In this spark (Thinking Machines) I provided a crash course in the history of thinking machines in the 20C. I suggested in that post that the history of intelligent machines is intertwined with notions of who we are and what defines us as human and the human as somehow ‘special’.
When we get to thinking and talking about that question it seems inevitable that two other subjects comes up – technology and creativity. Both of those topics come up for different and distinct reasons but both are generally cited as things that make us different.
We use technology to a degree that other animals don’t seem to.
We have a creative capacity that seems to distinguish us from thinking machines – either those conceived as thought experiments or those that are actually built.
Creativity also seems less a part of most other animal species’ lives as well – although interestingly we often see qualities we relate to creativity in other animals – problem solving and play being two phenomena that come immediately to mind. Additionally we might suggest that these phenomena seem available to animals but not to machines.
There are always swings and roundabouts to these assertions though – based as they are in generalisations and in broad definitions of what each of these terms means.
I want to suggest here that these two qualities that are often posed as distinct; technology and creativity are actually very closely related – in fact that they are integral to each other and in-turn integral to the notion of intelligence.
Much of my thinking here is derived or directly attributable to the french philosopher Bernard Stiegler.
The short version of this theory is the human being’s very notion of time is devolved from a technical anticipation. Time (as we experience it) is produced as we realise the potential for an anticipated return to a certain potential (to deliberately cut with the stone that sliced my foot for instance) – this potential for an anticipated return defines technics – a word I use following Stiegler to refer to both technique and technology.
All this makes it possible to radically address traditional and ‘common-sense’ notions of creativity. In fact it might be argued that this perspective re-centers creativity as perhaps the fundamental mode by which human intelligence operates – although it is also a radically reconfigured notion of the creative.
Rather than conceiving of technology as something we invent according to some preconceived instrumental need technology becomes something we ‘discover’ as we interact with the world and the world interacts with us.
The way this occurs is important to our conception of creativity and, for me at least, thinking this through the example of the musical instrument makes the idea very clear.
The common perception of a musician is that they speak through their instrument – the better they do so, the more expressive they appear to be – the more ‘true’ their playing is deemed to be.
Their playing is conceived as voice that transcends the limits of the human voice alone to get at some deeper truth or emotion.
This is to say that through the musical instrument we discover a voice that appears to speak to us of ourselves deeper than we alone, via voice or language, could. Stiegler might argue that instead of finding our inner voice expressed truly via the instrument what we find is not only a new voice – but also a new being. This new being or new becoming is born of the possibility of an anticipated return to lived potential. Lived potential folds into the future as technics and in technics lies the ‘very possibility of a future’.
As we are moved (sometimes literally) by this new voice discovered between body and guitar we literally become more than body alone – we feel an intensity that is in-excess of ourselves – the only way to return to that new sense of self – to feel whole once again, to be able to speak of the intensity discovered in that relation, is to capture and anticipate the set of relations which produced it.
We have come about this (to ease us in by way of example) from slightly the wrong way – Because the musical instrument is already a set of bundled techniques and technologies designed in order to allow an anticipated return and development of that ‘inner’ voice (which is of course no longer inner). Indeed – this is where the instrument (which is of course a technology) comes from. As we discover a potential in the vibration of the taut string or skin we assemble the conditions for a return to that voice in the development of the instrument.
The same process extends to melody and scale – in order to anticipate a return to a melodic potential we require a standard of dividing the string. In order to share the melody we require two strings decided similarly – here we can conceive of culture itself as a technical extension – an excess that we organise to serve as the potential for an anticipated return.
While I like to use the musical example because it is generally as sense of this excess and intensity that we have all felt and can understand – this same dynamic extends (according to this view) to all of technics and the human becomes not only a technical animal – but is defined by this process of always becoming technical.
There are a number exciting things about this approach to creativity and technology. The first is that creativity is no longer to be conceived as some product of divine inspiration or genius. It is a function of the relation between body and world. Creativity becomes the degree by which you prod the world in excavation of indeterminate potential. Its not something predefined, determined or instrumental but the discovery of new potential [becoming] realised not within the body or mind but between body and world.
Secondly technology has a curiously paradoxical relation to creativity. Technology is spawned of an opening onto indeterminacy but it subsequently becomes instrumental in an emergent continuity – it determines out potential for return and extends it in a particular mode and material.
Technology arises out of indeterminacy to serve as the very fabric of determination or anticipation.
It would seem that the more mediated/technical relation to the world becomes the less creativity it opens onto. Its not that simple however. We only exist as a function of this return to potential – it is the very fabric of our being. We are this distributed network of technical anticipation – Its not something that happens to us but something of which we are formed.
To compound the paradox however this might mean that the most critical and creative act we can afford is to give a degree of agency over to the machine. To give over the possibility of determination/anticipation to the machine in the hope realising new potential, new openings beyond habitual modes, new technique, new technology, new potential becomings.