The Internet, Killer of Creativity

You Internet junkies and gear freaks, imagine how much creative time we waste sitting in front of our computers trying to find out how nearly perfect pixels can be rendered even better. Instead of talking about photography, why not just doing it? Right, new gear gives us better images… How can we make something already perfect even better?! Photography’s how old again? Chinese philosopher Mo Di and Greek mathematicians Aristotle and Euclid described a pinhole camera in the 5th and 4th centuries B.C.E. The first camera photography happens in the 1820s. Countless images have been taken since, yet image quality didn’t improve proportionally to the dramatic improvements in technology. All the while, industry marketing and Internet fora keep us glued to the screens. We’re longing for the photographic nirvana that’s always around the next corner. Why not keep the Internet addiction with its information overflow down to an absolute minimum. Otherwise we risk losing sight of what’s essential, the Net threatens to kill our creativity.

Take this blog. Sure I love maintaining it. I hope THEME inspires you and you enjoy the debates as much as the easy access to photography live rumors and news. At the end of the day though, despite all the many aspects I enjoy, THEME is a Sisyphus task. It pays for the beer and keeps me away from what I really love doing: photography.

This is one way of the digital boom taking its toll. The Net is the great modern-day seduction. Everything’s available, most of it for free. One has to be a fool to add creativity to the Web, because in most cases it’s a purely one-sided process. Expect nothing in return while the Web’s monopolies increasingly control creative content. This free availability of creative content — including photographs, music, movies, etc. — spells disaster for today’s artists across the creative industries.

For more on the issue read Jaron Lanier's You Are Not a Gadget manifesto.
For more on the issue read Jaron Lanier’s You Are Not a Gadget manifesto.
Here’s one problem with digital collectivism of the World Wide Mush — we shouldn’t want the whole world to take on the quality of having been designed by a committee. When you have everyone collaborate on everything, you generate a dull, average outcome in all things. You don’t get innovation.

In this context, the smartphone is to photography what streaming services are to the music industry. Whatever you want is available wherever you want it for free. Consumers rule while artists, the makers of creative content, try to pull as much of their creative work from the Internet as they can. Because it’s not them making money. Domination and monopoly is the name of the game in the Web marketplace.

We should not only be more suspicious about free and streaming content on the Internet, we should readjust our values because in the Web-based world we are told that monopoly is good for us and that genuine creativity is worth close to nothing. My guess is that in the end only a few Web-based businesses are left standing. There aren’t two Facebooks, Amazons or Googles. And each and everyone of us, driven by consumption and the hunt for the best deal, strengthens these monopolies by sacrificing one’s own creativity for the sake of cheap, easy access to a world where everything’s (deceivingly) free.

At first glance the Internet is a great equalizer and democratizator. To speak with Nietzsche, “Nothing is true, everything is permitted.” At second glance? Even if you’re wildly successful with millions of downloads and content that’s monetized, it’s still tough to get fair pay for something that takes a lot of time, resources and energy to develop. Only in some very rare cases the Internet will pay the bills of creative artists while all the creativity that’s offered for free feeds the vicious cycles that keeps on destroying the value of creativity that was lucrative and rewarding once, back in the days before cyberspace made everything available to everyone everywhere for free.

The major companies are happy with the current status quo, the consumer is happy and the CEOs of the Web services are happy. All good, except no one is left to speak for those who actually make the creative stuff. We can’t change the world, but we can change ourselves. If we insist on free and cheap content being the standard way we consume, well then we shouldn’t be surprised about the effect the Internet and technology will have by selling off all our creative assets — and in the end our culture.

The inevitable result will be that the Internet will suck the creative content out of the whole world until nothing is left. In this sense, the Internet is a massive killer of creativity forced upon us by whatever new technology comes along — while we just add to the cyber clutter.

I don’t have an answer. The simple answer would be that people dare to think truly independently and are willing to pay for creative content. We’re not in most cases. Why shout we. We can’t turn back time. But there’s always hope that people can tell the difference between unique and generic creativity — and that they’re willing to honor what’s uniquely creative and inspiring.

What’s at stake? Not so much the survival of creativity per se. But creative content will be dominated by the corporate world. Young and emerging artists find it increasingly difficult to be creative. The Internet kills talent. A gifted photographer might not be in the right spot at the right time and will have to find a job elsewhere to make enough money.

And without new artists coming up our future looks grim. We will live in a culture of blockbusters. Creative content will be borne from corporate decisions and technology. Nothing against the liberalizing power of the Internet and the Web being a platform for voices otherwise not heard. Wisely and modestly used, the great tool and resource called Net can be a most powerful engine unleashing creativity. The Internet creates its very own creative sphere — but in very few cases it leads to a creativity that can be turned into money to make a decent living.

