Digital Creation in an Accelerating Society
Digital sticky notes are enabling our creativity to take flight 😱 Kanban boards a “revolutionary” advance in digital to-do lists and Lean UX’s “groundbreaking” think-make-check methodology are just a few more applications that are designed to influence our creative thinking in positive ways. But does digital transformation primarily involve replicating structures from the offline realm in order to market them online, or should we be creating new, interactive tools that adapt to the user based on the insights we’ve gained in the past?
The Destructive Power of Self-Determination
“[…] You are only ever an entrepreneur à venir, only ever in a state of becoming one, never of being one”. — Bröckling, 2007
This is the core message of the book The Entrepreneurial Self by Ulrich Bröckling. Put another way, we are in a constant state of becoming in pursuit of the greatest possible entrepreneurial freedom. According to Bröckling, it’s precisely the endless possibilities and decisions this implies that represent the other side of the coin, where individualization transforms into an overwhelming force and demands that:
“[…] entrepreneurs be required to ascribe the responsibility for their own failure to themselves” — Bröckling, 2007
This leads to the assumption that a person, upon attaining the greatest possible freedom, would realize — but never question — the compulsion inherent in doing so, resulting in his or her own self-destruction. That said, shouldn’t dealing with the constant state of becoming be analyzed in greater detail rather than turning our focus to acquired freedom, or to advocating a mindset that encourages self-determined people to choose the path of fixed employment after all, given the increased quality of life it supposedly affords? Meanwhile, there are actually many entrepreneurs in creative professions who are able to earn a solid living and save for the future with an eye toward starting a family. If self-employed people have secured a source of income, the question of how we work evolves into what we work for. The answer to this question seems essential because permanent employment often pushes the what of the matter to the side. In this case, the foremost issue is rather that of how:
- How can a project be implemented as specified?
- How can a specific deadline be met?
- How can I position myself within the company?
- How can I reach the career goals I’ve set for myself within the company?
This is not meant to imply that a creative profession isn’t subject to these same constraints. The initial intention to earn money can, however, give rise to the luxury of being able to take on those projects that involve exciting fields or pique one’s own personal interest. After all, who among us wants to realize an idea we don’t believe in? The question of how well ideas can be implemented without genuine conviction also seems important in this regard; after all, this belief along with the idea itself is what gives creativity room to flourish. The construct of belief also comes with the temptation to handle everything — whether in terms of a start-up or a specific external project — without realizing that we are sorely neglecting ourselves and our needs. Once a person truly connects with an idea, the drive to realize it is strong, no matter what the cost. This may relate to the deep-seated desire to shape the idea, to control it, and ultimately to put a face to it: our own. When the idea fails, on the other hand, so does a small part of our selves. Though the maxim “fail fast, fail often” is considered a golden rule among many entrepreneurs at the moment, it remains difficult to remove one’s ego from the equation entirely and move on to new ideas and challenges.
Meanwhile, there are not two, but three fundamental aspects of work: how we work, what we work for, and why we work. The why of it could be the missing link to the deeper purpose of working. Only by questioning the why, or the sense, of a pursuit do we inevitably arrive at a more in-depth analysis of the self. Only by understanding our needs and examining our own behavior can we achieve a proper balance between work and leisure.
Bröckling offers an inadequate view of this aspect when he writes, “People have breakdowns; burnout and depression are on the rise. The entrepreneurial self is also an exhausted self”. At the same time, the findings of Dr. Dietmar Hansch, a specialist in internal medicine and psychotherapy, show that we need to learn about and understand our inner workings in order to cope with the daily stress of our “efficiency society”.
The subject of exhaustion is much more a societal problem that can be found in every area of various professional fields. It cannot be explained by the notion that we’re becoming our own entrepreneurs and failing to cope with the constantly overwhelming demands we face as a result. In Ancient Greece, Aristotle was already grappling with the question of what a person needs to lead a good life. His philosophy implies that we only achieve happiness when we’re able to develop and apply all of our skills and potential. Here, Aristotle believed in three forms of happiness: experiencing desire and pleasure, functioning as a free and conscientious citizen, and living life as a thinker and philosopher. To his mind, only a combination of these three elements leads to contentment. In the present day, Aristotle might have set his sights on an ideal balance of mind, body, and self-determination. While it appears as though the self-employed are no less free than employees, many freelancers do view their freedom more as being based on their ability to fulfill their potential through their work. As Beuys argued decades ago,
“This makes the nature of self-determination the integral element: Only by this instrument will a restructuring of society be possible”. — Beuys, 1985
As human beings, we’re no more able to suppress our affinity for the creative and visual arts than we are our fixation with efficiency. It’s much rather about comprehending ourselves and realizing that all these facets of existence require highly balanced periods of mindfulness. The goal isn’t to portray the idea of efficiency as a threat, but to scrutinize our own attitudes toward work. Everything in our working world is quantified in terms of time and its well-known counterpart, money.
