We are Homo Faber, ‘Humankind the Creator’. God did not create us in his image, we created god in our image. We might only be an insignificant species orbiting an insignificant star in an infinite and impassive universe. But we have, perhaps uniquely, the power of creation. Why, then, are we trapped on this ball of rock, repeating the same patterns of self-destructive behaviour, instead of fulfilling our creative potential?
We are caught in a consumer culture that works against our innate creativity. The economic crisis of 2008 might have heralded the collapse of that culture. The consumerist economic model — itself a set of ad hoc compromises following the death of the industrial model — has reached the end of its useful existence. It evolved for a world where technology placed creativity in the hands of the few and television communicated their message to the masses, in what the entrepreneur Seth Godin has called the TV-industrial complex. Today, the internet has decentralised communications, and computers the size of an iPhone place vast creative resources in the hands of broad swathes of the population. The ongoing financial crisis is a symptom of an economy that has fallen behind its own technological capacities.
Notice how many of the new voices that are emerging through social media make creativity their central concern
The instinctive response of our leaders is to reconstruct our consumer culture. The generation holding the reigns of society are trained to think of us as passive consumers. It might take a generational shift before a world leader addresses a speech, not to the world’s consumers, but to its creators.
Yet a creator culture is emerging from the ground up, driven by creators themselves. The crowd-funding platform Kickstarter is only three years old and last year it significantly outfunded the US National Endowment for the Arts. It has allowed artists and entrepreneurs of all kinds to sidestep traditional forms of investment. Crowd-funded creativity is not driven by the commercial imperative of business or the political priorities of government, but by the creative passions of the crowd. ‘Maker’ culture resurrects the spirit of craftsmanship and combines it with technologies, such as 3D printing, that promise to do for manufacturing what the internet did for communication. The principles of ‘open source’ are now being applied far beyond the software development community, invigorating academic and scientific research, politics and government, the media and education. Notice how many of the new voices that are emerging through social media — the cultural curator Maria Popova, an ‘interestingness hunter-gatherer’ who started the Brain Pickings blog; the New York-based Big Think project to sift the ‘best thinking on the planet’; many TED talks — make creativity their central concern. All articulate our new understanding of creativity.
But the green shoots of a creator culture are only just bursting through the rubble of consumerism. Most of us are still plugged in to a mass media that equates creativity with branding and marketing and ignores its potential for human development. Businesses are still afraid of the ideas of their own employees, missing the fact that this creativity is their only hope of adapting to changing times. And our political landscape, dominated by a Left-Right dialogue that only engages with creativity as a source of economic growth, seems incapable of making the changes needed to bring about a creator culture.
In years of working with people struggling to reclaim their creativity, I learnt one very important lesson. Creation is the start, not the end, of the process of growth. We do not escape our tedious jobs, our oppressive social hierarchies, our addictive and self-destructive behaviour, and then become creative. We begin to create; then the process of growth it sets in train helps to free us from the traps that life sets.
We need to learn this lesson as a culture. We have to place the human capacity to create at the very centre of our social and political life. Instead of treating it as a peripheral benefit of economic growth, we need to understand that our wealth only grows at the speed that we can develop our creative capacities. And we must realise that we can no longer afford to empower the creativity of the few at the cost of the many. Our systems of government, business and education must make it their mission to support the creative fulfilment of every human being.
Originally published @ Aeon magazine.