If we’re giving in to the notion that everything has to be free, well then that’s a completely different world from the one that inspired great photographers and artists of the past. Slowly, over time, the Web dominated by monopolies risks turning us all into copycats while the true artists become outcasts of society. We’re not using our hands anymore to create. Everything we do is virtual, not touchable, not allowing us to physically explore the world. And inundated by information, we’re confused: what’s truly relevant?

We’ll increasingly be dominated by machinery that allegedly makes our lives so much better and convenient. In the end though, the smartphones, tablets and wearables threaten to kill what makes us unique. Technology feeds us what everyone else is fed. We can deal with the virtual, but have great pains dealing with the harsh reality of the real world. We become a robotic generation, no longer able to sense what can make each and everyone of us truly unique, creative and inspiring.

Otherwise we’re turned into a collective mob — which, as history has shown us again and again, is a vulnerability of human nature.

(inspired by David Byrne)

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  • I think we are fololwing parallel threads, although, I believe that it was cultural relativism that wrecked Photography, more than Internet technlogy itself. I even quoted one of your articles here:

    I absolutely agree on writing a blog taking time away from photography, but I also believe that we are exploring a new art form, or communication device, which is writing + images. It helps immensely in communicating with people of different cultures, since although language changes in translation, pictures stay the same.

    I will do some other posts on ‘pictographic languages’, but meanwhile blog writing has helped considerably in focussing my ideas about photography, so to avoid ordinary pitfalls
    Daily shooting is of course a good antidote :)

  • Andy Umbo

    I already don’t use social media, or text. All gains in technology are investigated by me and then I decide which ones I will adopt and how it will enhance my personal philosophies of working and living. I abhor the changes in photography and interaction that others foist onto me, in the name of ‘business’ or ‘productivity’. There are many things I deal with on a day to day basis, where technology has been instrumental in creating a new culture of sales, or marketing, but then the needs of servicing the technology takes far more time, money, and frustration to accomplish than what I was doing back in the old days. These needs have caused the ‘comtemplative’ time of the creative to crash and burn. Now everyone runs around higglety-pigglety servicing our new god, Mr Computer. And you have to, as Mr. Computer has made everything in our lives more costly, hence we need to work longer to afford it.

  • Right on Andy, your last line offers much food for thought. We’re turned into a uniform army of followers whose only individuality left is expressed by either Facebook, Twitter, Instagram…

  • Heavy stuff, Amalric! Wonderful read, your postmodernism analysis, will have to set some time aside to fully indulge in its depth.

    Well the benefits of the Internet, that’s something I explicitly mentioned in this post. It’s all about dosage and moderation. I love the sometimes heated exchanges of views and ideas this blog allows for. It can be inspiring to be refuted, as long as it’s fought with substance and style. The Net moves us close together, yet — as a big contradiction — increases the distance between us due to lack of direct visual and tactile contact. In fact, the Net changes personalities. Inside the sanctuary of one’s own four walls people can be turned into mean keyboard warriors, increasingly lost for words in the real world. In the end, we’re instrumentalized by the instruments we use…

  • Muizen

    By writing “Otherwise we’re turned into a collective mob” you run a risk of hundreds of protest e-mails telling you that you do not understand the world we live in, that you are totally “old fashioned”.
    Some time ago I just posted a question about what people are doing with the billions of photographs taken every day, some hundred thousands posted on the web and then forgotten while stored on hard disks like in the past, the thousands of color slides stored on attics to be thrown away when the creators of these slides died.
    There are people stating on social media that they just came back from holiday with “thousands of photos” that thereafter are forgotten for ever somewhere on their PCs.
    What the use of this is I just wonder?
    Are people really stupid?
    When I see on Facebook photos saying “here I am in the super market buying potatoes”, the next one: ” Now I am peeling the potatoes”, followed by “isn’t this nice? Here we are eating the potatoes”

  • Should I be worried? Not a single angry email so far. I’m not calling anyone “stupid” who is taking lots of photographs. I’m worried about the increasing “uniformity of creativity.” Everyone doing the same, like being remote-controlled by an increasingly powerful machine called the Web.

  • Dan, first of all: thanks for your work and running this site!

    The Internet, Killer of Creativity ?
    only my personal opinion:
    no, not at all!

    May be the “killer” of commercial creativity (or better: changer?), but not of creativity in general.

    I have never been able to see and enjoy so many fantastic photographs
    before Internet. Very often I got trapped from all these great
    photographs and I had to remind myself to stop looking and “work” on my own
    pictures :-)

    And I have never been able to share my pictures with so many people around the world.

