a submitting author to print a manuscript and mail it to them. That took days and hundred dollars which is insane to even consider today. My last novel was read and edited by several people worldwide, even the cover was designed by an artist far away from where I live. I easily and relatively cheaply published a professional quality novel. The creative content, my expression of creativity, may be up for debate, but all other aspects of the novel were done as well as, or even better than, any publisher could have done. This was not even dreamed of just a short time ago and I used no paper, shipping, ink, etc.

And it’s not just barriers of cost and accessibility but audience. Recently if you were to get a book published you had to convince a publisher you had a huge audience. Now you can publish a book because you want to, or for a niche audience. How to Wash Your Llama might do well in certain circles.

So our tools make the job easier, but do they require less talent? No, and the reason there are so many lesser talented artists in circulation is because there is such a high demand for content. But that’s great news for artists. Artists don’t have to be the starving artist anymore. As an artist; whether you are a writer, artist, designer, musician, voice over talent – you can work from anywhere in the world. You can sell your art online, get hired to do jobs, even leverage your success to create more success.

I am old enough to remember cameras that used film, televisions that were black and white, and phones that were attached to the wall and worse still, phones could only be used as phones. And I remember what it took to attempt to get a book published. The people getting published weren’t the best writers, they were the best at facing a mind-numbingly complex and boring job that could take years and would likely lead to nothing. And self-publishing was ridiculous. Even if you had the thousands of dollars it took to do even a small print run you hadn’t even scratched the surface of getting a book marketed, distributed, and sold. Many would-be authors ended up with a garage full of books they couldn’t give away.

Today companies like Create Space have removed virtually every barrier there ever was to writing and publishing a book except for one – the ability to actually write the book. It is infinitely faster and less expensive now to get a book beta read, edited, cover designed, and made available for the world to buy. In the quest to publish my own works, I’ve spoken with writers who have spent hundreds or even thousands marketing a book and generated almost no sales. I’ve also talked to several that just put the book out there and word of mouth and good reviews led to more and more sales.

One in particular has a tale similar to mine. He spent twenty years having the publishers and agents telling him, “No thanks.”

They all had reasons not to publish him and most were contradictory to the other. Too long, too short, too many characters, or not enough characters. He started self-publishing about five years ago and has since quit his job and writes fulltime. People love his books, the very same books that all the “professionals” said would never make it. And the funny thing is, those same publishers have come back to him wanting the rights to publish his work. He said, “No.”

Why would he sign away his rights and get a fraction of the book sales so a publisher could make money? With a good book, almost no marketing is required, but that of course is the exception, not the rule. But even an incredibly bad book can make money in this new world. In the publisher’s defense, publishing a book was hugely expensive and they had to pick winners, books that would sell a large number of copies.

I have read a few really bad, crazy, or ridiculous books and enjoyed them. Maybe laughing at them as they were so bad, but still I paid and the author got some money. There are books that were written so intentionally ridiculous that maybe 400 people will ever read them, but those books would never have seen the light of day previously and never, ever have made a penny. But one terribly silly book today can be enjoyed by a few hundred people and net the author a few dollars. In addition the world has a small, very unique book available to it that otherwise it wouldn’t have.

We are in a Renaissance unlike anything since the 1700’s. Much of what we love was birthed in the creative Renaissance: the novel, female writers, etc. Software, computers, technology itself, are tools and creative people always use tools, well, more creatively. If a piece of software is released that does a supposedly creative task and suddenly everyone can do that task, the creative and talented person is going to use that tool more effectively and to a better end than most others.

I came up with the idea for my most successful book because I realized that traditionally trained artists weren’t using the full power of available technology and self taught artists who learned on the computer lacked basic art skills. You need both to truly excel.

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