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Can technology enable and supercharge creativity?
Take a walk around the Scottish National Gallery in Edinburgh. It’s one of the best laid out galleries for taking a trip through the history of western art. You’re not just wondering through time, but through technology. Advances in pigment and paint, as well as instruments such as the camera obscura clearly support leaps in understanding and technique, says Andrew Brown, executive creative director, at Brass.
Consider the 20th century history of popular music. From electrification to the development of synths and drum machines, the opportunity to create transformative new sounds in both performance and production have been made possible by technology – even when a 4/4 beat remains constant.
But isn’t necessity the mother of invention? Does the development of new technology really aid creativity?
There are two sides to the way technology develops for artists. On one hand we’re given a new palette. A new set of tools that we haven’t had before. That’s exciting. It’s liberating.
On the other hand, new technology often creates its own set of constraints. Actually, forcing invention through necessity.
Logic and magic
I’m pegging 1996 as the year the internet emerges as a viable tool for finding and sharing information. At this time, we were developing some of the first brand websites for the likes of Tizer, Irn-Bru, and Hula Hoops.
Here is the opportunity to create something extraordinary. And the magic ingredient is interactivity. The flipside is 28kb of bandwidth if you’re lucky. That means using tiny MIDI files and GIFs for sound and vision and definitely no video. Oh, and your ability to lay a page out successfully using frames has more in common with hot-metal typesetting than it does with desktop publishing.
But we weaved worlds. We told stories. Before the century was out, we were running live multiplayer game competitions with some level of success. All pre-Google and a good half a decade before YouTube. Then, something amazing happened.
Enter Macromedia flash. Suddenly, the chains were off and a new dawn in spinning logos, gratuitous intro-sequences, and platform gaming was born. The lengths that people pushed Flash’s abilities over the subsequent years was astounding. And with growing audiences, brands were prepared to bank-roll these experiments in interactive entertainment. Doritos’ “Hotel 626” still stands up today as a genuinely scary and innovative storytelling experience.
As all this was happening, another revolution happened in gaming. The introduction of the 486 processor made real-time 3D graphics a possibility – and the gaming industry was redefined. Wolfenstein, Doom, and Quake dominated PC gaming, and while we were still trying to crunch bits to get them over the internet, if you had access to a network, multiplayer Quake gave a glimpse down a road that leads right up to Fortnite and Apex Legends. And Mario 64 literally added a whole new dimension to our favourite gaming heroes in console land.
The combination of new technology and bigger audiences (so, bigger budgets) opened up seemingly infinite possibilities.
So what happens to necessity?
On the internet, something remarkable occurred. Flash got fragged. Suddenly, what you could do with your website was knocked back to the dark ages and web design started to look a lot more like publishing again. In the age of video dominance, enormous bandwidth, and mass audiences, the internet stops feeling like the place where all the experimentation happens. Sure, Chrome experiments and the like are fun and all, but they’re not a million miles away from what was happening in VRML at the end of the 90s. Web design innovative trends are about things like serifs working nicely on retina screens – cool and all, but it ain’t changing the world now, is it?
The real technological innovations are on a layer about the web – AI providing opportunities for deepfake faceswapping and clever chat-bots, for example.
What about VR, I hear you cry? Virtual reality has offered us another dimension again, and I’m convinced that ultimately it will deliver truly innovative experiences, but the real creative innovations in gaming seem to be happening, not through the development of technology, but through its democratisation.
Indie gaming, delivering genuinely heart-felt storytelling from Dear Esther to Firewatch, Jazz Punk, and The Stanley Parable, is showing more inventiveness and creativity than ever.
Where the internet is really making a difference is as we move into the IoT world. That scale, combined with technology, allowed Black Mirror and Netflix to make a success of their choose-your-own-adventure experiment Bandersnatch. Not, of course, that there’s anything new in choosing-your-own-adventure, but even though it was set in the past, Bandersnatch felt new, compelling and creative in the way it told its story.
As VR, internet television, and mass audiences converge, we’ll see more people being inventive in the way we’re served our storytelling experiences.
Pokémon GO is made possible through a combination of portable screens, powerful processors, and location-based services.
Take a look at this year’s Cannes Lions. Standout winners are BK, for their 'Whopper Detour' campaign, and AKQA’s Air Max launch for Nike. Both use location-based services and rely on the powerful computer we carry around in our pockets. For me personally the BK campaign is a bit self-centred. There’s nothing in it for me as a user (okay, there’s a 99cent Whopper, but you know what I mean) there’s nothing culturally in it for me. The Nike campaign feels like it has genuine cultural significance. It gives back and tells a deep, relevant story.
As storytellers combine technologies, we create new combinations of possibilities. And democratisation helps this – the easier it is for us to combine these elements, the more we play and create. But the creativity comes through the storytelling, not through the technology.
This is evident in the fact that a new painting can still feel urgent, relevant and new, even if it’s not using the blackest black or the pinkest pink.
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