Thursday, September 10, 2009

How technology is changing the creative process in not always great ways: the other side of the coin

Earlier this week, I shared some early observations on my research exploring how technology is changing the creative process for creative people from poets to producers.

I started with the good stuff: how the technology is energizing artists and encouraging them to explore more forms of self expression. But all transitions—and this is a major one—brings as much anxiety and ambivalence and euphoria. Today I wanted I share a few early observations about the other side of the double-edged sword we’re all dancing down.

1. Speed may be the essence of the war but is it the essence of art? Every single writer and artist I spoke to acknowledged that technology has sped up their deadlines and accelerated their working process.

Several were exhilarated by the challenge of speed—especially those blessed with natural high-speed wit like @awohl—but others—both commercial and non-commercial artists--acknowledged that the pressure of speed wasn’t always leading to their best work.
We traditionally think about creative work as something that depends on a little time and personal reflection to develop. Around the office, we say that some work isn't "cooked" or "baked" yet. Around the classroom, we sometimes refer to Wordsworth famous definition of poetry as “emotion recollected in tranquility” And while of us who work in creative businesses have found ways to accelerate the process--we take 6 hours or 6 minutes rather than 6 months to develop ideas--it’s worth asking if there’s a limit to how fast certain kinds of good work can come.

One sign of the speed of the culture was the fact that some of the writers I spoke to couldn’t remember the work they’d recently done. It just passed by too fast.

Quality is harder to judge. Artistic appreciation is of course subjective. But one copywriter put it bluntly: did you look at this year’s Cannes’ reel? It’s a joke.

2. Does originality matter? The question of originality has always vexed the world of art in general and marketing in particular. On the one hand, most acknowledge that every idea has been done before, on the other, people still complain when they feel someone has "stolen" their idea. So which is it?

So while the issue is nothing new, it does seem to be amplified by our ability to instantly access all the work in the world on almost every media and subject imaginable. How do artists feel about this new access to all the abundance out there? Are you inspired or overwhelmed? A little bit of both.

The vast majority of creative people did not test the“originality” of their idea with the internet archives before proceeding. On the contrary, as @eproulx eloquently put it, “I have to pretend it's my idea until it's too late.”

3. Clusterf*ck, Committee or Collaboration? Related to the above is the question of the relationship between the number of people involved and the quality of the work. In the old days, we used to say that work by committee was bound to get “watered down." Or worse.

Many artists and writers these days feel the opposite is true, including those who work at Pixar who describe their process of collaborative development as Amplification. See, e.g., article in June HBR. A preview here. And a post on the subject here. (Tx to @edwardboches for noting the relevance of this topic ) The emergence of crowdsourcing as a vehicle for innovation and creative development has called additional attention to this changing definition of the creative process.

My early conclusion is that most artists and writers today agree that collaboration is a good thing early in the process. But many involved developing and executing work, as opposed to generating the idea, still hunger for that old-fashioned time by themselves, listening to a music, or going for a walk to let the idea churn around inside them.

4. But how much is it worth? The simultaneous adoption of crowdsourcing models, new distribution models, the explosion of amateur involvement and the economic crisis have raised questions across the artistic committee about the value of their work in strictly economic terms. Because it directly impacts their ability to make a living, this issue obviously leads to strong opinions on both sides.

Crowdsourcers argue that it’s good for clients who wouldn’t pay as much as they used to anyway. Others lament that artists and writers are rushing to participate in their own exploitation, calling the emerging group of people giving away their work, digital sharecroppers.

This issue is particularly charged among designers, perhaps because technology has allowed un-trained amateurs to approximate a decent, if not that good, design. (Check out the brewing storm on @edwardboches blog here for a front-row seat.)

Recently, the crowdsourcing machine has taken up the task of translating, with a similar reaction among the crowdlovers and the old-line experts. Here's one post on the recent linkedin controversy.

Almost everyone agrees that most fields of artistic expression are due for a leveling or perhaps a hollowing out, with a lot of the work being commodified. Stars in every field of artistic endeavor will always command top dollar for their unique forms of cultural expression. And amateurs and small creative companies can now deliver decent work for value price. But most of us who make a living writing, painting, producing, designing are not big stars. But we don’t want to give away our work either. We’re in the big middle.