But are time⏱ and money💰 really the right indicators to use? Does a lack of time really promote creative thinking? Does it make sense to wedge an emerging idea into that familiar corset of milestones and road maps when an iterative process of trial-and-error is actually required? How can we start building a road if we don’t yet know the direction it will take? In the start-up realm in particular, one often sees the connection between ideas and people and the subsequent challenge they face in figuring out how to deal with their inner selves.
All around the world, start-ups are evolving into a source of ideas for much larger and more influential companies with sufficient financial clout. This is precisely where a familiar dilemma rears its head once more. Setting out alone with not much more than faith in an innovative idea typically ends in financial disaster; to avoid this risk, you search for potential investors, who then contribute comparatively small sums in exchange for fresh, creative, and innovative ideas they wouldn’t have been able to realize within their own structures. This begs the question as to why large companies are such a difficult environment for developing ideas and innovations. In their book Wir nennen es Arbeit “We Call It Work”, Holm Friebe and Sascha Lobo delve into the common characteristics of larger companies:
“[…] Every company of a certain size or larger makes this a highly political affair. And as the time occupied by politics grows, less and less is spent on actual productive work”. — Friebe & Lobo, 2008
The authors even go as far as to declare companies and corporations “anti-markets”, calling this “[…] evident in instances where freelancers interact with company employees and attempt to comprehend the many necessities, specifications, and restrictions involved in a given task […]”. This establishes a connection between the internal political structures of some major companies and the compulsion to be creative and innovative. Such organizations are unable to get out of their own way in this regard, which is why tapping into innovations and creative ideas from other sources is the next logical step. This is the exact moment in which some companies fall back on artists, designers, and other creative resources.
Working Faster with Digitized Tools
Unfortunately, companies that so urgently need to produce innovations don’t find it all that easy to work with creative external resources given the often significant differences in how the two sides work.
“[…] The tactical considerations, forging of alliances, and internal diplomacy involved are so prevalent that finesse in these areas is fundamental to making progress and achieving professional success. This is why those who get ahead at corporations are completely different from those who succeed in the free market”. — Friebe & Lobo, 2008
Regardless of the differences in how freelancers and large companies operate, however, both are at the mercy of digital advancement. This process moves with such speed and dynamism that most digital products have already become obsolete by the time they are finished. This is another are where one encounters the notion of “becoming”. Digital products and tools are intertwined in a manner similar to people themselves.
Here, it’s interesting to note that systems are emerging with visual structures that reflect the components of their respective elements. Brad Frost, a thought leader in the field of Atomic Design, attempts to classify large-scale systems according to the laws of nature. In doing so, he categorizes all the elements of a given user interface as atoms, molecules, or organisms, which then aid in structuring and assembling a corresponding page template. In a broader sense, we no longer view digital products merely as pages that display content to the user, but as living organisms subject to constant change. The individual elements of structures like these evolve continuously in terms of their function and appearance. As such, it’s only fitting that Frost views his book Atomic Design as just as fleeting rather than as a rigorous analysis. The current state of things still exists, but we’re beginning to comprehend that no thought or concept is timeless.
Aristotle, meanwhile, separates all things into two basic groups: Things that can only change through external influence, and living creatures that undergo constant change. Is it not then only logical that human beings — as creatures of the tools we make — seek to achieve this goal of permanent change? In that sense, what is a digital product? When we interact with a product, does that not also mean that we’re dealing with a living creation made by human hands? On that basis, we define the rules and behavior of our products and tools under constantly changing circumstances. To enable designers to keep up with these evolving and accelerating digital environments, an endless array of digitized instruments are emerging that are fine-tuned to everyday work routines. Of course, many of them are analogous to tools used in the offline world. Here are a few of the marketing slogans associated with these offerings:
- Work better, faster. 😓
- DESIGN BETTER. FASTER. TOGETHER.
