On Democratization Of Creativity

On Democratization Of Creativity

Krish Dholakiya

I'm hoping that by outlining existing democratization of creativity -- namely through DAWs, Vine, and Twitter -- mechanisms by which other creative domains can be democratized might become clearer.

For clarity, by "creativity" I mean any sort of behavior or trait related to humans literally creating something, whether it be culture, art, or perception.

Here are some shortcuts if you want to skip to something:

  1. Digital Audio Workstations & Music
  2. Vine & Comedy
  3. Twitter & Perspective
  4. What they all have in common -- and what we can do with it.

Digital Audio Workstations & Music

Here's a video of a random dude on YouTube recreating Playboi Carti's Magnolia in 2 minutes with just a DAW and MIDI keyboard -- Magnolia peaked at #8 on Billboard's Hot 100.

I'm starting with DAWs because they're one of the earliest examples of this phenomenon that I can think of. The best place to start is to consider what it took to create (package-able, distributable) music before the DAW.

The lowest hanging fruit is the gear that you'd need -- everything from cables, synthesizers, instruments, whatever. It's obvious that DAWs have made it infinitely cheaper, and thus more accessible, to produce and package music. All those cables, instruments, synths, or whatever; they're all default plugins on a single piece of software that's affordable enough for a middle-class kid to plausibly receive it as a Christmas present.

Fruity Loops (FL Studio now) -- which costs $99 -- is responsible for so much iconic music.

Steve Lacy was nominated for a Grammy as a high-schooler with music he made on his iPhone.

But that's all low-hanging fruit. More notable democratization exists on the interface-level.

Let's say we've somehow arranged for the cables, synthesizers, instruments, whatever. Conventionally you still need the obvious ingredient: the training to play an instrument, sing, compose, etc. Post-DAW, you could have no conventional training and still come up with something good, all thanks to a few revolutionary plugins.

Singing: Auto-Tune. It dominates pop culture, charts Billboard repeatedly, and has become a staple to entire sub-genres of music with millions of fans. I also believe that the Bob Dylan-esque phenomenon of eccentric vocal performances in modern music (think Young Thug, Lil Uzi, etc) has been bolstered by the confidence that Auto-Tune gives artists.

Instrumentation: With a DAW you basically have any and every possible instrument at your disposal. Know music theory? Congratulations, you can now play literally any instrument. Don't know music theory? You can still mess around with musical typing or a MIDI keyboard and keep what you think sounds good, and then arrange it into something real. Also know that you're in the same boat as a lot of really successful artists today. Want to make a solid percussive section but only have intuition to go off of? Drum programming plugins make it almost trial-and-error. You can even turn random sounds into instruments and go from there.

Composition: This is probably my favorite innovation. I think that the ability to add and layer various tracks of sound, easily drag & drop little riffs of music comprised of MIDI notes, etc, makes composition a lot more accessible as a mental model. It's hard to describe in writing though, so I recommend that you spend 5 minutes and try composing something in this beginner-friendly tool by Ableton.

With all that available, all that really matters is whether you can tell when something sounds good or not.

Vine & Comedy

In case you don't get why Vine was the greatest thing to happen to comedy, like, ever.

Humor is hard. Different audiences respond differently to different forms of it. The only comedians we hear about are ones who were willing to be bad at it for a long enough time to get good (and also to get noticed).

Humor is also everywhere. We've all laughed out loud to little contextual jokes that family members, friends, or strangers have made. None of those people are professional comedians. They just said some funny shit in the moment. It'd probably be funny to the world too, but nobody builds a comedy career off of a moment.

Vine let anyone contribute to our culture's comedic canon with those minuscule, 6-second moments. Some of those people turned out to be good at reproducing that success, and built careers and net worths off of it. Most of those people continued on with their normal lives, still having to their name a contribution to comedy memorable to millions of people. Everyone had something funny to share.

Not everyone has the ability to carry an hour-long comedy set. Funny shit doesn't need to be part of an hour-long set though, a funny moment is a funny moment. Vine let a lot of people capture those moments -- without fear of comparison to longer, professional content -- and let the world watch them on an endless loop until they'd run out of laughs to laugh.

