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Creativity, Technology and a Myth

I first came across Kris Krug when he ran Spark-Online one of the first, online e-zines. It was marvelous. In fact, I do not think I have seen anything that rivals what he put together in those halcyon days of the early Net. Also thanks Kris for the use of your wonderful photos.

He is someone I follow on FB and Twitter (@kk). His posts are most-often thought provoking. In a recent post he pointed to a story from the calgary Herald - Every pixel tells a story: Is photography relevant in digital age?. And up until this exact point of my writing this, I would have agreed with the article and punched a fist in the air and shouted a resounding  "Hear, hear!"

Except …

I started to ruminate about a much-used hypothesis that is in this story. Over the years – since the mid-late 70s I have heard this postulation before. Many, many times, and have actually believed it. But, I fear it is not true. The hypothesis is that technology will raise the bar of the art.

I first collided with this in my involvement in the music business. MIDI was invented, then synthesizers and then drum machines followed by samplers and now technology that has reduced the cost and puts equipment, that was once only in the hands of high-end studios, literally in everyones living rooms. I am looking at mine right now … here, right beside me. I have, for a rather, modest sum assembled a full studio that, 20 years ago, would have cost hundreds of thousands of dollars in sophisticated recording and processing gear. I can, and have, made albums right here. Are they better than what I would have done in a recording studio? No. In fact, do the world-class musicians I know who have a similar recording set up make better music now? No. Do the recording studios make better music now? No. Have the world class studios made better music than before this home-studio era? Arguably, no. (Think Beatles and a 4 track in 1965!)

Then there was deskktop publishing where I heard it next. They said – "Yes it is a threat to real designers, but it will elevate the art of typography and design. Hoorah!"

And this article echoes that same sentiment with regards to photography and the digital camera. Even the most hard-core photogs I know who scoffed at the new digital gear when it came out are all now using it.

 "If anything, I believe that photography is going to become stronger." 

Well, I do not think it has.

Lets look back at music. The professional musician has certainly gotten better tools. Personally, I play the finest gear I could ever imagine and it did not cost a King's ransom. But, have all of us musicians, especially the top echelon gotten better? No. The music scene has, in fact, gotten worse. And I say music scene in reference to the opportunity to go out and see and hear great live music … a lot. There are really no jazz clubs here in Toronto anymore – the largest city in Canada, and the places where you can go see world-class entertainment are few and far between, unless it is a huge concert format.There are few paying professional gigs for tradesmen-musicians other than for the very few or the legit gigs as we call them. The symphony, studio session folks and theatre orchestras. But these players are not light years ahead of the players 20 or 30 years ago. The gear did not elevate the art. It simply allowed folks like me access to gear I would never have dreamed of using on a daily basis. Personally, I am thankful for that.

This technology and what accompanied its rise has created an amateur, or at best, a semi-professional class. I see all the open-mic-jams as a testament to this. Everyone who thinks they are Eric Clapton, Janis Joplin or Neil Young is up there on stage belting out the tunes. And that is wonderful. But it did not create more or better music.

W2 Woodward's - Perel Gallery - Vancouver, BCNow lets look at desktop publishing and design. Sure we have come a long way since the birth of DTP when the first systems came out, primarily on the Mac platform. The original DTP examples were the most God-awful pieces for the most part. Shaded, shadowed, weird type, multiple fonts, bad spacing, poor use of colour and so on and so forth.  (Similar to most PowerPoint decks you see!) It has gotten way better over the years and all professionals now use the same gear more or less. But did it elevate the serious typographer or designer like they said it would? Who reading this has witnessed a client NOT happy with a professional designer and heard them say – "NO, I will not have that! Get me that elevated typography. Damn the cost!" No, I haven't either. And for argument's sake would these serious typographers still have a Compugraphic or Linotype machine sitting there? I would also bet that most people reading this have never even heard of, let alone seen, a stat camera*!

No, it did not do anything to raise the bar. I look at design and layout samples of the past and compare it to today. It has not elevated anything. It has for the most part, like music opened a floodgate at the bottom. Oh, and let me state categorically, for the record, I am guilty, if not more so, than anyone. In all of these cases. I bought a very advanced Mac system in 1988 to the tune of $10,000. I used it and it paid for itself in short order. 

 "The quality of work we see in the galleries will rise," says Grandjean. 

kim cathersThis quote is from the Calgary Herald article on photography. The quality of work will not rise. It will only make the high end harder to find or make it more difficult to define what is great. 

I am guilty as charged yet again. I have a very wonderful digital NIKON system and have for the past 10 years been contracted to do professional or at the very least semi-professional photography. 6 years doing product shots, BMW car launches, portraits, models and what I call "grip & grin" shots at events. Am I, or do I call myself a professional photographer? No. Do I consider myself a high-art photo artist? No.

 "A photographer creates art when they show not what is in front of them, but what they're feeling.

I am and have always been a creative person. I play, write, perform and record music. I have been a Creative Director for hundreds of clients and as I said have worked in a professional (For money.) capacity as a photographer. I also have spent the last 15 years getting paid to write for magazines, clients and the web. But has any of this technology that I use made me better? No. It has certainly given me access and opportunity. And, of course, there are tons of folks out there who are way better, in my opinion, at any of my crafts than I am. But even the best I know currently are not better than the best I knew … way back when.

What I am getting at is that the technology does not raise the bar. It provides access. I would never have been able to be contracted as a photographer 25 years ago. Sure, I had, at that time, a nice NIKON FM system and loved taking shots, but that is where it stopped. I could not afford to snap off 300 shots and get them processed at BGM my local photo lab to be able to sift through the pictures to find the one I really liked. But I can do that now with my digital camera. I will not even go into owning a darkroom and the black magic surrounding that!

I would never have been able to create several albums of music 30 years ago – the cost was prohibitive unless we rented off-time bundles in a studio and were very, very, very  fast! As for DTP without all the Macs I have had I would never have dreamed creating the literally hundreds and hundreds of ads and logos and DM pieces and marcom materials I have done for clients the way I did when i first got into the business. That being, with a team – a copywriter and graphic designer plus a production house. Hell, when I started I was with a magazine production was a black art! Now I can produce a magazine on my laptop, and have!

No, I am changing my mind. Technology will not raise the bar. It will only widen the mouth of the river. The river that flows with creativity.


*Stat Camera


  1. scott
    scott February 9, 2011

    I agree. The technology and the decrease in price makes it possible for everyone to express creative ideas. Ideas are what makes music (and photography) interesting – not technical ability. However the technology allows you develop ideas further and I think make the songs better. Twenty years ago in a recording session we wouldn’t have had time to treat a guitar perfectly or to improvise and record to get the take which has that something.
    So, I think the band I am involved with make better songs now – some of which wouldn’t have been possible without todays technology. So I say it ‘can’ do both. Thanks for the post!

  2. Nana
    Nana February 12, 2011

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