Does technology actually stifle real creativity?

A question for you today. These days, over the last decade, most people have access to a computer, and increased usage, has improved computer skills on them. The quality of the software and networking via the internet, has constantly improved. Myself I have a Macbook Pro. Apple have been promoting their computers with the “creative” software that comes pre-installed. There is iTunes, but also iPhoto (manage and do some basic editing of your photos, create photo books, slideshows), iMovie (edit your video, create movies and trailers), Garageband (create, record and produce your own music e.g. “Grimes” recently release an album created with this), idvd (burn movies, slideshows to a dvd), iWeb (create websites). This all comes preinstalled, is pretty fantastic actually, and as they would have it, is the doorway to creativity. But recently I have been thinking, is all this technology having the opposite affect? Is too much actually stifling good creativity?

Bear with me here, the argument is one of two many options, not against using the technology itself. In the current issue of Rolling Stone (1154) there is an interview with Jimmy Iovine legendary music engineer, producer, label chairman (Interscope), and co-headphone maker (Beats with Dre). He worked with John Lennon, Bruce Springsteen, Tom Petty, Patti Smith, U2 and many others. He refers to how many of the artists were after a particular sound, their sound, and once they had found it, it was then more about good songs, and some good singles. Springsteen in particular (on Born to Run) was a torture in finding the right sound, but once he found it, then it was all about the songs. Like him or loather him, you can still tell his sound immediately, and that is an important point, because in doing that, he had found his voice.

This was arguably more the old model of record companies. To be signed you had to be pretty good at singing, songwriting, or maybe playing an instrument. To be successful you had (mostly) to be skilled in one of those areas. Often to define their voice, artists would work hard to find their own sound or write their own songs. It might well have taken a lot of practice, a lot of playing live, a lot of hard slog. But there was often no other way. It was either take this opportunity, or do nothing. The means to do something creative were a little harder to come by than now. Iovine says of Springsteen (on page 61):

“All you hear everyday is how not cool the record industry is. That’s going to have an effect on who gets into music. All you need is a new Bruce Springsteen deciding he is going to work for Apple – or create his own. Look at the intensity and force that went into making Darkness. If Bruce ever had a f*****g excuse not to do it, maybe he would have chosen not to”

Is this actually the case? Does all the different creative technologies give you that excuse? If you want to do something creative today, edit some photos, go edit some video. Well that is being creative. So I guess the point is the quality. Going back to music, you can easy record using a computer, it might be easier to make, because you do it yourself. And I’ve definitely nothing against this. But what is does not give you back is quality control. That is something you have to receive or you have to learn. I’m a fan of music, and I can think of many recent albums that are good, a few that are great. Usually the better ones have worked with a producer (someone not only with a separate view on the sound, but an independent on the quality of the material). More often than not, the really successful ones stand out for both the artist’s sound (for someone like Adele this is her voice, which is always upfront in the mix), but also for some really good quality songs (singles). Even under the current changing model of the music business, we are still moved by something that feels good, honest and grips us in some way. But note, all the best received artists, whether mainstream or indie, have their own voice and sound. We can tell their music in a second or two. Either they earned it, fought to find it, or were just lucky enough to have the talent anyway.

The same also applies in writing although it is a bit harder to tell because you have to spend more time reading a book, than you do listen to a 3 minute single or 45 minute album. The best writers have their own style or voice. I was reading the other day in the latest Writers Digest (March / April 12, pg 57) about mastering voice. Larry Brooks states:

“Less is more. The more personality and humour and edge you are looking for, the truer this is. Attempting to imbue your writing with noticeable narrative style is always risky, because you are hoping and assuming that whoever is reading your work will be attracted to that particular style. The safest bet – one placed by a bevy of bestselling writers …who are too often and unfairly accused of not being all that good because their writing bears little or no stylistic scent – is to write cleanly and crisply”.

I can understand his point. He is referring to selling your novel. You will have an easier job of it if it is easily understandable. Your voice ought to be natural, it ought to take little effort to read. Perhaps your story and characters better be good though (for example, Elmore Leonard), otherwise you might also be a bit bland. Not that I’m suggesting there is anything wrong with taking this approach, there isn’t. I’m all for writing in a style that is appropriate. I just couldn’t help feel with this advice that there was a slight whiff of not standing out in a crowd. Surely you would want to be good enough that some element stands out as your voice? To do that, unless naturally talented, you have to earn it.

A common creative output for many writers is the blog. It is likely that you reading now may have your own blog, or be a signed up wordpress member. This is a great output as it means you can put something out for people to read and judge, in fact I did the former and you are doing the latter right now. A problem I have is that maybe I spend too much time working the blog and not enough time on my other writing projects. In the grand scheme of things, I would like to think that they will be the recognised pieces of my work. At the moment, there is more blog than other. Part of the reason for this is simply that the blog is there as an output. Otherwise I might be doing some writing practice in a notebook (which I could still do) or more importantly, well you get the idea. Yet I enjoy the blog, and I enjoy putting some things out there for people to read if they wish.

In Malcolm Gladwell’s book “Outliers” he refers to 10,000 hours being the amount of time you need to spend on something to be a master of it. Clearly this is a balance of experience and learning. He provides various examples of where this would be the case e.g. The Beatles, or Bill Gates. I could therefore argue that the blog contributes some of the time towards this magic number. It is a good forum for me to practise, experiment and publish. Will this add up to me being better on my other projects or should I simply be spending more time on them?

Perhaps the answer is there is less pressure. I use the blog to try to give a certain level of quality, that I might not expect in a notebook, but I would not expect this to be as high a quality as my other projects. But if they don’t work out, I could always just keep with the blog. Or I could go edit some videos or photos. They are both good fun and creative too. These days it is not a one shot deal. But then I don’t want to be “Jack of all trades”. If I want to be good at one, I need to concentrate on one. Get the magic hours in and the learning, and the experience. So you see, technology gives us the opportunity to be creative, but it might also stifle real creativity, by which I mean something that is that much better, is our own voice.

Is that the case? What do you think?

N.B. This posting was maybe a bit longer than I was expecting but I still think I didn’t have space to put in several points. I may expand it to a larger essay at some point in the future.

Lexicon word of the day: Perfidious.