The creation myth

The creation myth


Technology is not destroying creativity, but democratising the tools of creation. This is a good thing, even if the results aren't always art, say John Davies and Juan Mateos-Garcia

5th September 2016
Illustration by Alexander Mostov

Creativity is dead. Technology killed it. We live in a world of homogenous, derivative, disposable content. Easy-to-use tools and the giant copying machine of the internet are to blame

Exaggerating a bit, this is the message in The filter bubble, a recent article by Rhodri Marsden in The Long + Short. According to Marsden, digital tools like Instagram or GarageBand limit our creativity with their filters and presets, making everything look and sound the same. We get a warm fuzzy feeling when we use them, but our accomplishments are creatively shallow. Social media sharing only makes this problem worse, by constantly exposing us to content made by people a bit like us, which we then try to imitate. The end result is a zombie outbreak of content, feeding on the fallen corpse of creativity and leaving behind an apocalypse of lifeless tat and Clarendon-shaded goo.

We think that this way of thinking about the impact on technology on creativity is too simplistic. Technology is not destroying creativity – or even eating it. On the contrary, it is democratising the tools of creativity. This is a good thing, even if the results aren't always art, or beautiful. Copying has always been integral to creative activity, both in learning and innovation and, while technology changes what creativity means, it doesn't kill it. There are a number of reasons for thinking this.

Creative visionaries may be attracted to new art forms where the chance of creating a landmark, genre-defining, work are higher
Here comes everybody

Technology expands the areas in which people are able to express their creative potential, but it doesn't democratise talent. This is true of quite basic artistic technologies like language and charcoal on cave walls, and is true of more recent digital tools. Not everyone can do something new or good, but thanks to the growth in creative tools, more people can try. Complaining that much of this work is of variable quality, or samey, misses the point. Most people on platforms like Instagram are not actively trying to reinvent photography, make transcendent artistic statements or lots of money – they are having fun, and exploring new ways to socialise.

The creative learning curve

Another problem with criticising enthusiastic, if amateurish, use of digital creative tools is that it assumes that their users don't learn. However, the truth is that some of them eventually progress from the basic features (eg filters in Instagram) to more sophisticated features as they become more proficient, eventually graduating into professional work. Our research at Nesta shows clear evidence of rapid growth in the number of people working professionally in creative jobs in the UK and overseas.

Artistic skills can be transferable across tools and domains: we can see this with the work of photographer Nick Knight, who made his name taking black and white pictures of skinheads and now combines photography with set design and sophisticated digital manipulation. There has been a boom in independent games development, partly owing to easy-to-use games 'engines' like Unity or GameMaker, which give their users a launchpad for focusing on the most unique aspects of their games without having to build the whole thing from scratch.

Copying has always been an integral part of being creative

Copying has always been a way in which artists develop a new voice. There are many famous examples in music where the sampling of previous records has been an integral part of producing something original – Massive Attack's Blue Lines, the Beastie Boys' Paul's Boutique, DJ Shadow's Endtroducing, Dr Dre's the Chronic or Dilla's Donuts. Long before the digital era, such practices were well established both as means of learning and sources of creative inspiration. Hunter S Thompson typed out word for word A Farewell to Arms and The Great Gatsby in order to understand their style. The wit of the characters in Oscar Wilde's comedies is assisted by Wilde reusing some of the best lines from his earlier novel The Picture of Dorian Gray. The story of two lovers called Romeo and Juliet predates Shakespeare's version. In the visual arts and architecture with, say, pop art and postmodernism, neoclassicism and the gothic revival, appropriation has long been established.

Mistaking more competition for less creativity

One of the reasons why it might look as if digital content is killing creativity is just that it is harder to identify genuinely innovative work. This is because we are exposed to more creative content than ever before owing to the democratisation of tools and the decline in distribution costs: there is more path-breaking creative content than before, but there's much more content too, making it harder to stand out than before. The differences with past creative eras is stark. Perhaps one of the reasons why figures from history, artistic or scientific, often seem larger than contemporaries is that the world was simpler back then: there was just less competition, and the wisdom of hindsight has highlighted a few central individuals. In the midst of the digital melée of ever more content, it is harder to see what the key works are, but this is likely to be clearer in retrospect.

We're exposed to more creative content than ever before, owing to the democratisation of tools and the decline in distribution costs… making it harder to stand out

Technology is changing what creativity means – as it always has

Culture is fluid: some art forms come into vogue, and some go out of fashion. Technology is an important part of this process, not least because it can replace technical skills, such as being able to paint in a realistic manner or being able to use a darkroom. This means that certain forms of art no longer, in terms of being creative or new, remain interesting: it is hard to surprise anyone just by being able to paint in a very realistic manner or simply manipulate a photograph. It may give pleasure, or be commercially successful, but it is no longer pushing the creative frontier forward.

For this reason, creative visionaries may be attracted to other art forms where the chance of creating a landmark, genre-defining work are higher: if Leonardo was born today he might be making video games; a contemporary Jane Austen could be making TV series for Netflix.

It is likely that art will become increasingly interactive in future with the growth of virtual reality and the internet of things leading to more experiences that are both universal and personal. In other words, not only does digital technology expand the number of creative tools that are available, it also generates completely new media, genres and art forms; this gives us reasons to be optimistic about creativity in the digital age.

The best is yet to come

One of the reasons why the fine arts have perhaps seen relatively limited use of sophisticated modern technologies relates to the skills that artists have. With the exception of a few institutions such as Goldsmiths university in south London, there is still fairly restricted use of modern technology in many artistic establishments. Given this, there is plenty of scope for digital technology to further enrich artistic practice, particularly given how far it has evolved in an already small space of time.

It's only 80 years since Alan Turing came up with the abstract idea of the computer as the universal machine. This is a very short period compared with how long humans have had access to language, musical instruments and paints. The best is, almost certainly, yet to come. The zombies won't win.

The authors work at Nesta on the Creative Economy team. Juan Mateos-Garcia will be speaking at FutureFest on the prospect for 'solving growth' with big data (or maybe not)


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