- Get high-fidelity in under five minutes 🤔
- Real-time design collaboration and tours
- Animate Your Ideas, Design Better Apps
- Design hand-off has never been easier. Generate style guides and resources, automatically.
- The faster way to get from an initial idea to a finished design ⏱
- Make it now.
- Creative. Intuitive. Faster. 🤔
- Communicate your designs & sell your vision.
- Make your ideas a reality
- Get agile, simply.
- Scrum? Check. Kanban? Check. A hybrid methodology? Check.
- Award-winning editing experience makes crafting incredible-looking videos easy!
- Build better software, faster
Nearly all of these tools have one core message in common: It’s about speed 🚀. This simplifies the process of turning an idea into a finished design. The sole issue at hand, however, is the designer’s toolkit, which is precisely where companies and the world of business at large see this creative resource located. In other words, we’re providing creative people with the optimized tools they need in our accelerated world. On the one hand, this certainly enables these individuals to work faster, but it also pushes them increasingly into the role of implementing ideas — not producing or shaping them. ❌
Anyone developing a digital product for a specific target group should carefully consider the groundwork we’re laying for future situations. Are we advancing right into a predicament of our own design, one in which creative people themselves are reduced to productive instruments? Or do we want our potential to be woven into the very fabric of our society? Those who work in fields related to art and design and possess an exceptional degree of creativity are seldom seen in the higher circles of corporate management. It rather seems that more or less anyone can be creative simply by incorporating words like “stylish” or “sexy” into their everyday routine. Bröckling takes a fairly critical view of the term itself:
“Even as it gains importance in virtually every professional sector, creativity is devolving into a vague word with less and less real significance”. —Bröckling, 2010
Ultimately, we should — or rather must — ask ourselves what a future world might look like in which creative people go about their work. Will project schedules continue to grow shorter, leading to more automated tasks? Will designers continue to serve a conceptual purpose, or will digital tools develop more and more mechanisms that enable anyone to take on this role? 😳
In all likelihood, none of these scenarios will come to pass. Instead, there will be a difference between conceptual work and pure realization. Meanwhile, digital tools are increasingly availing themselves of another message or mindset: the notion that they promote collaboration. On a fundamental level, this is taking place in both active and passive ways.
We can interpret passive collaboration as an improved exchange of information: Many digital tools provide various means of commenting on and discussing content both directly and indirectly. The extensive range of such solutions includes InVision, Slack, Dropbox, Zeplin, Adobe CC, SourceTree, and GitHub.
Active collaboration, on the other hand, refers to tools that make it possible to work together on a given project at the same time. GitHub, SourceTree, and Dropbox can also be mentioned here, along with further examples like Figma, Notion, and (more recently) Keynote. Meanwhile, it has gone virtually unnoticed that this very trend toward joint development entails an increase in communicative effort at the cost of one’s focus on the actual task at hand. As a result, many designers have only a perceived sense of speed in their work routines. This is why digital tools try to treat creators as individuals who are capable of coping with a constant flood of information, despite the complete lack of evidence of such an ability in human beings.
“In other words, we know that multitasking and the interruptions involved lead to stress and cognitive overload”. — Gloria Mark, 2016
Becoming Is the New Being
So why are digital tools trying to condense ongoing person-to-person communication into work processes even though the resulting torrent of information only overwhelms the user? Here, one could argue that in an increasingly complex world, every bit of data has the potential to shape an idea in important and unusual ways. Once upon a time, there were briefings or long-winded written concepts that provided a framework with a certain enduring quality. We now know that a briefing or concept can shift constantly over the course of an endeavor. To borrow a figurative description of the situation:
“The Internet is not only reshuffling the cards on the poker table of the culture industry on a regular basis, but continually changing the rules of the game itself, as well”.
Perhaps therein lies the key to the success of future projects: We need to learn to disengage, figure out when to absorb information, and devise a method for processing it in order to incorporate it into our work. Although every entrepreneur dreams of parallel workflows and the time they can save, we won’t be able to add this type of information processing to the work we’re already doing. And besides, what good is saving time? What’s the sense in saving something that can’t be saved? The idea that saving time results in more freedom and leisure has proven to be a utopian one. Quite the opposite is true: We use the time we gain to handle other tasks. As a result, we squeeze the experiences we have into amounts of time that we ourselves define. The argument that younger people may be better at dealing with condensed flows of information has also not held up to scrutiny. Thierry Venen, a sociologist who deals with excess strain on the brain, leaves little doubt on this subject:
“The hype leading young people to believe that they may be better at multitasking than previous generations has not been confirmed by a single credible cognitive study”. — Venen, 2016
Do we need to finally realize that we find ourselves in a constant state of becoming? That everything — both in nature and the world we create ourselves — undergoes a certain amount of change? At the same time, periods in which we experience change need to be finely tuned to our needs as human beings.
