Are algorithms killing creativity?

Feb 2020 · Strategy

In an age where everything from the architecture we build to the TV we watch is governed by algorithms it’s becoming impossible to deny their power. In a number of ways the algorithm is the evolutionary child of big data, a way to make the vast personal data banks useful. To give you some context to the volumes of data that we’re talking about: Bernard Marr wrote for Forbes in 2018 that on average Google was processing more than 40,000 searches every second and 3.5 billion searches a day. Staggering numbers if you can begin to wrap your head around them. This avalanche of data means that in the last two years alone 90% of the world’s data has been created.

The birth of these invisible aids has helped to augment our lives, revolutionising the world’s biggest industries of Education, Finance, Gaming, Healthcare, Automotive and more. The Internet of Things, (the interconnection via the internet of computing devices embedded in everyday objects) has also allowed us to collect exponentially more invaluable personal data. Algorithms really do have the power to change things for the better.

In the design world algorithms and A.I have begun to weave their way in. As James Kirkham, co-founder of digital strategy agency Holler London can attest.

“Where once the creative sat aside from those who were listening and analysing, only being briefed at a later date, now the creative sits alongside those listening to communities, mining data and forming thoughts based on analysis, interaction and algorithms. Speed of response is now so vital that the algorithm at the heart of the cycle can trigger a creative cue that will be tested and put up online in a matter of minutes.”

A good example of this author based approach that James is referring to is the collaboration by E Roon KangRichard The, and Studio TheGreenEyl for the MIT Media Lab Boston identity, which, based on a series of human input parameters produced an algorithmic design resulted of 45,000 permutations of a MIT lab logo. Arguably the results could be considered fairly uninspiring, however you can’t argue with the numbers. In a constantly changing digital environment speed of response is paramount and any competitive advantage that algorithms can afford us are well worth consideration.

So, bring on progress right? These rule bound pieces of code are much more open to abuse and manipulation in a way that humans can never be and in a world where digital now accounts for half of the global ad market spend… that’s a terrifying thought. Currently there is no formal regulation in place and experts worry they can put too much control in the hands of corporations and governments, perpetuate bias, create filter bubbles, cut choices, creativity and serendipity. These fears are not just conjecture, there have been a significant number of cases where these concerns have manifested.

In October 2016 the global value of Sterling saw a flash crash of 6% which was attributed to ‘fat finger’ algorithms. Triggered by the word’s ‘hard Brexit’, a rogue algorithm shorted the pound by manipulating automatic trading systems. The issue was also incredibly hard to find due to the prevalence of algorithms across the trading floors, hiding in plain sight. Facebook has also been accused of manipulation of algorithms for financial gain, regularly having to dispute allegations that it has changed its algorithm to reduce the reach of organic posts and force brands into additional investment in media.

Challenges are being faced in creative industries by these digital data worms. The way that algorithms predominantly work is through studying past behaviours. The internet gave birth to a whole new facet of creativity, code pushing at the boundary of rules producing surprising results — anyone remember Flash? However, at its most reductive the internet is a place to house information, creativity held in suspension, in lines of numbers and letters. This information strained through algorithms then shapes our aesthetic expectations around feedback loops, finding channels, visuals and lists that seem to match our interests. Michael Veitch, managing partner at creative agency Rehabstudio said:

“Most algorithms work by suggesting things you might like based on what you already like; they don’t account for something you might not currently like, and will have to force yourself to, but will one day love”

Similarly fashion designer Gretchen Jones, the former fashion director of womenswear at Pendelton Woolen Mills, found that her role as a designer had become more “defensive” than proactive. “I was fighting against big data that would often negate the creative design directions” Jones said. “I was speaking through my gut and they had paperwork that could prove another black mock turtleneck was the thing that sold. But rarely can a customer tell you what they want that hasn’t been created yet, and that was stifling my ideation.”

Digital design has also found itself suffering. A user has become a homogenised set of actions born from the past behaviours and attitudes, an anonymous cyber lump that demands everything to be ‘user-friendly’. As Patrick Burgoyne, CEO of Creative Review said in a recent article “For so long branding has preached the doctrine of differentiation, now it seems that in the screen-centric world of ‘customer experience’ our loftiest ambitions are for our brands to be sleekly efficient, offering no surprises (and certainly no delight), just the promise of frictionless ease of use.”

What people crave most from creativity and art is something new, the element of surprise. Abstract art, modernist sculpture, a new perspective. Marcel Duchamp’s urinal, Andy Warhol’s Campbell soup, Guernica by Pablo Picasso. When we respond to viral memes on social media it’s because they produce something unexpected, leveraging the relationship of surprise and humour.

How then to break out of this data driven loop of white noise. The signs are there that companies are beginning to seek out individuality. Dropbox’s hand-drawn elements, Mailchimp’s brand refresh with custom animations, twitch.tv’s (gaming channel just purchased by Amazon). Good design is a piece of magic. Clients are reevaluating the understanding that they know how to reach their customers, it’s no longer enough to get in front of them — there needs to be something new that generates true, long lasting engagement. Do you remember the Gorilla and Phil Collins advert (launched by advertising agency Fallon London) which relaunched the reputation of Cadbury in the UK? (over 9 million views on youtube to date).

Client’s don’t need to disregard their data, but the trust in the numbers should go hand-in-hand with the trust in their agency. Algorithms should be able to help drive us to even better solutions, joining data and creativity together. At Studiomade we are moving past old treatments of data and looking to drive creativity in our communications. We’re looking to work with confident clients who are searching for something new to motivate behavioural shifts. We’re excited to do something different.

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