Market Overview

Redux: Is Human Creativity Declining?


Are there limits to human creativity? I argue that there are indeed limits to human creativity -- at least for the time being. Even so, at least for now, there still remains a substantial amount of room left for further creativity in the world.

While Fox has announced that it is going to reboot the show "In Living Color" with Keenan Ivory Wayans and while Hollywood insists on either remaking or re-releasing older movies, one has to wonder if there are indeed boundaries to the realm human creativity, at least in terms of created works.

As the market demands good movies, often various film schemes and movie plots tend to repeat themselves. But how many romantic comedies can individuals produce before repeating themselves? How many various ways can aliens invade the planet before the idea of an alien invasion gets old and overly repetitive? How many times can Batman defeat the Joker before such tales border on the realm of either temporal absurdity or blatant repetition?

While the extent of human creativity may sound like an issue merely for the arts, the question of whether there are limits to human creativity goes to the heart and soul of economics in conjunction with various other issues including personal finance, law, and philosophy. The relation between economics & finance and creativity is a subtle one, but as resources on the planet are perceivably scarce and as seemingly good creative work is scarce in that it has substantial value on the marketplace, the question of human creativity is substantively economic in nature. One could compare good creative ideas to being pieces of gold scattered across the mindscapes of humanity; where one piece of creative "gold" has been claimed, it is claimed to the exclusion of others. Further, creative works and intellectual property rights can be transferred much like pieces of gold and silver.

Thus, the question of human creativity is substantively economic. Perhaps you have heard the saying regarding some practice or venture, "If X were worth doing, someone would have already started up an X business and done X." Even still, through human history there has always appeared to be room for more human creativity. However, as times goes on, that room appears to be getting smaller and smaller as the planet's population grows.

This phenomenon calls to mind the verse from Ecclesiastes: "What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun". But is there really nothing new under the sun?

One cannot help but notice the significant number of television shows and movies being redone and put forward to the American audience courtesy of the entertainment industry. Where remade movies and TV shows provide artists and writers new opportunities to reinvent tales from new angles and provide new takes on old stories with perhaps new characters, what has been done has nonetheless already been done; far from new creativity, the creative work is being modified and recreated from work already produced.

The issue of human creativity is by no means limited to movies and TV shows. One cannot help but notice striking similarities between Madonna and Lady Gaga. Where the world-famous band Coldplay has been likened to Radiohead, one can hear shades of Pink Floyd from MGMT's music. Over times as the number of musical genres has increased, there appear to be practical limits on what music can be produced. For example, the indie rock genre borrows signficantly from the music from the 50's, 60's, and 70's and also the alternative genre. It is not uncommon for dance, R&B, and rap songs to incorporate previously created material, e.g. "SOS" by Rihanna and "Hung Up" by Madonna. Even in the realm of electronica, as melodies are transferred from older songs, one reaches a point where music has to conform to a specific limited range of beat and melody for practical purposes.

Of course, genres can mix and mingle and there is substantial room left for further human creativity (perhaps to last for centuries), but there are most likely serious bounds to practical human creativity that have to be anticipated. We may very well want to mentally prepare for hitting a cultural wall in terms of originality.

As for music and human creativity, the issue of two musicians or composers simultaneously creating the same melody is not beyond possibility. Where George Harrison's "My Sweet Lord" was likened to The Chiffons' hit "He's So Fine" in a court of law, the Flaming Lips' 2003 song "Fight Test" was likened to Cat Stevens' 1970 song "Father and Son". Aside from the prospect of plagiarism, in this day and age it is reasonably foreseeable on a planet filled with seven billion people that two musicians could come up with similar melodies at the same moment. And where various beats and melodies could also give way to significant room for creative expansion, even the realm of mixed and modified tunes may very well find limits owing to a finite number of musical instruments, a finite range of musical notes, and a finite spectrum for individuals of appealing music.

I brought the issue of limitations on human creativity to the attention of a classmate years ago, and he laughed, "Surely, there are no limits to the bounds of human creativity and originality". I then discussed the example of comic book characters through the use of an experimental analogy, and my classmate stopped laughing. Where the prospect of limitations to human creativity may sound far-fetched, a key example can be found in comic book characters. Between various comic book companies, most of the prime names for possible superheroes have already been claimed. Were you to sit down and write a list of reasonable list of 50 or so viable, possible comic book superhero names, there is a good chance that the vast majority of them (even the obscure ones) have already been claimed by various comic book companies. The crux here is reasonability; of course we could list an infinite number of possible superhero names that have not been claimed (in license plate fashion) like "XTY-5765", "M@ster-X7Y5" or "TRW-5357", but even then, such superhero names are impractical.

