Creativity Declining?

U.S. news magazine Newsweek reports on long-term, longitudinal research that suggests that in the USA creativity is declining. I find myself wondering if this trend is consistent with what anthropologists around the world experience in their classrooms and workplaces.

Possible explanations for the trend include intellectual shallowness attributed to TV, video games, the Internet, i.e., the usual culprits in discussions of information overload and its negative effects on cognition and empathy. The publish-or-perish audit cultures that now plague higher education in the UK as well as the USA my also share the blame. So might misguided back-to-basics movements in primary and secondary education.

Whatever the cause may be, if the trend is real it contrasts starkly with the advice of management gurus like Daniel Pink or labor economists like Robert Reich, who see creativity as the only sort of high-valued labor in a world where, given the combination of automation and Asia's huge and hungry populations, the downward pressures on the price of repetitive physical labor and routine personal service seem irresistible.

There is also the ingenuity gap described by Thomas Homer-Dixon, who argues that human ingenuity is falling behind the scale and complexity of global problems. While there may be those who question the equation of creativity and ingenuity, there is no question about the growing demand for what management theorists call out-of-the-box thinking that leads to real solutions, to which purely negative critique makes no contribution.

Even the U.S. military is worried about zero-defects rigidity in a world where everyday life seems more and more to approximate the fog of war. As U.S. Marine Corps General James Mattis, recently appointed to head CENTCOM, the Central Command that overseas U.S. operations in the Middle East has remarked,

“We need disciplined and unregimented thinking officers who think critically when the chips are down and the veneer of civilization is rubbed off — seeing the world for what it is, comfortable with uncertainty and life’s inherent contradictions and able to reconcile war’s grim realities with human aspirations.”

Putting aside direct involvement in war, "seeing the world for what it is, comfortable with uncertainty and life's inherent contradictions and able to reconcile grim realities with human aspirations" sounds to me like a good description of a useful sort of anthropology.

Others, I suspect, will be appalled.

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Comment by John McCreery on July 13, 2010 at 3:24pm
Is the shift toward social learning a result of the sheer wealth of usable information (no need to reinvent the wheel), the inaccessibility of operating system-level technology (except, of course, to a handful of geeks), or prepackaging of information (not just the movie, the DVD with backstory and production cuts, the merchandising, everything that makes it less and less necessary to imagine characters, plots, conspiracy theories, or critical assessments for oneself)?

What do you think?
Comment by Jacob Lee on July 13, 2010 at 12:35am
I don't know whether creativity is declining. Creativity and innovation takes time, lots of room to fail, and just reward. Also a little distress and necessity might be helpful (is it any coincidence that some of the most creative musical impulses in the United States have come from poor African-Americans, perhaps the most distressed US population, aside from Native Americans?)

Instead, I'd like to briefly comment on the individual-learning/social-learning nexus that closely parallels (or perhaps is identical with) the relationship between creativity/innovation and imitation. By individual learning I mean the kind of learning that results from individual exploration and manipulation of a target domain. By social learning, I mean learning about some target domain indirectly by observation of other individuals, either through imitation, or through other channels of information flow like language. Social learning is clearly an important engine that has driven hominid evolution and human social transformation. And the value of social learning is equally clear. A !Kung does not have to individually re-discover how to survive in the Kalahari, the C language does not have to be re-invented by each programmer.

There is however a cost to social learning, in that what you learn from others may be sub-optimal, factually incorrect, or unreliable. Without individual innovation and discovery, one's knowledge base will inevitably become stale as the world changes about us, and in any case, may be deleterious. But there is obviously an cost to individual learning as well. It takes time and resources that might be put else where. Likelihood of success is often low. A basic question one might ask is under what circumstances do either of these strategies have a better pay-off? These dynamics have been explored in the literature, of course. For example:

Rendell, L., R. Boyd, D. Cownden, M. Enquist, K. Eriksson, M. W. Feldman, L. Fogarty, S. Ghirlanda, T. Lillicrap, and K. N.Laland, Why copy others? Insights from the social learning strategies tournament, Science, 328, 208-213, 2010.

among others.

Rather than discuss the literature (and I'm too pressed for time), I thought that it might be interesting to speculate on how in the context of the modern world and in particular the new information technologies the balance might have shifted radically toward social learning. It would seem that widespread availability of super-high quality content to copy and imitate would drive the cost of imitation and copying down, while the abundance of super-high quality examples moves the bar for personal innovation too high. The low hanging fruit may seem to many already picked. Why try hard doing something new, if the next thing you see makes you feel like all your efforts were a waste of time? Or is the age of Youtube and age of radical creative participation (and mediocrity???)? Or should we abstain from such over-simplifying speculations?



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