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The future of creativity: is it dying?

All around the world, arts funding is under attack. The UK alone approved a 50% cut in funding for art and design courses in 2021.

To some, this is devastating news. But to many, and not just those in power, it seems pragmatic to cut funding in these subjects rather than STEM subjects.

It’s not surprising that governments and business tend to focus on more vocational subjects. Much of this is a reaction to the unstable economic landscape since the financial crash of 2008.

But when renowned economist Jeremy Rifkin argues that productivity has been in decline for the last 20 years, these decisions feel misguided and rooted in fantasy.

Ultimately, we’re bound by the physical limits of our planet. The vast majority of jobs are geared towards making a profit from material energy. Material energy represents all the tangible resources we consume from food to the chair you’re sitting on right now; they are finite. When resources are finite and depleted, can we still expect growth under our current systems?

Where does creativity fit into all this? Can it help us make progress on a planet with finite resources?

The history of creativity

Firstly, we have to understand the power of creativity. It defines a large portion of human experience and existence. It’s what allowed us to progress from just another animal on the planet to the dominant species we are today.

In ancient times, humans used creativity to forge stories and conjure myths that allowed us to cooperate on scales previously unseen amongst early humans. We’d dream of spiritual creatures, religious Gods, and cautionary tales to indoctrinate our malleable minds and to ensure we’re all pulling in the same direction. Storytelling is a skill that’s unique to humans.

So if art, fiction and creativity is one of the driving successes of humanity throughout history, why is it that we’re unable to see its value today?

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Examples of ancient tools are interesting too, but ancient art leaves us pondering much longer because art and creativity is intrinsically linked to human consciousness and thought. Something we still grapple with today.

Indeed, art is not something that everyone values these days. What drives us instead is money. It directly influences what we can and cannot do in our lives, and it’s one of the main considerations during any decision-making process. It was undoubtedly considered when the UK government decided to cut arts funding by 50%.

But money itself is born out of creativity. After all, money is entirely a human construct. Its lack of value is explicitly spelled out. Legal tender is defined as ‘fiat money’. ‘Fiat’ in latin means “let it be done”.

That is to say that cash has not inherent value or significance. But if we collectively just let it be acknowledged that it does have value, then we can use it to drive the economic systems we have in place today.

It would have taken a lot of creativity to dream up a monetary system to effect transactions, and even more creativity to convince all humans to believe in something that has no inherent value.

If creative thinking in more vocational subjects is innovative, its influence on culture is definitive.

This can be applied to a vast range of, apparently, non-creative subjects. Let’s take numbers. This system is often viewed with cold glares and reserved for storing facts. But again, numbers are an entirely fictitious concept dreamed up by humans. A concept that required creativity to develop.

The first recorded numbers in writing date back to the Sumerians (c. 4500 BC) who used a combination of base-6 and base-10 systems. The base-6 system might seem odd to us today but it’s still very much in use; we have 24 hours in a day and 360 degrees in a circle. It’s a system that’s viewed as more creative than base-10 due to the way it can be divided and multiplied.

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The earliest examples of recorded human script. On the left are Sumerian numbers, and on the right are words.

Creativity is definitive

Regardless of what discipline we’re talking about, creativity is an influencer. You might argue that creative thinking isn’t limited to creative subjects such as design, and that’s certainly true. Lateral thinking can come from anywhere.

But if creative thinking in more vocational subjects is innovative, its influence on culture is definitive. Art and culture dominates every aspect of our life. It comes in such great varieties that somebody could completely reject any form of music and still be fulfilled by creative output elsewhere.

It’s not like creativity doesn’t cover heavy topics either. In fact, they often cover the heaviest topics. Sure, some movies are watched for pure dopamine-driven pleasure, but many portray deeply emotional experiences. Experiences that are neither easy to understand nor easy to overcome. Experiences that have been written about since the great Ancient Greek writers of Plato and Homer. Where would we be if humanity hadn’t received the lessons taught in the Bible or the Quran?

