Digital Creativity

 
 
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The cover shows a detail from Art of Change's digital image Awakenings

Digital Creativity was commissioned by Fiona Ellis when she was Assistant Director, Arts, of the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation UK Branch, and was publsihed in 1996. The book was intended to provide artists with some knowledge of what was becoming possible in the brave new world of digitalia. That this world was new to most of the people involved can be clearly seen from the opening paragraphs of Fiona’s foreword:

When this book was first commissioned computers were better understood by six year olds than by forty-six year olds. The Internet was the province of anoraky enthusiasts with pale skin and bad eyesight. Platforms were something you stood on waiting vainly for trains.

This was only just over a year ago. Now at the corner of Stamford Hill and Manor Road there is a billboard advertising the Internet service provider Demon to the not particularly rich or technically-minded folk of Stoke Newington.

At this year’s conference of the Association of British Orchestras the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra’s website was described to a substantial audience, who seemed to understand what was being said to them. On-line newspapers are readily available to anyone with equipment costing less than the price of a Continental holiday for a family of four.

The state of the art at the time of publication can also be seen from the first page of my introduction to the book:

As long ago as 1980 Alvin Toffler claimed that the world was on the verge of The Third Wave, in which agriculture and industry would be superseded by information as the driving force in society. In 1995 Nicholas Negroponte, the founder and director of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Media Lab, confidently predicted that soon, for most purposes, ‘atoms will be replaced by bits’. It is not necessary to be completely convinced by the technological optimists to recognise that something is going on. We can read about it on a daily basis in the media, and we can see it in the high streets.

On 15 November 1994 the Daily Telegraph launched Electronic Telegraph, a professionally created daily electronic version of the newspaper which was (and is) made available free on the Internet. Since then the Times, as well
as New Scientist, Time Out, and a host of other magazines, have developed on-line cousins. Some are simply digital versions of the printed item, while others like the Guardian’s GO2 and the Daily Mail’s SoccerNet are
more customised. In this same period, the leading magazine publishers in Britain have all launched regular titles devoted solely to the wonders of the Internet.

Meanwhile, the shelves of newsagents are currently awash with magazines containing ‘free’ CD-Roms mounted on the cover – and not all of them are computer magazines. Even the Rolling Stones’ latest compact disc Stripped contains an extra three video tracks that can be played on a PC or Macintosh equipped with a CD-Rom player.

pdf logo
This essay is now available as a free ebook, suitable for iOS and Android devices and most e-computers.

The writing of the book was not without its difficulties. The Gulbenkian Foundation were keen to stress the unprecedented nature of the situation facing artists (and presumably others). I was keener to stress the continuity of the wider historical process, and to point out that Marshall McLuhan the Merry Pranksters and the Grateful Dead had all in different ways been important precursors of the ideas and practices of digital creativity.

We came to an uneasy compromise. All references to Frank Zappa and others deemed too old to be credibly at any leading edge were removed, but other historical references were allowed to stay. (The Grateful Dead got smuggled in courtesy of John Oswald’s work on the legal actions Island Records brought on U2’s behalf against Negativland.

I think that the book still holds up as a historical reference. Even better, I don’t think I said anything that I would wish to pretend I hadn’t. I avoided joining the Negroponte “Everything You Know Is Wrong”Fan Club, while still maintaining that what was happening was important and could well have profound social and cultural effects.

Availability

The book has been out of print for some years. In 2012, however, the Gulbenkian Foundation made a number of books from their backlist available for free download.

I applaud this move wholeheartedly, and am very happy to offer a link to the official download. Click on the box above above and you should automatically download the book as an unlocked pdf file.