Reading notes (2020, week 42) — On the rise and rise of creativity, why we can’t have billionaires…

Original article was published by Mark Storm on Artificial Intelligence on Medium


“Is creativity’s history progressive? The word itself, and the expert practices for identifying it, became prominent in the Cold War but, if you’re not bothered about that, you might say that related categories — being creative, a creative person — transitioned over time from the sacred power to a secular capacity, from a sacred to a secular value, from categories belonging to the vernacular to controlled ownership by academic experts, from something no one pays to find out about to elaborately funded expert practices. From the 1950s to the present, creativity has been established as something that everybody wants: in 1959, the director of scientific research at General Electric began an address to government officials with the bland assertion: ‘I think we can agree at once that we are all in favour of creativity,’ and he was right. Creativity had become an institutional imperative, a value that was the source of many other values.

That linear story is almost, but not quite, right. Thomas Kuhn’s case for tradition and dogma was a reactionary move, and a condition for its being even thinkable was reaction to mid-century celebrations of individualism, free-thinking and market-place models of progressive enquiry. But Kuhn’s small-c conservativism was widely misunderstood and confused with iconoclasm, and some radical ‘Kuhnians’ oddly took his book as a licence for political revolution.

About the same time, there was a more consequential response to creativity-enthusiasm emerging from the heart of forward-facing capitalism. The Harvard Business Review published an essay by Theodore Levitt, a marketing expert at the Harvard Business School, called Creativity Is Not Enough (1963). Levitt didn’t doubt that there was an individual capacity called creativity, or that this capacity might be a psychological source of new ideas. Creativity was not, however, the royal road to good business outcomes, and conformity was being seriously undervalued. New ideas were not in short supply; executives were drowning in them: ‘there is really very little shortage of creativity and of creative people in American business,’ he wrote.

Many business people didn’t dwell on distinctions between creativity and innovation, but Levitt did: creativity was having a new idea; innovation was the realisation of an idea in a specific outcome that the organisation valued; and it was innovation that really mattered. Creative people tended to be irresponsible, detached from the concrete processes of achieving organisational ends: ‘what some people call conformity in business is less related to the lack of abstract creativity than to the lack of responsible action.’ Levitt’s views were widely noted, but in the 1960s he was swimming against the tide. Creativity had been incorporated.

From that time to the present, you can say that creativity rose and rose. Everyone still wants it, perhaps more than ever; politicians, executives, educators, urban theorists and economists see it as the engine of economic progress and look for ways to have more of it. The creativity tests are still around, most continuing to identify creativity with divergent thinking; they have gone through successive editions; and there is a greater variety of them than there used to be. There are academic and professional organisations devoted to the study and promotion of creativity; there are encyclopaedias and handbooks surveying creativity research; and there are endless paper and online guides to creativity — or how, at least, to convince others that you have it.

But this proliferating success has tended to erode creativity’s stable identity. On the one hand, creativity has become so invested with value that it has become impossible to police its meaning and the practices that supposedly identify and encourage it. Many people and organisations utterly committed to producing original thoughts and things nevertheless despair of creativity-talk and supposed creativity-expertise. They also say that undue obsession with the idea of creativity gets in the way of real creativity, and here the joke asks: ‘What’s the opposite of creativity?’ and the response is ‘Creativity consultants.’

Yet the expert practices of identifying people, social forms and techniques that produce the new and the useful are integral to the business world and its affiliates. There are formally programmed brainstorming sessions, brainwriting protocols to get participants on the same page, proprietary creative problem-solving routines, creative sessions, moodboards and storyboards, collages, group doodles, context- and empathy-mapping as visual representations of group thinking, lateral thinking exercises, and on and on. The production of the new and useful is here treated as something that can be elicited by expert-designed practices. Guides to these techniques now rarely treat creativity as a capacity belonging to an individual, and there are few if any mentions of creativity tests.

In the related worlds of high-tech and technoscience, Google (collaborating with Nature magazine and a media consultancy) sponsors an annual interdisciplinary conference called SciFoo Camp: it’s a freeform, no-agenda occasion for several hundred invited scientists, techies, artists, businesspeople and humanists — meant only to yield new, interesting and consequential ideas: Davos for geeks and fellow-travellers. […]

So SciFoo is a star-dusted gathering of creative people, intended to elicit creative thoughts. I might well have missed something, but when I Googled ‘SciFoo’ and searched the first several pages of results, I didn’t find a single mention of creativity. When Google — and other high-tech and consulting businesses — hire people in nominally creative capacities, typical interview questions aim to assess personality — ‘What would you pick as your walk-up song?’ — or specific problem-solving abilities and dispositions — ‘How many golf balls can fit into a school bus?’ or ‘How would you solve the homelessness crisis in San Francisco?’ They want to find out something concrete about you and how you go about things, not to establish the degree to which you possess a measurable psychological quality.

In educational settings, creativity testing continues to flourish — where it is used to assess and select both students and teachers — but it is scarcely visible in some of late modernity’s most innovative settings. Producing new and useful things is not less important than it once was, but the identity of the capacity called creativity has been affected by its normalisation. A standard criticism of much creativity research, testing and theorising is that whatever should be meant by the notion is in fact task-specific, multiple not single. Just as critics say that there can be no general theory of intelligence, so you shouldn’t think of creativity apart from specific tasks, settings, motivations and individuals’ physiological states.

Creativity was a moment in the history of academic psychology. As an expert-defined category, creativity was also summoned into existence during the Cold War, together with theories of its identity, distinctions between creativity and seemingly related mental capacities, and tests for assessing it. But creativity also belongs to the history of institutions and organisations that were the clients for academic psychology — the military, business, the civil service and educational establishments. Creativity was mobilised too in the moral and political conflict between supposedly individualistic societies and their collectivist opponents, and it was enlisted to talk about, defend and pour value over US conceptions of the free-acting individual. This served to surround creativity with an aura, a luminous glow of ideology.

The Cold War ended, but the rise of creativity has continued. Many of its expert practices have been folded into the everyday life of organisations committed to producing useful novelty, most notably high-tech business, the management consultancies that seek to serve and advise innovatory business, and other institutions that admire high-tech business and aim to imitate its ways of working. That normalisation and integration have made for a loss of expert control. Many techniques other than defining and testing have been put in place that are intended to encourage making the new and useful, and the specific language of creativity has tended to subside into background buzz just as new-and-useful-making has become a secular religion. Should this continue, one can imagine a future of creativity without ‘creativity.’”