As there are numerous media for human creativity, examples including comic book characters, detective novels, and/or romance novels reflect very serious limits on original material. Poetry, national anthems, alma mater songs, and high school fight songs are also applicable examples of these limits on human creativity.

Thus, given these instances of repetition in creative work, this topic brings to mind the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche's concept of "eternal return" or "eternal recurrence". With a finite number of options (within reason) and an infinite amount of time, various phenomena are bound to repeat over and over and over again for all eternity. Of course, one could argue that there is an infinite number of options and that nothing repeats itself, but owing to limitations on human perception, there are indeed limits. This is to say that there may be an infinite number of colors in reality, but practically speaking, there is only a limited number of colors before they appear to repeat themselves.

In this light, it may be strange to think that over the course of human history, there have been multiple individuals with your same name -- and perhaps even several individuals who looked exactly like you -- to the point of indistinguishability. Yes, those individuals may have not exactly been you, but owing to the finitude of reality, you shared physical, facial, or biological appearances to point of not being able to tell the difference.

Another useful analogy on this finite spectrum of human creativity is that of if there were a foreign planet somewhere peopled with billions of humans just like us. It is reasonably foreseeable that such humans would develop in a similar fashion to us...perhaps with different geographical landscapes, food, plants, and animals, but nonetheless in a similar fashion to our way of life. Those foreign humans would most likely be playing sports very similar to football, baseball, and basketball. It is reasonably foreseeable that these humans evolving on a foreign planet would develop equivalents to many of our current preoccupations. They may have an equivalent to Homer's Iliad or Shakespeare's Hamlet or even the Beatles' "Yesterday".

On an economic level, the issue of human creativity thus cuts to the heart of our conception of property rights. Without property rights, our contemporary capitalist economic system fails. If two or three or four individuals with no knowledge of the others simultaneously come up with the same idea for a movie or a song or a novel, can one truly be said to be the "true creator" of the creative work? In this way, in the grand scheme of things, there may not be such a thing as property rights in creative work at all. That being the case, intellectual property rights at this point in human history appear to be necessary for our culture, our society, and our way of life. Without these property rights, we would not be able to function and produce creative work in the same way as when we regard these property rights as having enforceable, legal substance. Intellectual property rights recognized in law are thus a form of therapy to deal with how our species currently functions in the world.

Where history may be said to always repeat itself or never repeat itself, recognized property rights in creative work help humanity to sustain growth in producing creative work. However, at the end of the day, intellectual property rights may only have more substance in law than in reality. Given humanity's current level of maturity, such rights in human creativity may be therapeutically advantageous in law & society (copyright limitations after a creator's death give some justice in this), but in reality, two or three individuals could hypothetically come up with the exact same idea for a book or a movie or a song at the same moment -- especially in a world filled with seven billion individuals.

In a universe with a finite number of options and an infinite span of time, things will appear to repeat themselves. As such, it could very well be the case that the more creative work that is produced today, the less creative work will be produced in the future. And at some point, human creativity will have reached a pragmatic limit in what can be originally produced. At that point, maybe we can truly say, "There is nothing new under the sun."

Don't get me wrong, there is still a lot of room left for human originality and creativity in created works in the universe. Nevertheless, given a perceived declining lack of originality and creativity in contemporary music, TV shows, and movies, this may be a symptom that we are approaching a pragmatic limit to human creativity and originality in creative works, a cultural wall of sorts.

Such practical limitations on creative works are by no means for certain. Obviously, were there a natural or military disaster that destroyed a significant amount of the world's created material & creative works, that would appear to open up room for perceived "original" material. As reality is constantly changing, humanity continues to evolve. Perhaps owing to new biology, new technology, and new insights in the future, human creativity and originality can persist indefinitely. Even so, new technology and computing may very well evolve to reach limits owing to heat, energy storage, and energy usage. Either way, given the finite nature of reality and persistent span of time, we as a species may have to come to terms one day with the unfortunate fact that there are indeed limits to human creativity.

Posted-In: HollywoodPsychology Topics Economics Tech General Best of Benzinga


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