A technological response to the question of the origins of creativity
Human beings have always had a close affinity to art. Our humanoid ancestors etched shells hundreds of thousands of years ago, and we have continued to make and celebrate artistic achievement in an unbroken line since then. But this importance placed on art inevitably raises a question—where does creativity come from?
In Plato’s Ion, Socrates faces the rhapsode Ion, a performer of epic poetry, and argues that while his talents were indeed impressive, they were not the application of any skill. Rather, it was divine inspiration coursing through his mind:
Many are the noble words in which poets speak concerning the actions of men; but like yourself when speaking about Homer, they do not speak of them by any rules of art: they are simply inspired to utter that to which the Muse impels them…for not by art does the poet sing, but by power divine. The poets are only the interpreters of the Gods by whom they are severally possessed.
We might reject this as quaint, but what it gets right is that creativity is not generated by an insular process cut off from others and the past, but rather through the interaction of the artist with something outside of the artist. But what Plato wholly attributed this “something” to the work of the Gods, we now partially attribute to prior art itself.
As a culture, we note that often creative work is part inspiration and part adaptation, with artists drawing on earlier work that may have influenced their novels, plays, or films. For example, when the smash-hit musical “Hamilton” first appeared on the scene, multiple mainstream sources Slate, Vulture, The Guardian, The New York Times traced the influences that inspired Lin-Manuel Miranda to create such a groundbreaking work.
Some artists very clearly outline their influences, such as beloved children’s book writer and illustrator Maurice Sendak. He made no secret of his antecedents and sources, and instead wore them on his sleeve. When reading a biography on William Blake, with a rare honesty, he stated:
I read Blake because I want to schlep something from him that I can eat raw, have…Why am I clinging to every word Blake says in this book? I’m trying to suck all his strength out.
And it wasn’t just Blake he was drawing from. It was his standard modus operandi, a part of his creative process:
The muse does not come pay visits, so you go out stalking, hoping that something will catch you. Where do I steal from?
While these might suggest that Sendak was simply borrowing other people’s ideas, the real story is far more complicated. Sendak’s “stealing” was not merely appropriation, but a transmutation of prior work into something unseen. We can note the influences, but no one who has read Where the Wild Things Are or In the Night Kitchen can deny that these were Sendak originals, unquestionably terrific and original works of art.
Sendak shows that even if we draw heavily on past works for inspiration, our art can be wholly our own and new
Or to put a modern spin on it:
This idea of inspiration sparked PageMajik’s newest idea an AI engine that analyzes scenes and points out similar contexts and ideas in the works of great authors. For example, if a dramatic scene involving a dysfunctional family was being written, you might be shown brief excerpts from A Long Day’s Journey into Night or August: Osage County.
Why would this be useful for publishers?
With the threat of plagiarism or reusing material that has come up in the last few years, for those self-publishing their work or even for bestselling writers, it looks at new submissions to make sure they don’t match previously published work.
Why would this be useful to writers?
In a way of enabling Sendak-style inspiration, it can provide authors with an opportunity to boost their creative ideas by highlighting excerpts in similar work that might help them figure out a plot point or a way to interpret the scene in a new and interesting way.
By making overt some of these influences, this system can ensure that what’s being written really does vary from earlier texts and isn’t just an accidental copy.
As someone who firmly believes we can’t know how good a tech idea is until multiple people use it independently over a decent period of time, I can’t wait to see how this works out.