The culture lost something significant when Vine died. The general format existed before Vine, and is still around in the form of certain Instagram accounts and Twitter video, but Vine made the format natural and distributed enough to where everyone felt like they could contribute.

So I'm glad it's making a comeback :)

Twitter & Perspective

Twitter has caught a lot of flack -- rightfully so -- in terms of some of the more toxic behavior it fails to moderate. The broader culture and format that it represents, though, are important.

The Internet has always been a great place to share perspectives with millions of people without that scale making it prohibitive. Blogging & vlogging are the easiest examples: anyone can start a Tumblr or upload a video to YouTube, and in theory, if their perspective is valuable enough to someone, it'll be read/seen.

The barrier with those mediums is people not believing that their perspective is valuable enough to broadcast with their name tied to it. They'll share it nevertheless, but usually within more "personal" spaces like Facebook or a group chat. To broadcast that perspective to the world, filled with strangers/trolls/critics/etc, would seem to require far more confidence than people have by default.

Twitter changed that to a large extent.

The original constraint of 140 characters (now 280) is easy to note but no less important.

People are pretty opinionated; Twitter handed us a venue to broadcast those opinions with an implicit assumption that they won't be critically examined. That's how they've gotten a world of people to share opinions -- non-toxic, toxic, and everything in between -- without empathy or a (rational) fear of consequence. We wouldn't blurt out IRL half the shit we tweet, even some of the non-toxic stuff.

The most naive positive here is that it's encouraged a lot more people to share their perspectives, of which I'd assume a lot are valuable if not necessarily correct. As a necessary aside, sexist/homophobic/transphobic/racist opinions hold no value and in fact detract value from public discourse. Back to the point though: it's churned out a lot more public perspectives than we'd have otherwise. Being able to share and debate is a valuable exercise in adding nuance to our personal perspectives. Historically, venues to share & debate have been restricted to those who have power or alternatively were confident enough to use existing venues (blogs/vlogs). Twitter opened that up to the mainstream.

Perspective is a really important human creation. The more angles we see something from, the clearer the image. If made safer from the bigotry that ends up silencing marginalized people's angles, I think Twitter could profoundly amplify our ability to perceive the world more clearly.

What do they have in common?

The point of examining these was to find insight into what'd democratize "creativity" based on what did it for them.

DAWs significantly lowered the startup cost of making music, and additionally reframed the mechanisms and mental models behind singing, instrumentation, and composition to be far more intuitive than reliant on traditional training.

Vine figured out the extent to which a typical, non-comedian person already creates humor, and created a mechanism by which they could capture that otherwise fleeting, underutilized creation.

Twitter removed one of the bigger obstacles to broadcasting your worldview -- they allowed users to create inherently trivial-seeming content, shielding them from serious critique and invalidation (social validation being supremely powerful as a behavioral force).

The general ideas (at most they're platitudes, but still worth listing) are:

  1. Make the creative process an order of magnitude or more cheaper to do; lower costs result in more potential participants resulting in more of the creation.
  2. Push the mental models of the creative process in the direction of intuition. Training is to shape one's intuition around a certain creative process; it seems like there'd be value in also shaping the creative process around intuition, assuming the holistic output of the process is at least of similar value. Less training requirements means more participants, resulting in more of the creation.
  3. Humans are value-creating machines, but not all of that value is captured. A lot of the value we create is written off as unsubstantial; at scale, fragments of unsubstantial value become substantial as a whole. Find things that we all value but don't maximally capture.
  4. Identify inhibitions that cause us to be less expressive (and create less), then systemically remove the causes of those inhibitions. Note that some of those inhibitions are ethical features, not bugs. In the context of Twitter, empathy was an inhibition to broadcasting certain views, and it should have been preserved.

Update (01/06/2018): There's an important observation that hadn't struck me until a little while after writing this.

In the non-tweet, short-form: The democracy of a platform is most visible when you start hearing a lot from people you're unaccustomed to hearing that much from. So basically, the more visible activity a platform cultivates from marginalized people, the more democratic (and thus powerful) it is.

I wrote this as a kind of exercise in understanding creativity, and a lot of the points I make were discovered as I wrote this.

At the moment, I suspect that this is a very incomplete argument and likely has flaws that I don't see yet. I'd love to hear feedback and chat more about it; tweet at me @krrishd.