Efficiency and Creativity in the Future
Looking back on the transition from analog to digital tools, it becomes clear that the manner in which one employs such instruments plays an essential role. In simplified terms, they enable us to turn visions and ideas into reality. At the same time, however, we continue to fall into the aforementioned progress trap by failing to question the limits of these instruments. Faster and faster workflows, the convergence of professional and private life, and the much higher concentration of information we contend with every day are revealing these limits and the drawbacks they present. Digital applications meant to provide relief are turning the typical workday into an ever more complex construct that renders us almost incapable of plying our trades. This is why these applications and tools need to take on behaviors that satisfy our respective inner needs. They could then help us focus without controlling us in the process. This poses a key question: Does it make sense to continue focusing on features that improve efficiency and collaboration in digital applications, or should they rather learn to provide functions in context? How would this make it possible to mitigate information overload in such applications? How can we increase productivity without sacrificing our own well-being? One example might involve messaging and communication tools that tailor the flood of information to a person’s current status. If I’m in a meeting, for instance, an e-mail doesn’t need to pop up on my computer at all. At present, the only way to achieve this is to close every program and simply live with the uncertainty that something important might be happening.
Programs and applications aren’t the only things that need to change, however: We ourselves also need to learn to deal with more concentrated amounts of information. To solve complex problems, people need time to think and reflect. Instead of being relegated to lunch breaks or vacations, contemplative activities like these should be seen as working time. Companies should align their processes with the requirements of our constantly changing world and the cognitive needs of human comprehension. If we want to make creativity part of our everyday routines, we need to remember how to think creatively and identify thinking itself as a worthwhile pursuit.
Thanks for reading 😊
List of References
- Brad Frost (2016): Atomic Design will be a book by Brad Frost. Source: http://atomicdesign.bradfrost.com/, accessed October 6, 2016.
- Dietmar Hansch (2014): Burnout: Mit Achtsamkeit und Flow aus der Stressfalle. Munich: Knaur MensSana (e-book).
- Gloria Mark, Psychologieprofessorin und Computerwissenschaftlerin (2016): Dokumentation, Immer vernetzt: wenn das Gehirn überfordert ist. Source: http://www.arte.tv/guide/de/061653–000-A/immer-vernetzt?country=DE, accessed September 26, 2016.
- Holm Friebe, Sascha Lobo (2008): Wir nennen es Arbeit, Die digitale Boheme oder ein Intelligentes Leben jenseits der Festanstellung. Munich: WILHELM HEYNE VERLAG.
- Joseph Beuys (2002): Sprechen über Deutschland: Speech from November 20, 1985 at the Münchener Kammerspiele. Wangen: FIU-Verlag.
- Thierry Venen, sociologist (2016): Dokumentation, Immer vernetzt: wenn das Gehirn überfordert ist. Source: http://www.arte.tv/guide/de/061653–000- A/immer-vernetzt?country=DE, accessed September 26, 2016.
- Ulrich Bröckling (2007): Das unternehmerische Selbst: Soziologie einer Subjektivierungsform, Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp Verlag (e-book).
- Ulrich Bröckling (2010): “Kreativ? Das Wort ist vergiftet”. Source: http://www.zeit.de/2010/45/Interview-Broeckling/seite–3, accessed October 2, 2016.
- Ulrich Bröckling (2010): Radio Corax, Kreativität als Ideologie — Gespräch mit Ulrich Bröckling. Source: http://audioarchiv.blogsport.de/images/UBroecklingImGespraech_KreativitaetA lsIdeologie.mp3, accessed October 3, 2016.
- Ulrich Bröckling (2010): “Kreativ? Das Wort ist vergiftet”. Source: http://www.zeit.de/2010/45/Interview-Broeckling/seite–1, accessed October 2, 2016.
- Ulrich Bröckling (2010): Radio Corax, Kreativität als Ideologie, Gespräch mit Ulrich Bröckling. Source: https://www.freie-radios.net/37695, accessed October 2, 2016.