    Decades ago I have been a member of a photo club in my home town, 10 or 12
    people. When we met, very much of the conversation was not about
    photography but a few times a year we had a “competition” and showed our
    photographs – to 12 people!

    Today I upload my new pictures to flickr and get responses from around
    the world within minutes or hours! And I share thousands of pictures and
    get millions of views. That is great for my “ego” and inspires me to
    take even more pictures. And today I have the chance to write about my
    photography in several blogs, which was not possible before Internet at

    ok. I stop here and take my camera and try to realize the pictures, that I “invented” tonight, when I could not sleep :-))

  • The exception proves the rule, as with everything. You Dierk know how to make best use of the Net without being distracted or diverted from what’s essential to you. You, dear Dierk, are one of the lucky ones!

  • thanks very much, Dan
    in this respect it is true and I know it and “enjoy” it every day.

  • Amalric,
    thanks! for that impressive blog,
    I will need an hour or more tomorrow to read (and understand) everything and even more for the links.

    The discussion about creativity => art reminds me of an episode, that people report from an exhibition in Kassel, Germany: one from the cleaning staff asked about something on the ground “is this art or may I throw it away?” :-)

  • Aggregate Society

    Exactly… groupthink, herd mentality, +1, Likes ; digital culture is NOT culture it’s big brother coercion vying to maintain the pubic discord and expression in a “climate controlled” state…

  • LOL usually the curator should know, not the cleaning lady, but what if she takes herself for the other?

    You can read this interesting exchange at the Fotomuseum:

  • Wolfgang Lonien

    When talking/reading about food, there’s this old saying: “Tell me what you eat…” – and pretty much the same can be said about the internet and art. I’ve seen wonderful work and articles from some of the people here like Dierk or Giles (amalric) which is really inspiring. On the other hand, some fellow colleagues whom I joined in a local photo club follow Facebook and the likes – and most of their own stuff is nothing but cliché.

    So I think it depends on what you read, and what you’re looking at. I’ve learnt a lot through the internet, but I also wasted lots of time. One of the things I still have to do is to reduce my own cliché images, and to get those off the web… ;-)

  • As for the Web of the origins, should I remember that it was originated by scientists at the Synchrotron of Geneva, for pooling brains and resources? It still works v. much so at the Winterthur Fotomuseum debating what new paths to take in photography.

    It is only when crazed individuals without any roots or culture take the higher hand that we see civil strife exploding in forums. Note that collective movements like Surrealism had a longer life and influence because they were collective.
    Also they excluded and included members, according to their founding principls.

    The Web too was originally a collective endeavor, before turning commercial, and setting each one at his other’s throat, for pure greed.

    That is why I advise to take a step back, perhaps in blogs, like what happened in abbeys, when the ancient empire broke finally down :)

    The manuscripts were preserved, and philosophical traditions were preserved. Eco reminded on the new theories of interpretation: not everything goes, beauty is NOT only in the eyes of the beholder. The ancients knew already about the coming ubris…

  • Wade Marks

    Interesting thoughts and great discussion. Just to add my own two cents…

    Technology may change, but human nature not so fast. The same arguments could be made in pre-internet times regarding other technologies.

    The radio, the TV, the car, the plane…they all in some ways brought people together, but also isolated them further as well, and took them away from more immediate, local, person to person interactions.

    The music industry that was created by radio and recording technology allowed for many more people to enjoy and discovery music. If you go back centuries there was a time when musicians were largely supported by the aristocracy and kings and queens.
    So now you had a situation where the more “common tastes” began to rule. No doubt there were many voices decrying the lack of taste in this newfound environment.

    And as far as companies not willing to take risks on new artists…well, that was true well before the internet…just ask anyone in the recording industry at the time.

    In short my response is that it’s not as bad as it may seem…it’s kind of like how every generation, when they get older, finds the same type of complaints about the younger generation, as if this is the first younger generation that’s really going to mess it up.

    The internet is at the end, just another tool for people to use, for good and for ill. And it is used for both, as are all tools.

  • Well said. Van Gogh hardly sold a painting in life. Nietzsche wrote his last books for about seven friends. Kafka didn’t print more than 500 copies of his books. Back then unknown and ignored, they’d be famous and rich today. So quantity is not a measurement for success. The problem with the Internet is: it gives us access to all of humanity’s wisdom. Be it the antique philosophers, astronomy or Einstein’s theory of relativity, everything’s so easy to get. At the same time the knowledge is in danger. Because of childishness. Content is mostly about short-time stimuli. The next second we forget what we wanted to know in the first place, distracted by Justin whoever or news bytes cluttering up our short attention span with shock, emotional explosions and amazement. The beauty of the Internet is not the free availability of every imaginable information. It’s the chance to not stand in one’s own way trying to search for these informations.