Complain or celebrate if you like but you’re wasting your time.

What matters is what we do about this — or rather, what we do with this. Because if promoting creativity is important to you, as it is for me, then I hope you’ll be open to exploring ways to reconceive what it means and how it works.

I’m motivated here by the widely discussed Newsweek article, The Creativity Crisis, which paints a scary picture. After learning that creativity scores in school tend to correlate with long-term success through adulthood, we’re told:

Since [1990], creativity scores have consistently inched downward. “It’s very clear, and the decrease is very significant,” Kim says. It is the scores of younger children in America—from kindergarten through sixth grade—for whom the decline is “most serious.”

Some people may wonder if creativity is actually declining, or whether our understanding of creativity needs to change. Jeff Jarvis noted on Twitter that “millions are creating online.” Clay Shirky makes the same argument — essentially the argument in Cognitive Surplus.

But are we really “creating”?

The standard definition of creativity used by psychology researchers is “the production of something original and useful” (quoting Newsweek, but I’ve seen it in the literature from Teresa Amabile and others).

Some would argue that much of what passes for “creativity” online isn’t very original: much of it is simply sharing and mashing up what others already made. But I think that’s a misunderstanding of “originality.” This is the argument mainly Lawrence Lessig is well known for: everything new is essentially a combination of other, older things. When we say someone created something “original,” we really mean they combined things in an original way, not that they summoned something wholly new out of nothing.

As for usefulness, I’m not sure what passes for creativity online stands up quite so well.

But then again, exactly how “useful” were all of Leonardo’s sketches of exotic contraptions — or his paintings, for that matter? How useful were Shakespeare’s plays? Or Mozart’s compositions?

Even when we look at inventions and scientific discoveries, a lot of history’s greatest achievements were created by people who just had a sense there was value in what they were doing, and they wouldn’t figure out exactly what the use of it was until they’d made it. And even then it’s often the case that the person who invents something isn’t the one who finds the best use for their invention. The history of science may demonstrate that better than anything: many people do “pure research” or develop abstract theories that subsequent generations turn into more applied knowledge and tools. Think of how Reimannian geometry enabled Einstein’s creativity (or so I understand: I’m no physics expert), and then the “usefulness” of Einstein’s work isn’t so obvious to me, but subsequent physicists keep using it in their work and eventually the process generates results the rest of us recognize, albeit indirectly.

That’s how the creative process works online: it’s social: someone does something or makes something just to see what will happen, other people with the same impulse repeat the gesture and add their own twist, taking influences from others; eventually someone sees an opportunity to build a platform (or at least a blog), that becomes a social object in itself that others use as an influence in their own creativity…

It’s thanks to the markets built up around silly expressions and apps that a few profoundly useful ones develop. In the culture that emerges, tools like Google’s App Inventor start appearing and we could end up with another whole class of inane creations that are needed to foster the next round of transformative inventions…

So no, we’re not becoming less creative; we’re just creating a new kind of creative culture.

Update: the also-unconvinced Alex Tabbarok points to the website of the researcher quoted in Newsweek… see how much creativity has accomplished since sites like that were made!