And life in the big middle is a big question, which is why so many artists and writers are diversifying.


edward boches said...

I think that the inspiration, originality and power of the creator (writer, painter, poet, even journalist) will always be one of society's greatest assets, and one of our greatest joys. If we have any taste and judgment we should know that they have a talent and a gift: synapses that fire faster than ours, a fresh perspective that enlightens; the ability to actually *see* what we can't until they show it to us. What technology is doing is giving them access to more content as a source of inspiration or background. Also a way to connect with their audience in a more interactive way. On the other hand the same technology is giving the average person the illusion that he or she can create content of similar value. Alex Bogusky thinks that anyone can have a good idea. True. But bringing it to life, expressing it, touching others with it are either natural gifts or skill learned over time. So we're left with the question of what will the marketplace value. Wired magazine this month has a very interesting piece on the new definition of quality, informed by the MP3 and the YouTube video. So here's an easy conclusion. If Michelangelo or Leonardo or Shakespeare or even Warhol were alive today, wouldn't they be doing all of this. Wouldn't their paintings and poems and plays be taking advantage of the technology and the inclusiveness it affords? Wouldn't they invent new models and forms? I think so.

sk said...

Thanks for the thoughtful engagement, Edward. There are (at least) two different questions at work here. I agree that many great artists from the past would be engaging with new media (and inventing new forms) if they were alive today. Warhol saw where consumer culture was headed before the market did. Though we shouldn't forget that history has more than its share of conservative if not reactionary artists who also developed works of great power by rejecting and critiquing modern developments (Swift, to name one of my favorites, or Tolkien for that matter). Art doesn't care about progress.

Completely agree with you and Bogusky on the other point: that ideas are easy compared to bringing those ideas to life. But I'm not asking if art will survive. Of course it will. Because art is finally bigger than business. Rather I'm exploring--and we continue to discuss--how new media might be commodifying a lot of the work artists do. And how artists and writers are coping and responding to this transformation of their economic value.

Bruce DeBoer said...

There has been an economic shift in value. The quality of readily available design (for example)has risen due to the communication bandwidth and methods of harvesting creative products.

The economy however, has remained the same in the sense that mediocrity is ubiquitous - it just has a better looking face.

What's the adjustment to be made? I'm not sure of the answer to that question, but I'm very sure of what it isn't. It isn't continuing in a Hope Economy: hoping that the business world wakes up tomorrow with a higher sense of value for brilliance when mediocrity is easier to bring to market.

sk said...

Well put, Bruce and totally agree. New tools and tech bring shiny mediocrity within the grasp of many people. As you and Edward suggest, the biggest threat to the marketing world might be the recognition that a mediocre design is good enough: easier to bring to the market for sure and possibly effective as well.

ktplo said...

i was just taking a glance at your blog, and when i came across this post, in particular, i was reminded of benjamin's 1936 essay, "the work of art in the age of mechanical reproduction." in short, benjamin claims that the ability to reproduce (both a piece of art or an idea) mechanically has at once liberated art from ritual--a process that potentially risks stifling creativity--and sacrificed the "aura" of originality, losing the place for imagination and the space for revolution. I think that benjamin referred to this as the politicization of art--the marriage of art and industry. i've often wondered if benjamin was correct in his very keen prescience: have we decreased the value of creativity in this day in age or enhanced it? what is the value/role of authenticity in the creative process, really? is, as benjamin briefly conjectured, the original form of false importance anyway? i think that by looking at the function that these new forms of art serve, i.e. being specifically created for mass audiences, perhaps the demand from present audiences for these past types of authenticities has lessened. benjamin argued that in the case of film, for example, where he claimed the original aura had deteriorated, audiences no longer identified with a particular actor, but rather with the camera, the object with whom the actor was truly present. this begs an interesting question around the experience of technology by consumers and the production of creativity around it. food for thought if nothing else.

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