Technology is great. It saves us time, effort, and allows us to connect with each other. Whether we’re looking for the best restaurants in new cities or playing games against friends from across the globe, it has a place in all of our lives. The modern world runs on technology and it plays a huge role in our day-to-day lives. But is technology limiting creativity? In this article, I’ll share some thoughts on whether technology limiting creativity is a thing, and suggest some ways in which we could be using it to improve our creativity instead.
Beware the ‘Technology Killing Creativity’ Doom Mongers
I’d like you to imagine for a moment a couple of writers sitting in a café in New York City in 1873 – the year that the first machine to be called a ‘type-writer’ began production.
‘This is the death of creative writing! The murder of original thought!’ cries one to the other, as he slaps the newspaper to the table.
‘Nonsense!’ says the second writer ‘This is just a new tool for writers’.
Or perhaps we are in Paris in 1892, as Emile Reynaud launched the first of what would become thousands of shows of animated movies to half a million people over the ensuing eight years.
‘This is the end of art!’ grumbles one audience member.
‘Rubbish!’ retorts Reynaud ‘It’s just a new art form’.
With the benefit of hindsight, do we seriously believe that the technology of that time wrecked human imagination and the capacity of people to create and tell stories? Of course not! Quite the reverse, in fact.
None of which is to say that there are no issues connected to the very rapid growth of technology today and creative potential and expression. We’ll dive into those in a moment.
But watch out for people claiming that technology marks the death of creativity. This is an old chestnut, that has long been pulled out of the fire!
Creative Ideation and Creative Expression
When discussing whether and how modern technology might limit creativity, I think it’s worth noting that there are various stages in the overall creative process. Of which creative ideation – often done via some form of brainstorming – and creative expression, the actual production of a creative product (a piece of art, a song, a novel, a dance, an innovative business solution, etc) are important.
Related: Why Creative Process Matters
The essential point is that, to a large extent, they are independent of each other.
Technology can play an important role in brainstorming sessions, and that’s a great thing since brainstorming is a key part of creative thought and the creative process. But brainstorming is often a much quicker process than actually producing the final creative work, and there is no denying that digital tools can be great tools for making the final creative work, if in a realm that suits those tools.
For example, I regularly use Aeon Timeline to help plot my novels, AI writing assistants to develop and even sometimes flesh out creative writing passages, Scrivener to structure pieces of creative writing, and more technology besides.
In no sense do I ever feel that technology prevents me from thinking creatively, but the opposite is true. In fact, I use technology all the time, and I try to consciously take more control over it so that I use it as creatively as possible.
I am always looking for a different way, a better way, to do things. It’s not always only about optimization either.
Creativity is Everywhere
Whenever we speak of limits and limitations regarding creativity, I believe it’s worth pointing out that creativity has been with us since time began. This has extended in no uncertain way into the digital world.
Even when we talk of creativity as a weapon of war, the truth is that it has always been with us. And in the case of creativity in technology, we should not forget that it has always existed, that it has always been a powerful force, and it has always inspired people to use technology in incredible ways.
Some of our inventions seem almost otherworldly, but we’ve always had a creative impulse. I think that creativity is, in a sense, an inborn part of us and that technology, in helping us gain control over our creativity, actually enhances that creativity in more and more ways.
The idea that creativity as a thing could somehow be limited by anything is, therefore, to my mind, a non-starter.
Whether technology poses specific challenges to individuals in their creative endeavors, or even to their individual creative potential, is another matter.
The Lovelace Test
About a 15-minute drive from where I live in Somerset, UK, is one of the homes of Augusta Ada King – Countess Lovelace – one of Charles Babbage’s (inventor of the modern computer, the ‘difference engine’) closest collaborators and – some experts argue – the author of the world’s first-ever algorithm.
Which would make her the first-ever computer programmer!
A remarkable scientist and daring woman in many areas of life, at a time when moral codes severely constrained behavior, as a child of the famous poet Lord Byron, Ada Lovelace had an astonishing background. Her abilities in maths started to emerge when she was 17, in 1832.
