Computer stimulated creativity

Written by David Tebbutt, MacUser 06/92 item 01 - scanned

How on earth do you write a last column? Do you look over the past few years and fondly recollect? Do you tell the readers how wonderful they've been? Or do you carry on as normal and let them discover for themselves that you've moved to a new slot in the magazine? For, indeed, that's what happens from the next issue of MacUser. Joe Sudwarts and I will be back in every issue from now on -.Joe as himself and me as a news columnist. It will be good to be driven by the events of the day, but I'm sure I'll miss my occasional flights of fancy.

This is a column of optimism tinged with a slight disagreement with Apple. My optimism stems from what I see as another huge wave of opportunity for users and publishers of personal computer software. And my slight disagreement with Apple stems from its promotional blurb on Newton technology.

Let's take the blurb first. It's all wonderful stuff. Newton will be intelligent. It will adapt to your needs. It will, if someone writes the software, be able to recognise cursive writing and continuous speech. And so on. The sentence which caught my eye was at the end of a description of how Newton's intelligence works: "Newton intelligence could be built into everyday products and revolutionary products alike - freeing their owners from having to worry about the minutia of life, and letting them focus their activities on the uniquely human tasks of thinking and creating." Does this mean we will all be carting loads of Newtons around with us? A bundle of everyday ones plus one or two revolutionary ones?

I think Apple is missing a trick with its statement on creativity. This is no more a uniquely human activity than letter writing or talking, but we still use technology to aid both processes. Typewriters, word processors, faxes, telephones and answering machines are all used to make us even better at these "uniquely human" activities. Computers could also be of enormous help in making us more creative. Corporate productivity hasn't been greatly helped by the advent of personal computers - the great hope is collaborative computing. Once companies have got that sorted out, they will turn their attention to using computers to support the creative process. After all, in this fast-changing world, innovation is what keeps companies ahead, and innovation is impossible without creative thought.

It's true that the company employs creative people to do that kind of stuff, but most people believe that creativity is something special, something different, something that other people are good at. But we all have the potential to be creative, it's just that our skills need to be stimulated. To date, we've had wizards like Edward de Bono and Tony Buzan telling us to "think laterally" or "use our heads". They suggest all sorts of ways of stimulating fresh thoughts about stale subjects. The trouble is, we need to read and understand their books before we can really have a go. Perhaps a better approach is that taken by Professor Simon Majaro who furnishes the would-be creative person with questions designed to elicit new ideas.

Majaro spends his life encouraging organisations to establish a creativity culture. If everyone in an organisation contributes ideas, the pool of good ones is bound to be much larger than that generated by the firm's strategists working by themselves. Also, since many ideas are stimulated by non-work activity, the workforce as a whole is bound to have exposure to a far greater range of useful experiences. Of course, just having ideas is not valuable by itself. They have to be assessed and translated into action. In today's highly-competitive environment, ideas which lead to new, better, faster, cheaper or more aesthetic products will be highly prized.

If innovation is a vital factor in the success of organisations, it's only a matter of time before companies turn to computers to aid this process. At the most basic level, outliners and ideas processors can be used to capture and expand your thoughts and literally draw ideas out of you. If you have topic headings, you feel compelled to add a deeper level of information and ideas. And then another. And then another, until your brain is exhausted. That's when you can start to add the brand new ideas which pop into your head as you shuffle the outline model. Far more sophisticated programs could jog your memory with questions and challenges designed to stimulate fresh thoughts.

Since creativity tools encourage navel gazing, there is a danger that they could prove even less useful than the so-called personal productivity aids. But if the process is properly directed and managed, computer-stimulated creativity and innovation could be the next major area of application development.