How Technology Enhances Creativity
I recently wrote a post about how marketers will need to learn to rely less on judgment and intuition in the era of big data. It’s a controversial subject, especially since many marketers pride themselves, in fact have built their careers, on having a reputation for instinct.
So I expected a certain amount of pushback, but instead many people seemed to think that I was arguing that technology was diminishing the need for creativity in marketing. This is clearly not the case. So let me set the record straight.
Technology does not quell creativity, in fact, there’s a great deal of evidence that suggests that technology enhances creativity. Certainly, we are expected to be more creative in our working lives than a generation ago. The truth is that by expanding possibilities and automating part of the creative process, we can all be more creative and productive.
Defining The Creative Process
While many like to think of creativity as a mysterious process, researchers generally agree that there are clear principles at work, such as a lucid formulation of the problem, knowledge and practice in a particular field, crossing domains and persistence.
I previously summarized these principles in formulating a creative process in a post about creative intelligence:
1. Forming intent: Every creative act starts with a purpose. Whether it is a marketer trying to solve for a particular business objective, a designer working with a specific brief or an artist looking to express a distinct idea or emotion. It is through forming intent that we establish the constraints under which creativity thrives.
The process of forming intent is inherently human. There are some things that machines will never do: they will never strike out at a little league game, fall in love, have their heart broken or raise a family. It is out of human experience that our wants and desires arise.
2. Searching The Domain: All great artists—or for that matter, anybody who is good at anything—are students of their craft. By thoroughly examining their domain, they become aware of a variety of techniques, alternative approaches and different philosophies. The larger the creative toolbox, the greater the possibility for creative excellence.
One particularly famous and well studied example of the benefits of searching the domain is Picasso’s encounter with African art that led him to pioneer cubism and marked a turning point in his career. His later work, combining aspects of both European and African style, set a new course for the art world.
3. Tangling Hierarchies: Truly revolutionary creative acts come from synthesizing across domains, as Picasso did with African and European art or Darwin did by combining insights from economics, geology and biology to come up with his theory of natural selection.
The idea of combination comes up prominently in research into the psychology of creativity, such as Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s discussion of creative flow and Douglas Hofstadter’s concept of strange loops. Innovation is largely the art of combination.
Eliminating Barriers To Creative Excellence
Luck and chance have always played a role in creativity. What if Picasso had not wandered into that African art exhibition or Darwin not taken the voyage on The Beagle? These happy accidents are interesting and exciting, but luck is not a strategy. In fact, history is full of examples of missed opportunities because of deficiencies of information.
Darwin’s theory remained incomplete for half a century, because he was not able to specify a mechanism by which traits were inherited. Ironically, his contemporary, Gregor Mendel, had discovered the principles of genetics shortly after Darwin published his famous work, but they remained completely unaware of each other for their entire lifetimes.
Clearly, technology has transformed human experience. We are no longer separated by time and space, but are largely working off of the same massive database. The sum total of human knowledge is merely a few clicks away. Domains are no longer hidden behind barriers of circumstance or tradition, but are accessible to anyone with a search engine.
And it is not just information that has become accessible, but personal contact. Whether through social media or web video conferences or MOOC’s, it’s far easier to people to meet and collaborate than ever before in human history. Searching the domain is no longer a matter of chance. Technology and automation have streamlined the process.
Mixing And Remixing
There is a fundamental difference between knowledge and information. Knowledge is personal. I may know how to play the piano or to get to the store, but transferring that knowledge to another is a cumbersome affair. It’s difficult to explain things exactly as we experience them and the person on the other side won’t take it all in with perfect fidelity.
Information, on the other hand, is a storable, fungible entity. We can store and transfer it with any level of accuracy we choose, which makes it easy to combine with other information. In fact, it’s become so easy to combine ideas through information that we’ve come to think of mashups as banal and trite.
That’s because combining ideas no longer takes any particular skill. Like searching domains, the process has become so completely automated that it ceases to be associated with personal expression. Devoid of toil and labor, it requires negligible specific intent.
The ugly truth is that most creative acts are failures, which is why, as Robert Weisberg points out in his book Creativity, outstanding creative work is tightly linked to prolific output. The more work we produce, the more great work we produce. The problem is that it’s often hard to separate the good from the bad.
Malcolm Gladwell illustrated in David and Goliath how this can create serious difficulties. Even geniuses like Monet and Renoir found it difficult to stand out when they had one or two paintings among the thousands at Paris’s famous Salon exhibition, but gained traction when they created their own show where they could display more works.
Clearly, failure in the analog world was expensive, tiresome and frustrating. But in the digital world, we can simulate failure cheaply and easily. From CAD software to 3D printers, A/B testing to agent based models, technology lets us experiment in the world of bits before we invest resources in the world of atoms.
And that’s how technology enhances creativity, it drastically reduces the cost of actualizing our intent. We can search domains, mix and match ideas and test concepts almost effortlessly. That means we can try out a lot more possibilities and increase the chances of producing something truly outstanding.
The Rise of the Creative Class
Probably the strongest sign that technology enhances creativity is that, as Richard Florida argues in The Rise Of The Creative Class, creativity is becoming an intrinsic part of working life. The man in the gray flannel suit has been replaced by the hipster with spiky hair and tattoos.
As we become a more technological society, we also become a more creative society, because many of the rote tasks that used to take up a lot of our time and effort have become automated. What’s more, technology increases our potential to engage in the types of experiences that lead to greater creativity.
Certainly today, exposure to African art is not rare or difficult to obtain. A modern day Darwin wouldn’t need to embark on a five year voyage to inspect the finches of the Galapagos, an internet connection or a plane ticket would do. He could also model his suspicions by computer, shortening the gap between hypothesis and theory.
The fact that everyone has access to a wealth and diversity of ideas and the means to actualize intent means that we all can be more creative. As Jaron Lanier put it, “in a virtual world of infinite abundance, only creativity could ever be in short supply.”