In 1843, Ada was the first to understand that computers could do more than simply manipulate and compute numbers. They were more than just calculators. She foresaw that computers could be involved in musical composition – a remarkably prescient observation, that predated the actual implementation of the idea by 100 years or more.
It needs to be said that Ada Lovelace did not believe that computers would ever actually create original works, such as novels or stories, but that her musings on the subject served to inspire the pioneers of artificial intelligence and machine learning.
The author of The Creativity Code: Art and Innovation in the Age of AI, Marcus du Sautoy, has proposed what he calls The Lovelace Test (in deference to the famous Turing Test, in which Alan Turing proposed that computers would finally achieve ‘intelligence’ when their outputs become indistinguishable from those of a human interlocutor).
Du Sautoy suggests that a ‘Lovelace Test’ would be done by analyzing creative works produced by an algorithm, to see if they could be mistaken for the products of human creativity without human programmers understanding how the algorithm had produced them. This would demonstrate that artificial intelligence had indeed achieved ‘creativity,’ in an original and creative way.
The point is that an eminent mathematician and scientist like du Sautoy has set the bar for technology to be ‘creative.’ If the machines achieve this, then technology will have broken all limits on creativity.
It truly will be a Brave New World.
Why It Matters Whether Technology Limits Creativity
It’s not just a question of individual potential, happiness, and fulfillment – society as a whole benefits when technology encourages artistic expression and individuality.
People deserve to have a voice. (and an audience), and, and if technology can open up new routes into the creative process – which is entirely possible – then that’s something we should encourage.
But if machines can produce artistic works that can rival those of humans, then humans may have far fewer opportunities to express their artistic or creative options in the future (or the amount of artistic work will change the nature of the work that they do).
Social Media and Creativity
A number of books have warned of the dangers of social media, and the dearth of attention span in current generations. For example, Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now by Jaron Lanier.
Lanier argues that social media are stripping creative data away from its creators, feeding it into AI art creations programs (for example) and thereby depriving them of their livelihood. He further argues that by channeling users into ‘energy landscapes’ that constrain their experiences, social media is killing creativity and progress by denying people ‘unbounded nature.’
Therefore, if we equate social media to technology, you can see how technology might severely limit creativity, especially in the arts.
I would argue that social media is not entirely to blame for the decline in the arts. We are living in an increasingly digital age, and for many people (particularly those who aren’t computer-savvy), technology is not an avenue for creativity or expression.
To my mind, social media does not mean ‘technology’.
Yes, technology and algorithms underpin social media, but the nature of social media is communication, and human behavior, not ‘technology’ per se. It seems to me that creativity and society face communication and behavioral challenges, rather than technological ones. Technology is a tool, to be used for good or ill, not an actor in its own right.
But will this remain the case?
If the so-called ‘singularity’ comes and machines achieve autonomy – at that point, I could imagine how technology per se truly could limit creativity. And much more besides.
Related: How Social media Impact Our Life
There is a line of argument that technology, by deluging us all with information – digital distraction – is killing our collective creativity. Some critics believe that there is too much information readily available to the public and people can access what they need without devising their own ideas.
This might doubly be true for children. Nowadays, kids are more into electronics and less into imaginative play. They spend hours sitting alone in their room staring at a screen. This limits how creative they can be because they don’t know how to “create” anything anymore.
Kids can grow up thinking that there’s no more magic in the world and then become depressed because everything has been done before. Boredom sets in.
Playing a video game is fine. I do, in virtual reality, regularly. But encourage your kids to make something also! Challenge them with a new idea, and respond with one of their own! Give them the chance to develop their creative ability, and engage in creative activity.
I think it certainly is the case that if you bury yourself in endless scrolling on your device, you’re not generating much original output. Every time you press ‘like’ on something, it’s detracting from your original output.
If you’re paying too much attention to what other people are doing, then you’re not focused on your own work.
The art is to absorb useful ideas, and then to ensure you have enough time to delve into those ideas, explore them. And set aside time to actually implement those ideas. To devise a creative idea yourself. To try new things.
Also, to be acutely aware of what is real, and what is a mere representation of reality.
Use the astonishing power of devices to retrieve information and insights rapidly, for sure, But use it in service of your (inherent) creative talent!
