Creativity and digital technology

What do you think of your smart phone? Your tablet? Your laptop? Do you love it? Is it really pretty? Does it feel nice? Do you want to customise it with stickers? Backgrounds? How you organise your apps and what apps you use? Does your device reflect your identity?

The ubiquity of device accessories (inside and out) are all about customising and personalising our devices. But is this act a truly creative act?

I recently read a chapter by Howard Gardner and Katie Davis which problematised the idea of creativity and digital devices. The authors critically analysed what were considered creative outputs in digital spaces, such as mash-ups on YouTube and LiveJournal, fan fiction sites and social media like Figment, and DeviantART intended for the sharing of art. The work young people are producing using these tools is quite wonderful, but the authors were curious as to how much exercise their imaginations were getting when creating the pieces.

Gardner and Davis make a distinction between imagination and innovation or entrepreneurship, two of the biggest buzz words associated with creativity and digital technologies. By making the distinction, the authors open up a discussion about whether, in the cut-and-paste culture of the Internet, young people are actually creating or, in fact, re-creating.

Gardner and Davis suggested that the pre-packaged resources (no matter how vast) made available to young people through the Internet is limiting exercise of the imagination because (as Marvel has shown again and again) it is easier to repackage an existing idea than come up with a new one. It is too easy to find a suitable answer through a quick Google search than it is to make the connections ourselves.

There is even a vast quantity of “how tos” out there. Check lists for making sure that the highest proportion of people can have success in the development and communication of an idea. When you think of it this way, the Internet is a great leveler of human competence as Mark Zuckerberg would have us all believe. But at what stage do we take the scaffolding away and learn to stand by ourselves? Exercise those thinking muscles which include imagination and taking risks?

Digital apps and worlds, have boundaries (or scaffolds) – no matter how vast, no matter how much the creator allows manipulation of story lines and sharing of ideas. There are limitations because a finite number of people created the experience and those creators have finite imaginations, limited further by the capabilities of digital tools. There are limitations imposed by the re-creators themselves through language and the homogeny of the sites they settle on and continue to return to. It might not feel finite…but it is.

Twitter chat

There is a lot of opinion about whether young people should be using devices or playing outside, and this is not really the place I want to get into that debate. I will say this, outside has less boundaries. Children will not use play equipment for it’s intended purposes. They will extend it, climb it, break the rules for the direction intended on the slide. Take the play equipment away and children need to exercise their imaginations even more.

But there are so many rules, scaffolds, expectations expecting children to have their whole life experience filled and monitored by parents and teachers. They need to be “on” all the time. They cannot be bored and they cannot procrastinate. Every single minute needs accounting for because there are not enough hours in the day to know everything that needs knowing to be a success.

But boredom is when we are most likely to exercise the imagination muscles.

With lives so full and without boredom, is it any wonder that creativity has taken a back door to re-creation? If we can take a model already deemed successful off the Internet and tweak it slightly to avoid copyright issues (or be funny/clever enough for people not to care), then why work any harder? There is so much more to do!

But what suffers? In my view, more than just young people’s ability to be creative because of digital tools. I actually don’t think digital tools are the real problem here. The tyranny of choice and the suffocation of scaffolding has limited imagination in wider society…but that’s another blog.



Gardner, H. & Davis, K. (2013). Acts (and apps) of imagination among today’s youth. In The App Generation : How Today’s Youth Navigate Identity, Intimacy, and Imagination in a Digital World. Yale University Press. New Haven. (e-book).




2 thoughts on “Creativity and digital technology

  1. This is such an important topic that I think we avoid discussing because it seems so obvious that digital technology helps kids be creative. Part of what I notice is that many apps allow kids to quickly produce something that looks good at first sight, such as a webpage with a nice font and high-quality stock photos, which is much easier than revising and crafting a compelling piece of writing.


    • I did get challenged in this the other day. Comedy is about taking two old things and making them new. There is definitely creativity in mash ups…but I think there’s a nuance barely spoken of (as you say), that comes with the idea of boundaries. I’m still thinking on it. I haven’t worked it out yet

      Liked by 1 person

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