March 15, 2012 signifies an important date for the development of ‘creativity:’ the discontinuation of the printed version of the Encyclopædia Britannica. Dale Hoiberg, Editor-in-Chief of the oldest English language encyclopedia in print, stated that the organization would now like to focus on their digital efforts. This decision carries with it many real and symbolic consequences but the two that I’d like to address focus specifically on creativity and production.
Creativity: The end of an era?
The encyclopedia is one of the better known relics of the Enlightenment era; the Encyclopædia Britannica itself was first published in 1768 during the Enlightenment. Throughout this period, society placed great prominence on knowledge creation and documentation, steeped within strict ‘scientific’ methods; thus, the Enlightenment, also referred to as the Gutenberg revolution, emerged as a key force in shaping our understanding of creativity. While the Medieval Era (500 – 1500 AD) defined creativity as a derivative property of God and the Church, and the Renaissance (1450 – 1700 AD) shifted creative power away from the sacred and into the secular, the Enlightenment promoted the idea of a technology-enhanced creativity.
Yet, with the end of the encyclopedia as we know it, may come the end of a certain type of creativity, too.
If we turn to Csikszentmihalyi’s widely referenced systems model of creativity, we see that there are three main constituents defining creativity during any given era: culture (the domain), society (the field), and personal background and connections (the individual). While the balance among these constituents is by no means static, any substantial change in equilibrium perhaps, signals a substantial change in the creative era, too.
Digital Encyclopedias: A Change of Production
The discontinuation of the printed version of the Encyclopædia Britannica is a symbolic move away from the Enlightenment period. This is not to say that technology is no longer at the forefront in our current era of creativity – on the contrary, it plays an increasingly more salient role – however, so does the lay person (or individual) with access to technology. While the societal gatekeepers of the Enlightenment’s creativity (institutions such as the printing press, universities, etc.) had a strong, one-way influence upon creative ideas and production, we are now seeing a proliferation of individual influences and product modification.
To exemplify this, refer for a second to the printed edition of the encyclopedia: the printing press was key for its development but the ‘hard copy’ medium afforded only a handful of people the power to decide what constituted knowledge and novelty and how it ought to be presented. In the case of a digital encyclopedia, something of the likes of Wikipedia for example, technology still plays a crucial rule. In fact, the better the technology becomes (depending on software, hardware, and socio-political advances) the more that people will have access to shape the resulting creative knowledge product. While this knowledge digitization does not necessarily constitute a democratic or egalitarian process (as it does carry its own caveats, not to be elaborated upon here) it does, nonetheless, signal a new type of creative production; one where more people can contribute toward a product.
If we assume that creativity is at the heart of new product development, then as the architecture of creativity changes, so does the architecture of the economy. As Allen Scott argues in “Capitalism, Cities, and the Production of Symbolic Forms,” with digital production, and specifically crowdsourcing, we are not necessarily moving away from capitalism but moving toward a different type of capitalism. This means that we are likely to experience a different type of production, too: a type of production where the consumer becomes a “prosumer” (portmanteau of ‘producer’ and ‘consumer’) and where products are always in a semi-finished state, open for more tweaking, remixing and appropriating. Perhaps, then, the future of creativity lies along the lines of more malleable, fluid, and hyper-collaborative production.