It’s important how you sequence your activities during the day. If you start the day passively, by simply absorbing the ideas of others, you’ll contribute less to that of yourself. I suggest that you at least balance the first few hours of the day with passive and active activities, such that you’ll always be stimulated in some way and feed those stimulations (inspirations) into your own creative work.
People have a tendency to compare themselves to others in the same field. This can be either positive or negative. When it’s positive, the individual feels capable enough to tackle a problem and is more likely to express originality when doing so.
On the other hand, if someone receives negative feedback from others, particularly those believed to be more skilled than oneself, then creativity will most likely be stifled.
Technology plays a role in this because, if not managed correctly, it can expose you to a greater amount of feedback over more extended periods than ever used to be the case.
The trick is to limit your exposure to feedback and critique and to make it an active part of your overall creative process with a positive attitude.
Rubbish In, Rubbish Out
One of the dangers of the social media revolution, in which technology has played a facilitating role, is the cacophony of voices and opinions on everything under the Sun.
I’m all in favor of democracy, freedom of speech, and a multiplicity of viewpoints. But if you wish to be a creative person, and make a creative contribution, it is vital to find ways to assess quality and reliability in what you are consuming and set up filtering systems for yourself to stop the rubbish from invading your mind. Actively seek out original thinking online and offline.
Otherwise, stand by to have your creative mind filled with junk, and the agendas of others.
What the Net seems to be doing is chipping away my capacity for concentration and contemplation. Whether I’m online or not, my mind now expects to take in information the way the Net distributes it: in a swiftly moving stream of particles. Once I was a scuba diver in the sea of words. Now I zip along the surface like a guy on a Jet Ski.Nicholas Carr, The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains
Keep in mind a wonderful description I once heard regarding email: your email inbox is a list of other peoples’ agendas!
There can be a depressing tendency in social media, especially, towards what I would call Creative Herd Mentality.
Endless repetitions of memes, ideas (often of little merit), and hackneyed phrases. The Crowd is definitely not always (or even usually) wise. The idea that there is a wisdom of crowds has a lot to answer for! If you are not careful, you’ll hit the Echo-Chamber of the Unoriginal and Ignorant more rapidly and harder than you bargained for!
In a similar way to the solution to Information Overwhelm, and Quality Filters as outlined above – the key to avoiding the Herd is awareness.
Work at divorcing yourself from the influence of The Average, and seeking out sources of reliable and high-quality creativeness that feed your own creative impulses.
Work on Your Creative Mind
In the same way that it is advised to not ‘work in your business…but work on your business, try to make time to develop your creative muscles.
Allow yourself the time and energy to engage in creative pursuits. Listen to different kinds of music. Enjoy them, or be repelled by them – allowing your feeling to run true! Try writing a poem. Find a metaphor for something you observe, and play with it in your mind. Doodle, mind map, draw, splash paint…have an awareness of creative expression, and how you can push it.
Value imagination and curiosity in yourself and others, above all things. Adapt your creative thinking to the ‘flow of the unknown.’
Venture beyond boundaries that stand between you and the creative person you are made to be.
Technology as a Servant of Creativity
When bringing new technology into your daily life, ask always, “how do I use this tool to grow what matters to me in a creative and effective way?”
Technology should serve you, not control you. You should use your tools to accomplish your goals, and not be controlled by them. Know when to turn the technology tap off, in order to allow the room for more of your inherent creativity to flourish.
Find ways to harness technology to aid your focus and creative output, not plunge you into a bottomless pool of distraction.
The Googleization of knowledge—that ultimate searchability—creates a great bounty of potential avenues for research. It cannot, however, become a substitute for the strange vagaries of human intuition and creative leaps. We need to insist on a certain randomness, and a large degree of pure, haphazard discovery, in the tools we use to explore our world.Michael Harris, The End of Absence: Reclaiming What We’ve Lost in A World of Constant Connection
Very importantly, celebrate the way in which technology has reduced barriers to creative inspiration, and sharing with others.
The ways in which you can use various technologies to research, ideate, produce, and share experiences and creative work is astonishing – whether in a creative industry or as a creative soul.
The thing you need to do is to use these technologies with compassion, humanity, and awareness.