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The means of creativity

October 14, 2007

I was flipping through the new issue of The Atlantic today when I came across this announcement from Ray Kurzweil: "The means of creativity have now been democratized. For example, anyone with an inexpensive high-definition video camera and a personal computer can create a high-quality, full-length motion picture." Yep. Just as the invention of the pencil made it possible for anyone to write a high-quality novel. And just as that power saw down in my cellar makes it possible for me to build a high-quality chest of drawers.


This particular web 2.0 thread puzzles me too. The barriers to creativity are rarely technological anyway. Sonny Terry had access to nothing except a harmonica - not even sight - yet managed to create great music.

Posted by: tom s. [TypeKey Profile Page] at October 14, 2007 05:37 PM

Did the invention of the typewriter allows any primate to write a Shakespeare sonnet or the entire works of the Bard? One of Wikipedia's few "featured articles" in math is its Infinite monkey theorem. Dreadful choice of subject! Obviously edited by English majors who would rather be entertained than educated.

The vital word is "quality". Kurzweil is referring, of course, to the resolution of the pixel, not to the content it represents. I am reminded of the 2004 stunt pulled by Yale students to get the Harvard fans at the football game to spell out WE SUCK. Quality pixels, but...ahem. This kind of remark reminds me of a puzzle posed to me by a friend. The puzzle is

A       E F H I K L M N         T V W X Y Z
  B C D    G   J       O P Q R S U
What is the pattern?

A hint: my friend's wife was a visual artist.

The answer is that the first line only uses straight lines to form the shape of the letter itself.

Of course, Kurzweil did use high-tech to make some great-sounding electric pianos in the early 1980's. But Nick my piano playing is about as good as your guitar tuning. 'Nuff said.

Posted by: SallyF [TypeKey Profile Page] at October 14, 2007 06:06 PM

Note: the means. not the ability, not the source, not the need. I think its hard to argue with this. In fact, without the democratization of means, I wouldn't be reading this - certainly wouldn't be able to contribute to the discussion.

Consider this:
Nicholas Carr's latest book: published 2004, available on Amazon for $17.79
Nicholas Carr's latest blog post: published earlier tonight, available for free.

Posted by: yish [TypeKey Profile Page] at October 14, 2007 07:10 PM

Yish: Your idea of democratization is high convenience and zero explicit price, but the results are the low-quality, short-term Bazaar, not the high-quality Cathedral. I do not see much difference between this and the BBS'es and Usenet of 20 years ago except scale and visibility. There are many other "democratic" free forums, but now they are a commodity. On this blog, Nick is more of a pundit, but it takes more depth and skill to write a successful book. I expect that Nick blogs out of personal interest and to add name recognition to his already-established gravitas, but that does not really help him in advancement in his full-time job. The book is a more explicit way to pay a little of the mortgage and helps to justify tenure. The blog might help lead to a speaker's fee or two, but not much more. I doubt that he gives much weight to blogging feedback when choosing the subject of his next book because he has conferences and colleagues to provide quality "big picture" feedback useful in making a long-term decision like the next big subject. Let me assume, Yish, that you work in IT: if you could buy advice that you knew with some high degree of certainty would help you to predict where IT is going in the next 5-10 years, what would that be worth to you?

Posted by: SallyF [TypeKey Profile Page] at October 14, 2007 09:00 PM

Nick...I was told if I read your blog for 2 years I would get a patent around the sematic web...are you telling me I have been delusional for a while now?

Posted by: vinnie mirchandani [TypeKey Profile Page] at October 14, 2007 10:16 PM

Ray Kurzweil is spot on. The means to record, mix and and edit are now incredibly inexpensive. A talented person with the creative force and desire to make something unique and special - and the time to hone their craft by exploring the tools at their disposal - can produce significant work. Nick, you could build that chest of drawers if you spent 1000 hours or so building the skills to do it (unless you are a complete no-talent at machining.) People with strong artistic dreams will act on them if they have the means of pursuing them. Some small percentage of them will shock and thrill us with their accomplishments. The tools to produce media pieces have become inexpensive and are widely available and that really does make a big difference.

Posted by: MarcFarley [TypeKey Profile Page] at October 15, 2007 11:51 AM

The means of web publishing may have been democratized for users on the right side of the 'digital divide'. However, as has been said before, the ownership of the means of getting online (ISPs) and publishing is most definitely not democratized - and what we're really seeing is the increasing concentration of web content freely provided by users, web tools and revenues amongst a few players we're trusting not to "be evil". Anyone else concerned about web democracy and what to do about it?

Posted by: xoananon [TypeKey Profile Page] at October 15, 2007 11:59 AM

You still have to be good to create a good motion picture.
But once you have created it, your chance to get this picture out to the masses is much better than it was before. And therefore this new model is more democratic than the old model was.

See also my small cartoon.


Posted by: Oliver Widder [TypeKey Profile Page] at October 15, 2007 05:21 PM

Yes this does sound like the usual techno-utopian twaddle and thousand monkeys aside, the esteemed Mr. Kurtzweil has a point (which I hope I'm getting right as I'm not an Atlantic subscriber and just cant bear paying 2,000 Yen for a news stand copy only for writing this comment).

