Creativity and the Digital

Guest post by Gregory Sporton, Professor of Digital Creativity, Department of Creative Professions and Digital Arts, University of Greenwich and author of Digital Creativity

People of my generation have lived through quite an astonishing set of transformations of the idea of creativity.  As a young man embarking on a career in the arts, I was warned by my high school teacher that the best skill I could learn was how to fill in application forms for unemployment benefit.  The purpose of the sort of education I had was to create obedient and passive citizen-workers, and the very idea of the exercise of imagination was deemed an existential threat, about which at least someone felt they should intervene.

It turned out not be entirely true.  Certainly my work as a dancer never made me rich, and it was trivialised no end by those who thought it an eccentric career, but it also extended to me a range of opportunities and challenged my notions about the world in a way that a life in a factory or an office would never have been able to do.  For this alone, I have always thought of the exercise of the imagination as nothing other than a good.  The great art and artists I encountered offer alternative versions of life to the conventions of the societies in which I have lived.  Their work, at its best, asked questions about the accepted ways of a given culture, or reflected it through prisms that brought to light its properties. This is no small thing, and whilst there was not bountiful  material reward, there was a sense of morality (even if the work of art wasn’t always moral in a conventional sense).  But change was on the horizon in the shape of technologies that could help formulate and distribute ideas and image simply and quickly, and thus different notions about the role and function of creativity began to crystallise.

Whilst the education system continued to pump out graduates with the type of skills the industrial revolution required (mostly a capacity to show up on time and not revolt against doing repetitive tasks), the industries they thought they were servicing disappeared.  The principle of industry as the designated destination for the youth of industrialised societies did not die with them.  Instead, there has been a recalibrating of purpose, towards something formulated as the Creative Industries, the implication in its title one of reassurance about matching the productive efforts of those who were sent off to factories or mines.  The achievement of modern education in sticking with the industrial model despite the passing of its relevance is really quite something, reflecting a profound conservatism about the usefulness of such an education. But, as modern, developed economies lighted upon the potential for developing their intellectual and imaginative capacities as the new means for economic growth, the education system and the notion of creativity itself has had to change.  At stake has been jobs and futures, and a marginal practice has come to be seen as a key economic driver.  Having been combined with digital technologies, it is a powerful economic force as well as the cultural one it has always been.

There has come to be an association between notions about creativity and ideas about the application of technology through the creative industries.  The very phrase ‘creative industries’ suggests a significant change from the time when creativity, especially as manifested in the arts, was a domain of free play, thoroughly untrusted, and certainly of nugatory economic value.  Just how a widespread practice of creativity should manifest never seems to me to be entirely clear.  Given the rusted-on ideas that continue to dominate our education system, it is no surprise that the certainties and forms provided by the technology industries should form the aspiration and practice of what it is to be creative.  Thus an idea like ‘creativity’ comes to look a lot more like conformism than one would automatically think.  This manifests in all kinds of ways, from Cascading Style Sheets to Apple’s ‘Swift’ programming language: the means of creating is determined by the platform that is provided.  When encountering software interfaces that are designed for use by creative practitioners, we see the same levels of control, the victory of the usability engineers over the potential to experiment, as evidenced in that most deterministic environment of all: Creative Suite.  In its online iteration, it now learns more and more from its users, and can update itself to get rid of the workarounds or user choices, all in the interests of improved usability.

Art becomes the means of escaping the technological determinism that might be thrust on us by the corporates, but it may also suggest modes of operation or processes that might improve our relationship with technology rather than simply being dependent upon it.  The tendency of technology to systemise the creative is hardly surprising in an environment like the Internet.  Engineers, as Jaron Lanier has regularly pointed out, prefer interoperability to fidelity, and thus their conventions reflect this value.  But there is a more powerful undercurrent in the technology-driven version of creativity we now have that places an emphasis on improvisation and flexibility within a given system. This is especially true because those ‘given’ systems are latterly thrust upon us without giving us much choice, having been hooked in the first place into proprietary platforms.  Those who engage become users rather than creators, constrained by the protocols of technology if not by the mores of society.  That this is at the expense of narrative and expression, previously powerful tools in the artist’s arsenal, is not something the creative industries are particularly concerned about, but this must surely be where the road ends.  The ersatz creativity offered in the interface is only an extension of the decision trees and critical paths allowed us by the engineers.  What artists can really offer are those alternative versions, the parallel universes and a utilisation of technology for more than economic purposes.