From the earliest ages, fables and cautionary tales are used to teach toddlers. Such is the power of fiction and their importance to our species, we often immortalise it into stone. The Royal Courts of Justice in London feature several characters from Aesop’s Fables such as the fox and the stork.

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The fox and the stork have been immortalised in stone.

Even in the 21st century, creative fiction attempts to warn us of the troubles ahead. Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror employs the use of satire to help us understand how current technology trends might lead to potential pitfalls if we’re not careful. In fact, the creative storytelling is what allows this kind of message to cut through.

A world without arts and culture is a world that is unable to express itself. All the angst, the insecurities, the fears, just held in with no way to release it, no way to confront it, no way to process it.

Creative thinking is so omnipresent in human life that taking it away would essentially remove human consciousness altogether. I admit I’m bias, but the very thought of a world without creativity sends chills down the spine.

Perhaps it’s been too ever-present that we simply take it for granted now. We can only hope the recent trends in defunding the arts is temporary because in a world of automation and virtual reality, it’s going to be needed more than ever.

Creativity in the future

When humanity embarked on its first industrial revolution, it was designed to boost productivity for the same amount of human effort. Businesses boomed, but also, individuals suddenly had more time on their hands.

This led to a continual trend of labour-saving tools. AI and automation are the next big labour-saving tools that have yet to be fully realised.

Creativity must be valued if we’re to retain any semblance of humanity.

It’s no secret that AI and automation will permeate every aspect of business, and indeed our lives. There are concerns that AI will replace many creative processes. But I’d be surprised if this turns out to be effective.

That’s because AI is limited to the information you feed it. It’s undoubtedly a powerful tool. After all, Google’s DeepMind AlphaGo AI defeated the world’s best Go player in Ke Jie. And it even came up with innovative ideas that changed the landscape of the game such as the infamous move 37.

But it’s still limited to the confines of its programming. Henry Ford, for example, showed great creative thinking when he invented the assembly line which enabled the mass production of cars.

The famous quote from Ford reads: “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.” Would AI have had the turn of thought that led to Henry Ford’s success? The ability to think outside the box is unlikely unless the AI has been designed to do just that.

Automation can’t write a book, not yet anyway. At the moment, it’s limited to processes and other more mechanical activities in the workplace. What it can’t do is conjure new ideas or strategise.

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The OECD estimates that 14% of jobs are at a high risk of automation. This might sound alarming, but the hope is that automation will make space for more fulfilling jobs – jobs that require creative thinking.

This means creative thinking will be in higher demand because automation can’t design a fully-fledged ad campaign. But even outside more creative disciplines, problem-solving (a creative skill) has been identified as an important skill for the future according to the World Economic Forum.

Then we have the virtual boom looming in the background. I’m not convinced things like the Metaverse will really take off; many young people reject the digital world and social media already as it is.

But the digital world has undoubtedly exploded, and it wouldn’t be a surprise if the virtual world follows suit. If it does, then there’s going to be huge demand in world-building and storytelling efforts in this new arena; endeavours that lend themselves to more creative skills.

Is creativity the soul of humanity?

Even so, regardless of all these practical reasons, creativity must be valued if we’re to retain any semblance of humanity, especially if the world does become more virtual. Creativity sets us apart from other animals.

Biology is usually the science that’s in the driving seat. It dictates our physical limits while genetics drives desire and decision-making.

But ancient humans had to think on their feet to really thrive. They had to memorise countless flora so as not to get poisoned by an ill-picked mushroom.

While bears could haul a huge mass by sheer physical prowess alone, humans had to design a pulley to make up for our slightness. We sang songs to keep spirits high and weaved tales to warn others of potential dangers.

Even to this day, creative pursuits are an outlet for happiness or even philosophical ponderings. Away from the daily humdrum of fitting into society, creativity helps remind us what it means to be alive.

It helps us make sense of the complex human experience, and it will for every future generation until our collective consciousness can no longer hold the stories we tell.

Matt Yau

Matt started off as a live music photographer covering up-and-coming bands in Brighton, and since then has become enamoured by the power of pictures. With a penchant for storytelling, he's on a mission to uncover unique images from the Alamy library and tell the story behind them.

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