The barriers to entry are indeed much lower for those who wish to learn or practice crafts which not so long ago were quite high indeed. Two good examples are audio and video production. In the mid 80s I apprenticed in a recording studio to learn the craft of recording and mixing music and audio for video & film. I was fortunate enough to live in a city which had such a facility and also fortunate to have been selected for the apprenticeship. This allowed me to learn why certain tools of the trade were used instead of others under what conditions and how to use said tools. Bear in mind that an accumulation of these tools sufficient to produce professional results required about a million dollars of investment to result in a moderately sized facility.

Around this same time I worked on a few low budget film shoots doing audio recording & post production. Low budget in the sense that rental of the single 16mm camera and purchase of film stock ran just under $100,000.

Both of the above are in 1980s dollars.

The average apprenticeship of a recording engineer is three years. As I understood from the camera operators, they spent about similar times before they were generally acknowledged to be able to operate a camera on their own.

Sure a few hundred dollars would have bought a used four track recorder, used microphones and a used 8mm camera at that time, and that setup would certainly be "enough" to begin to learn the fundamentals of those crafts. The point isnt that it takes lots of money and training to make "good" works, its that only relatively recently have the tools to dabble at something like a quality level reached a level of affordability and relative ease of use.

If I can understand "democratized" to mean bringing the learning process within the reach of Joe & Jane Sixpack, then I wholeheartedly agree with Mr. Kurtzweil.

That said, the pencil to novel analogy doesnt work. The cost barrier to being a writer has been quite low for several lifetimes now, film production, not so much.

Posted by: Chris_B [TypeKey Profile Page] at October 15, 2007 11:06 PM

The cost barrier to being a writer has been quite low for several lifetimes now

Precisely so - and one of the reasons Kurzweil's declaration "The means of creativity have now been democratized" is so preposterous (beyond the statement's confusion of the means of creativity with the means of production). Some of the means of producing certain types of creative works are indeed cheaper than they were before, but you can go back and say the same thing at any random date in human history. Kurzweil is indulging in one of the fallacies of the net's liberation mythologists: that it used to be hard to be creative, and now it's easy. If that were true, we'd be living in a renaissance of great artistic achievement. As soon as someone points me to evidence of that, I'll be happy to believe it.

And, on a different note, add up what it would cost to buy a high end PC (for heavy-duty video storage and editing) and an "inexpensive" high-definition camcorder, and you'll discover that we're still a ways away from the "democratization" of the tools of digital motion-picture making. Indeed, a kid with an interest in and a talent for filmmaking could have picked up a cheap Super 8 camera years ago and made a fine film (as many did). In fact, learning to cut film may have helped deepen a young filmmaker's talent in a way that computerized digital editing doesn't. Technology has a long history of eroding craftsmanship even as it cheapens production.

Posted by: Nick Carr [TypeKey Profile Page] at October 15, 2007 11:21 PM

but you can go back and say the same thing at any random date in human history

Not sure I agree with that as stated, again, beyond writing instrument to medium, I dont think it applies. Even then for much of the history of the written word, it was a craft restricted to priestly/governmental classes. The ability to learn to play an instrument is similar in that for hundreds if not thousands of years, anyone could do it and with enough practice (and probably sponsorship by the church or government) they could do it well.

Kurtzweil's comment is however still relevant to the modern media of film/video & recorded music. In both of these cases, the tools of the trade have been 1) scarce and 2) expensive. As with any craft, access to the tools of the trade is essential to honing ones skills. The means of creativity and the means of production are inter-related.

Another way to look at is these media require technology to exist in the first place. As the required technologies become cheaper, they make their way down the socio-economic ladder. Motion picture technology took 80 odd years before the proverbial kid in the backyard with a Super 8 could come to pass, but less than 30 years after that for the kid in the backyard to have easy access to a mini DV camcorder. The progression of "modern" recording technology has been even faster (1930s invention of paper magnetic tape, 1948 Les Paul invents multitrack recording, 1979 Tascam Portastudio debuts). Again, without access to the technology, learning the craft is pretty well impossible. Without the practice of the fundamentals, even the best tools are useless.

Kurtzweil has many unorthodox ideas, but about this he is spot on.
(previous disclaimer about taking something out of context still applies in case I've got it all wrong)

Posted by: Chris_B [TypeKey Profile Page] at October 16, 2007 05:03 AM

So what about the monologues of somebody like Loren Feldman? I know Loren and I know the inexpensive stuff he uses to make his monologues and I think its probably fair to say that he would not be creating this body of work if the equipment and the publishing medium weren't so affordable. The creativity in his work is not derived from the equipment he possesses, but rather from his analytical approach, language and emotional candor. His video equipment merely captures it and the video infrastructure of the Internet makes it available to his audience. If text were the only tool available to Loren, would he have a text-only blog? Maybe, but probably not. If it cost an arm and a leg for Loren to make and publish his videos, would he still do it? Probably not. The cheap access to video recording and production tools definitely facilitates his expression and creativity.

Posted by: MarcFarley [TypeKey Profile Page] at October 16, 2007 05:26 AM

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