The Utopian Creativity Machine™

Published 2005-08-03

I remember an episode of Star Trek where the crew were visiting the Bi-Weekly Ironic Techno-Utopian Planet™. In an offhand way, one of the Techno-Utopians demonstrated a Utopian Creativity Machine™ that could transform thought into sculpture, or something like that. In the mind of the writers, this demonstrated the obvious superiority of the Techno-Utopians, both technological (“the machine reads your mind and makes sculpture!”) and social (“we don’t squander our technological prowess on trivia like war.”). The subtext was that such superiority was beyond the ken of Earthlings four centuries hence—let alone Earthlings of the present era. Of course, this show was produced a few years ago (late 1980s?) so times have changed a little, but we already have Utopian Creative Machines™. We call them “computers”. Volumes have been written on the creative potential of computers (and, by extension, the Internet), so I won’t go there. Here’s where I’ll go instead: computers allow unhandy people to make things.

I owe the entireity of my creative vocation (and avocation) to computers. I don’t mean this only in the sense that my primary medium is the Internet...I mean that I created much fo anything before I began using computers to help me create. (I’m using the term “creativity” in the broadest sense here. That is, the act of creating anything: term papers, artwork, websites, fun software widgets...etc.) I’m the kind of person with black thumbs, both of which are apparently left. My knowledge of bicycle repair, for example, came at the cost of hundreds of dollars of broken bicycle parts. The only houseplants that do well in my house are cacti...and I’ve killed a few of those as well. My sketches from art classes are smudgy and indistinct. When I was seven years old my teacher put one of those rubber triangles on my pencil in a vain effort to reform my penmanship. All my attempts at oil changes end in bitter tragedy. Whenever I’m forced to manipulate actual atoms to repair, create, enhance, or modify something, those atoms wind up resenting me. Creating things with atoms means having good form, never messing up (or gracefully converting mess-ups into something positive). If you mess up an atom, it stays messed up. Forever. For the length of human history until perhaps the 1970s, “creativity” was roughly synonymous with “being skillful with your hands.”

Electrons, by contrast, are forgiving, plastic little souls. They cheerfully wink in and out of existence on command. If you offend them somehow, you can undo your offenses. With electrons, form is nonexistent—numbers are perfect already. “5” means ::. whether you write it “five” or “fünf” or . Creating things with electrons is a totally zen experience. I usually begin with a mathematically precise picture of my final product and just start creating it. If, in the course of creation, my internal picture changes, I can change the electrons to match. In the digital world, creating a thing is about a difficult as imagining a thing. Since the birth of the personal computer, “creativity” has also taken on the definition of “being skillful with your mind.”