Thursday, 17 November 2011

Creativity, Value and Technology

Any e-learning project which aims to 'increase creativity' faces a central challenge: how can it be measured? For all the innovative computer software that might be developed, and all the initiatives to try and get (often reluctant) users to use it, at some point a judgement has to be made "is it any good?"; "are there any new 'creative' ideas emerging?"; "is there 'creative' behaviour that can be causally attributed to the interventions of the software?". These are incredibly difficult and possibly impossible questions.

Questions about the 'goodness' of interventions, or questions about causal attribution of project interventions tend only to be asked in the context of methodological practices in the social sciences which themselves demand deeper questions about the goodness of methodologies and causal attribution of their use: creativity, value and cause all contain aspects of infinite regress. Indeed the infinite regress of 'creativity' is closely related to the infinite regress of 'value': there appears to be a strong family resemblance between them.

We need practical ways around these problems. One solution is to focus on evaluation methodology and its associated ontology, rather than focusing on 'value' itself, or 'creativity'. This is an approach that emerges from  the philosophy of Critical Realism. Critical Realism presents a critique of causality - particularly in the form that has been handed down to social science from the philosophy of David Hume. Thinking about value, causality and creativity in this way means thinking about the possible deep mechanisms that might lie behind observed phenomena. Creative acts present observable phenomena in various ways: communicative acts, aesthetic products, behaviours and impacts. What I suspect is presented in a creative act is a particular 'form of life'. There may be ways of characterising such a form of life in terms of descriptions of relations of mechanisms. From a Critical Realist point of view, such mechanisms may have components which are transitive (i.e. continually changing through human agency) and intransitive (existing independently of human agency - for example, physical mechanisms).

In this way, a focus on methodology of evaluation allows for deep observation and analysis of behaviour. Technologies increasingly form the context and background for that behaviour. The bringing closer-to-hand of new technologies with widgets and apps means that the disruption to existing forms of life can be minimised. On the other hand, new tools provide opportunities for collecting rich data about creative behaviour - particularly those tools which embrace the emerging real-time web. Real-time data of creative behaviour in shared spaces provides the richest opportunities we have so far had for studying forms of life which might be deemed creative. It is an important 'personal' counterpart to the increasing significance of 'big data' within institutions.

To do this is not to attribute causal significance to any technological intervention. It is instead to use technological interventions to expose causal significances as a way of increasing our understanding of the subtle forms of agency which can have dramatic emancipatory effects on the soul.

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