Creativity, computers & the human soul

by | Monday, March 15, 2010

In his article Is Google making us stupid? the author Nicholas Carr takes Sergi Brin to task for something he had said in a 2004  interview with Newsweek. Brin is quoted as saying “Certainly if you had all the world’s information directly attached to your brain, or an artificial brain that was smarter than your brain, you’d be better off.”

What is the relationship of information technology and cognition? What about human creativity? What role does technology play, if any, in getting us to be less or more creative?

One aspect of creativity that is often discussed with reference to technology is that we live in a culture of remixing. This was brought home to me recently while reading an article in the NYTimes titled Author, 17, Says It’s ‘Mixing,’ Not Plagiarism, where Helene Hegemann’s award willing bestseller (Axolotl Roadkill) was shown to be plagiarized from other books and blogs. What was interesting was what the author had to say about this. After apologizing for not being more forthcoming about the sources of her ideas, Hegemann defended herself as being

… the representative of a different generation, one that freely mixes and matches from the whirring flood of information across new and old media, to create something new. “There’s no such thing as originality anyway, just authenticity,” said Ms. Hegemann in a statement released by her publisher after the scandal broke.

Incidentally, I took this quote from Hagemann and made if my Facebook update. It was interesting to see just how many people agreed with it (either by pushing the “Like” button, or by actually commenting on my status), and that bothered me somewhat – because I wasn’t sure I totally agreed with it. As an academic I make a living through my ideas – and their value comes from other people quoting and citing me. No citations, no tenure, if you know what I mean! I have also taken a very public stand against plagiarism on this very blog by catching and publicly humiliating a plagiarist. (An overview of that entire saga can be found here).

On the other hand I have also indulged in the pleasures of remixing. See this spoof of Harry Potter (Hari Puttar & the Magic Wand on Vimeo) that I had created with my kids a couple of years ago. I have also written positively about initiatives that allow students to “cheat” (by using the Web) during exams. I would be the last person to claim that there is something like true creativity – as in an idea that never existed before. I have read enough of the creativity research (psychological and historical) to know that ideas always emerge from older ideas, that have been remixed together. In that sense our brain is the ultimate “remixer.”

That said, we have to agree that actual physical remixing (as opposed to the “in brain remixing”) has become vastly easier with the advent of digital technologies. In that sense, Hagemann is right, we live in a remix culture – a culture where mixing and matching from diverse sources leads to creative products. And creating such remixes is becoming easier by the day.

And living in the remix culture has consequences of how we think about authorship, and creativity.

But I think there is more to it than just the ability to “cut and paste” from existing media (be it print or music or video). The kinds of tools we have today can take us one step further – towards computers becoming partners in the creative activity itself. For instance read this post Exploring visual space with mathematics where I argue that “a designer with a good visual sense AND a knowledge of programming and mathematics is going to be much more efficient and generative (in terms of total ideas) than one with just the former.”

All of these issues came to a head (in my mind at least) when I read this absolutely fascinating article Triumph of the Cyborg Composer which profiles composer David Cope and his experiments with writing computer programs that create original music. This article is a must-read for anybody interested in issues of creativity and technology, so go ahead, click on the link above, and come back here when you are done. More relevant to the argument being made here is what David Cope says about what his experiments with digital creativity had led him to believe about all creativity. As the article says,

In his view, all music — and, really, any creative pursuit — is largely based on previously created works. Call it standing on the shoulders of giants; call it plagiarism. Everything we create is just a product of recombination…

“Nobody’s original,” Cope says. “We are what we eat, and in music, we are what we hear. What we do is look through history and listen to music. Everybody copies from everybody. The skill is in how large a fragment you choose to copy and how elegantly you can put them together.”

So who makes the music? This is what Cope says in answer to that question:

He just thinks of her as a tool. Everything Emmy created, she created because of software he devised. If Cope had infinite time, he could have written 5,000 Bach-style chorales. The program just did it much faster.

“All the computer is is just an extension of me,” Cope says. “They’re nothing but wonderfully organized shovels. I wouldn’t give credit to the shovel for digging the hole. Would you?”

As it turns out, Cope in a while got tired of his first program, successful though it was in composing pieces in the style of several composers (including himself). He felt that these compositions were not “special” enough. So he deleted the software and the databases he had generated… and began experimenting with a different kind of virtual composer. This time he wanted to build something “with its own personality.” This program

… would write music in an odd sort of way. Instead of spitting out a full score, it converses with Cope through the keyboard and mouse. He asks it a musical question, feeding in some compositions or a musical phrase. The program responds with its own musical statement. He says “yes” or “no,” and he’ll send it more information and then look at the output. The program builds what’s called an association network — certain musical statements and relationships between notes are weighted as “good,” others as “bad.” Eventually, the exchange produces a score, either in sections or as one long piece…

He compares the process to a sculptor who chops raw shapes out of a block of marble before he teases out the details. Using quick-and-dirty programs as an extension of his brain has made him extraordinarily prolific. It’s a process close to what he was hoping for back when he first started working on software to save him from composer’s block.

These partnerships, to me herald a new form of human-computer partnership. It will be interesting to see how this evolves in the future.

I would like to end with an example (far simpler than David Cope’s programs) that I have been involved with. A few years ago my partner in crime, Matt Koehler and I wrote a computer program, called Inverso, to create Haikus. Essentially, Inverso was a simple (almost trivial) computer program that created haiku-like poems by randomly combining pre-existing lines of poetry and presenting them dynamically in different fonts and layouts (again randomly selected from a range of possible fonts and layouts). Being academics we also wrote a journal article about it in which we situated Inverso in a historical frame that looked at the role of randomness in creative works and questioned how it problematized issues of authorship and creativity. You can read the article here:

Koehler, M. J., Mishra, P. (2002). Art from randomness. How Inverso uses chance, to create haikuInteractive Multimedia Electronic Journal of Computer-Enhanced Learning. Note: You will need the ADOBE Shockwave plugin to view Inverso, which you can get as a free download from here.

Students in my Learning Technology by Design seminar read this article and are asked to discuss the following question (paraphrased slightly for this posting):

Inverso writes poetry by reordering words and as Douglas Crimp says in his book On the Museum’s Ruins (1993, p. 71), “the artist invents nothing. He or she only uses, manipulates, displaces, reformulates, repositions what history has provided.” Are we creating something new when we design existing knowledge in a new way, or just using standard design conventions to organize and present? Who would you credit with authorship of a poem created through Inverso? And finally, how does this affect the way you might view yourself as the author of your project web sites (or your lesson plans)? What does this mean for your role as a designer of learning?

Often when we speak of art we describe it as “the whole being greater than the sum of its parts.” What we mean by this is that the the piece of music is more than merely placing individual notes and pauses one after the other.  There is a certain integrity and completeness to a creative work that goes beyond the mechanical – that we often consider as being mystical or beyond reason. However, it appears that our view of the mechanical as being dull or uncreative may not be the entirely correct. Maybe the what we need to be asking (taking an idea from Douglas Hofstadter’s book Godel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid) is whether “the soul is greater than the hum of its parts?”

I think as we continue to work with (and co-evolve) with our machines, these questions regarding originality and authenticity will continue to trouble us. They will also provide insights into the very nature of creativity – even while, maybe, revealing its mechanical nature. I will let Cope have the last word:

“The question,” Cope says, “isn’t whether computers have a soul, but whether humans have a soul.”


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