Content-type: text/html ~ Stephen's Web ~ Creativity

Stephen Downes

Knowledge, Learning, Community

Aug 07, 2007

Originally posted on Half an Hour, August 7, 2007.

This is my contribution to the creativity panel at the AECT Conference coming up this October in Anaheim:

To be creative is to create, which is in turn to bring into existence something that did not previously exist. This conjures the idea of 'something from nothing' or some other miraculous practice, the creative being the act of the specially gifted, or at the very least, a creative class. Such a description is misleading. We do not get something from nothing, which means that every act of creation is in some way an act of remixing, repurposing, or reviewing. We begin as we can only begin, with our experiences, and beyond that, one's capacity to create depends on the availability of tools and the ability to use them. Creativity does not require special people, just specialized abilities and tools and an environment in which their application is fostered and encouraged.

The writer, for example, does not stare at a blank page and bring forth from nothing a new novel or self-help book. The writer searches through his or her experiences to find a story, or the elements of a story, that can convey a message that is relevant today. The having of experiences – the seeking out of experiences – is essential to this process. Consider how Bruce Sterling explored the Turkish Republic of North Cyprus before turning it into the setting for his Millennium novel Zeitgeist. Or Arthur C. Clarke drawing on his knowledge of Sri Lanka to write The Fountains of Paradise. It seems to me that one of the bases for Richard Florida's argument that diverse communities are creative communities is that diverse communities provide a much wider base of experience for the aspiring artist or artisan. The topic of reflective and self-aware perception is greater than can be described here, but it is this that is probably the first and most important aspect of creativity.

The second aspect is the tools. True, it is not strictly necessary to have a tool in order to create – one can be a mime, for example – but it is typically the tool that defines the nature of that which is created. The tools of the carpenter will produce one sort of thing, those of the artist something quite different, and those of the computer programmer something else still. The tools create a space of possibilities, an expectation of what can be. Just so, we do not expect to create a set of bookshelves out of Fortran, or an oil painting out of bricks and mortar. Understanding the tools, therefore, is essentially a combination of understanding what one wants and of understanding what one is capable of producing. Tools are the mediation between need and necessity.

It is important to understand that tools are not merely physical objects. This becomes most clear when we think of the third component of creativity, one's ability to use the tools. The writer uses the pen or the keyboard, but the writer's tools include all the possibilities inherent in language. A good writer will have a good grasp of grammar, for example, because grammar makes it possible for a writer to create something from his or her experiences. In a similar manner, the computer programmer will have hard disks and internet connections, but also the principles of logic and computation. And a carpenter has not only the saw and the drill but also the principles of structural engineering and geometry. A tool is compose of the physical object and the knowledge or skill that informs the use of that object.

Thus construed, creativity may be thought of as the manipulation of one's experiences using the tools at one's disposal. The tools – whether computational, linguistic or logical – create a language, in which our experiences are the words, through which one expresses oneself, as a part of an ongoing conversation with those others who, in one way or another, express their perceptions of the world.

Stephen Downes Stephen Downes, Casselman, Canada

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