12 March 2018

Computers, the Internet and Creativity - Net Gain or Net Loss?

One topic for discussion in our gifted curriculum class last week was creativity. 

Our instructor began the discussion with a fact: since the 1980s, researchers have seen a decline in creativity.

::Alarm bells::

Hang on, what?

We've got kindergartners posting to their own YouTube channels, entire websites essentially dedicated to people trying to cultivate or share their creativity (Pinterest, anyone?), memes and "it" ideas of Internet culture last only a matter of days or weeks, and everyday, regular people, every day going out to work, trying to figure out how to stay ahead of the computer that ultimately wants to take their job, and people are LESS creative?

I'm less creative than the 1970s version of myself that came home from work, patted his kids on their sweet heads, ate whatever random Campbell's soup-based casserole was for dinner that night, and then watched a couple of hours of the generic, broadly appealing TV that the 3 broadcast networks were pumping to the rabbit ears on top of my television?

Come on... I realize that this research from Kyung Hee Kim of the College of William and Mary analyzing 30 years worth of results from the Torrance Tests of Creative Thinking supports it, but I don't buy that this is a closed question.

Perhaps we're asking the wrong questions now. The internet has changed the speed of innovation and shortened the shelf-life relevance of many ideas, so why wouldn't smartphones and the internet affect the way we think about and measure creativity? 

A quick digression in case you're unfamiliar with the Torrance Tests of Creative Thinking
The Torrance Test of Creative Thinking (TCTT) was developed in the mid-20th century by educational psychologist Paul Torrance, and is built upon previous work from Joy Paul Guilford defining creativity and fleshing out creative traits of divergent thinking: fluency, originality, flexibility, and elaboration.

Okay, back to my argument (with a little bit of stats talk)
To summarize the article linked above from Dr. Kim about the decline in creativity, she observed changes in the median score on the figural (non-verbal) portion of the TTCT over a 30 year period. For most of the creativity traits, the normed scores were level-ish (yep, of course that's a scientific term. LOL), but particularly in this century, most all of the parameters median scores feel by a statistically significant level from the 2000 norming of the test to the 2008. She acknowledges that the scores might even be inflated because of the long timeframe between national norming of the test. As an example, drawing a smartphone during one phase of the figural test constitutes an "original" idea according to the scoring, because that would not have been an "average" object in 2008. In other words, test takers are getting points for originality that they probably should not be.

I read that entire article, and poured over every chart, hoping to find a chink in the numbers that explained what I was anecdotally seeing in my world - that the internet was, in fact, enhancing humans' creativity in 2018.

An interesting parallel trend to the decline in creativity is that average IQs scores have increased over the same period. So...are we getting better at thinking like computers? (And all the while programming our computers to learn and to think more creatively)?

What's the score?
Here's my general take - overall, computers and the internet have been a positive change for creativity and creative thinking, but that they have had a negative effect on some aspects. I'll use the TTCT Figural Test categories for reference.

Fluency: GAIN
Its nearly impossible to NOT be aware of more ideas and news in a broad range of topics in this day and age, and the more connected you are to social media and internet culture, the more accustomed you are to a breakneak speed of creative output and publishing. Ideas get old quickly on the web.

Originality: LOSS
This one was most important to one of my classmates. He sees his coding kids attempt to steal code from other projects they find on the web nearly every day, so its his professional responsibility to stress the importance of shutting out the echo chamber, sitting with your own thoughts, and having your own ideas.

Elaboration: GAIN
I think elaboration can be the inverse idea of both fluency or originality. Whichever it is, we get lots of practice in our connected culture taking other creatives' ideas and adapting it or viewing it with a critical eye for how we would do better.

Resistance to Premature Closure: EVEN
I've got to admit that I still don't totally understand this one. It has something to do with being okay with an idea not totally being "finished". This sounds to me like apps releasing in Beta and nearly finished products getting funding on Kickstarter. On the other hand...a lot of days long arguments on Facebook stem from individuals seeking closure of an argument that by its very nature probably will not.

Titles (Abstractness of Titles): GAIN
We title things on the internet all the time. Our reviews on Amazon. This blog post. The meme we created for the latest politician's blunder. That perfect caption under your Instagram post.

BUT...the research clearly says that creativity is in decline. So, what's your point?
We've got to keep looking into this! For everyone brave enough to attempt what becomes the next Pinterest Fail, for the DIYer that is going to transform their guest bath, and for every small-business and start-up that risks epic failure to address a problem that currently is underserved, we cannot stop and assume that our creative muscles are atrophying with our thumbs swiping screens, but that rather, we're only getting stronger.

Just because we haven't proved it yet doesn't mean we aren't.