Does your creativity have value in a Generative world?

5 min
A dark background with a bright white and blue illustration of a side view of an illuminated brain.

Before we begin, a small caveat: the world of Artificial Intelligence is moving at such an astonishing rate that anything written below could well be out of date by lunchtime. But that certainly shouldn’t stop us from exploring and giving some thought to the future. After all, hasn’t that been what we have done for millennia? Through art, philosophy, science, history and more, do we seek our sense of uniqueness and attempt to decipher some meaning and purpose.

In this, it feels correct (and more than a little ironic) that Generative AI has taken us to a whole new level of questioning everything. Over two articles, we’ll be asking some questions and, maybe, even offering some food for thought. Because while we can’t predict the future, it’s never stopped us humans from thinking deeply about it.

After all, we learn and train, practice and hone, calculate and cogitate. All in the pursuit of excellence and, sometimes, answers. Visual arts, music and writing move us – positively and negatively – in ways that we often do not understand, but we look to psychology to try. At the very least, we improve. Has it not always been that our imaginations lead us to livelihoods in creative fields, where we are valued and admired in equal measure? These skills are the products of lived experience and a desire, no, need to bring our ideas into existence. So, it is fully understandable that the capabilities of Generative AI, while thrilling in so many ways, have left many shaken and fearful for the future.

The anecdotal evidence, at least, points at two reasons:

Traditionally, there’s been an invisible dividing line between ‘creatives’ (designers, photographers, artists etc) and ‘techies’ (developers, analysts, engineers and so forth) and, until recently, both have stayed in their own lanes, crossing paths as projects required, but neither having any real depth of insight into each other’s disciplines. Combine this with a near constant stream of social posts and news stories showing the ‘astonishing’ capabilities of tools like Adobe Photoshop’s new ‘Generative Fill’ or writers, illustrators and photographers sharing their frustrations and anger and, admittedly, it doesn’t look great.

Yet experimentation is happening and any perceived split between creativity and technology is disappearing, only to be replaced by two camps: players and stayers. Players seem to be having great fun trying out every AI tool they can lay their hands on and thrilled to be able to call upon a new trusty digital sidekick that can save them time or even do a task better than they can. Stayers are those who view AI with suspicion and a critical eye, viewing it as a potential new competitor of artists, writers and photographers. One only has to watch the debates play out on platforms like LinkedIn to see that it’s a ‘hearts and minds’ subject. But who is correct? If anyone?

A man in a white t-shirt and jeans kneels in a graffiti-covered concrete space. He holds a Canon camera and points it at the ground.

From Pointillism to Punk, all art has evolved through learning the rules and then gleefully breaking them.

“Learn the rules like a pro, so you can break them like an artist”

It doesn’t really matter whether Picasso said this or not, but it certainly resonates with the way his art developed into a style that is immediately recognisable and which AI would have no problem recreating. And while we humans work within the same parameters in the act of creation as an Artificial Intelligence (the rules of oil painting, the techniques of photography, principles of grammar and syntax), we also absorb what is going on around us and push the boundaries of protocol, using influences in society, culture, politics, technology, geography, science and dozens of other sources to inform us. And then we practice, practice, practice…

From Pointillism to Punk, all art has come about in this way – learning the rules and then gleefully breaking them. Right now, this is the part that AI cannot achieve in any meaningful way and certainly not without us to provide the training data or the prompts to turn that data into something new. It is somewhat disconcerting, however, to consider that all our most beloved and historic artistic movements may now be ‘feeding the algorithm’. Like Picasso, who inspired the work of countless others, does this mean we are looking to world where creators are paid to break the rules and push boundaries in order to ultimately forge original training data for AI to percolate, emulate and push out into the world? And if ‘original’ doesn’t stay so for long, what will this do to any long-term commercial value?

The Blandifying Effect

Of course, the model described above may create small pockets of intensely exciting art or it could deny us some incredible new ideas. But once it is thrown into the data pot, will it just be the equivalent of mixing all the colours together and getting brown anyway? We’ve all seen what happens when everyone uses the same design styles (Corporate Memphis anyone?). The effect is flat, dull, uninspiring and endlessly satired. Is this what will happen when the use of AI in music, images and writing becomes ubiquitous? And, as is already happening in a limited fashion, what happens when AI begins to wholesale consume itself? We already see a lot of ‘magnolia’ commercial art and design in the world, so this is a scenario that’s not hard to imagine at all. To stand out, will we be employing Human OS at each end of the creative spectrum to take AI-generated work into a more creative place? Buffing out the blandness and giving the work more cultural relevance? Does this then position us as both the source and the destination, originator and editor, with AI doing all the work in the middle?

To attempt to discuss such a question takes an open mind, some back and forth thinking and more than a splash of navel-gazing, as we consider some of the potential effects of Generative AI on the world of creatives. You’ll note the use of ‘creatives’ over ‘photographers’, ‘digital artists’, ‘graphic designers’ or even ‘writers’. This is simply because even though we specialise, we often cross the streams of disciplines to reach our artistic goals. And in this respect, we have more in common with AI than we might like to admit.