Search and effectiveness in creativity

Effective creativity is often accomplished by copying, by the creation of certain templates that work well, which are then changed according to need and context. Digital technology makes copying trivial, and search technology makes finding usable templates easy. So how do we judge creativity when combintations and associations can be done semi-automatically?

One of my favorite quotes is supposedly by Fyodor Dostoyevsky: "There are only two books written: Someone goes on a journey, or a stranger comes to town." Thinking about it, it is surprisingly easy to divide the books you have read into one or the other. The interesting part, however, lies not in the copying, but in the abstraction: The creation of new categories, archetypes, models and templates from recognizing new dimensions of similarity in previously seemingly unrelated instances of creative work.

Here is a demonstration, fresh from Youtube, demonstrating how Disney reuses character movements, especially in dance scenes:

Of course, anyone who has seen Fantasia recognizes that there are similarities between Disney movies, even schools (the "angular" once represented by 101 Dalmatians, Sleeping Beauty and Mulan, and the more rounded, cutesy ones represented by Bambi, The Jungle Book and Robin Hood. (Tom Wolfe referred to this difference (he was talking about car design, but what the heck, as Apollonian versus Dionysian, and apparently borrowed that distinction from Nietsche. But I digress.)

This video, I suspect, was created by someone recognizing movements, and putting the demonstration together manually. But in the future, search and other information access technologies will allow us to find such dimensions simply by automatically exploring similarities in the digital representations of creative works – computers finding patterns were we do not.

One example (albeit aided by human categorization) of this is the Pandora music service, where the user enters a song or an artist, and Pandora finds music that sounds similar to the song or artist entered. This can produce interesting effects: I found, for instance, that there is a lot of similarity (at least Pandora seems to think so, and I agree, though I didn’t see it myself) between U2 and Pink Floyd. And imagine my surprise when, on my U2 channel (where the seed song was Still haven’t found what I’m looking for) when a song by Julio Iglesias popped up. Normally I wouldn’t be caught dead listening to Julio Iglesias, but apparently this one song was sufficiently similar in its musical makeup to make it into the U2 channel. (I don’t remember the name of the song now, but remember that I liked it.)

In other words, digital technology enables us to discover categorization schemes and visualize them. Categorization is power, because it shapes how we think about and find information. In business terms, new ways to categorize information can mean new business models or at least disruptions of the old. Pandora has interesting implications for artist brand equity, for instance: If I wanted to find music that sounded like U2 before, my best shot would be to buy a U2 record. Now I can listen to my Youtube channel on Pandora and get music from many musicians, most of whom are totally unknown to me, found based on technical comparisons of specific attributes of their music (effectively, a form of factor analysis) rather than the source of the creativity.

imageI am not sure how this will work for artists in general. On one hand, there is the argument that in order to make it in the digital world, you must be more predictable, findable, and (like newspaper headlines) not too ironic. On the other hand, is that if you create something new – a nugget of creativity, rather than a stream – this single instance will achieve wider distribution than before, especially if it is complex and hard to categorize (or, at least, rich in elements that can be categorized but inconclusive in itself.)

 Susan Boyle, the instant surprise on the Britain’s Got Talent show, is now past 20 million views on Youtube and is just that – an instant, rich and interesting nugget of information (and considerable enjoyment) which more or less explodes across the world. She’ll do just fine in this world, thank you very much. Search technology or not…