Thursday, March 20, 2008

Creativity Unleashed Through Technology

"When the tools of productivity become transparent, true creativity is unleashed."* I worked next to a guy who was so fond of this quotation that he had it scrawled on his whiteboard for several months. It has become increasingly clear to me that the advance of technology is providing more and more of these transparent tools, and, indeed, the creativity of more and more people is being unleashed.

Historically, there has always been a distinction between the artist and the rest of us. Average Joes may have enjoyed doodling, writing stories, or making up songs, but their audience was typically limited to friends and family or, at most, the local community. The main barriers between "creative professionals" and everyone else could be placed in one of two categories: expense and expertise.

The example of photography is a good illustration of the diminishing barriers to creation and distribution of artistic works. The amount of devotion and expertise required to create in the modern world has dramatically decreased. The Eastman Kodak Company revolutionized photography in 1888 by releasing a camera anyone could use. It cost $25 for the camera with 100 exposures and another $10 for developing and reloading. The company's slogan was "You press the button, we do the rest." You can't get much simpler than point and shoot, so changes in photography were evolutionary for almost a century. Then came the digital revolution. An employee at Eastman Kodak created the first successful digital camera in 1975. It weighed 8 pounds, captured black and white images at 0.01 megapixel, took 23 seconds to do so, and was never put into production. It took until 1990-91 before this technology reached consumers.

As you can clearly see from the graph, the price of digital photography drastically came down during the first decade of the technology. Now people can "press the button" and don't even need anyone else. The ease of utilizing digital photos is an equally important development. Most cameras make it trivial to hook up to a computer and download the images. Software like Apple's iPhoto, Google Pikasa, and Adobe Photoshop Elements make it easy for consumers to quickly make simple changes like cropping, removing redeye, or adjusting colors. Photos can be printed on inexpensive photo-quality ink jets, shared by email, or loaded on file sharing sites like Flickr. What used to be the expensive, reclusive process of film developing and printing can now be a simple, communal activity.

Obviously, there are myriad examples of this transition. People armed with camcorders and iMovie become celebrities on YouTube. Back in 2006, YouTube announced it was serving 100 million videos and receiving 65,000 uploads per day. Anyone with a mic and something to say can develop a following with a podcast. According to Steve Jobs last September there were over 125,000 podcast programs available on iTunes and over 25,000 video podcasts. In addition, blogging and web site creation are simple enough now that anyone can make professional-looking content for the world to read and review. Also from back in 2006, an article reported these astonishing statistics: There are over 50 million blogs. Two new blogs are created every second, and 18.6 new blog articles are posted every second.

Clearly the technology of creation is liberating many people, allowing their artistic expression to come out in the form of graphics, text, audio, and video. As technology continues to advance and simplify the creation and dissemination of such content, it certainly seems that true creativity is being unleashed for more and more people.

* I quoted the saying as best I can remember. I was unable to find a source, so it may have been something my coworker made up.

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