Silicon Valley Wants To Own Your Creativity

Apple, Dropbox, and other tech companies are all talking a big game about creative tools. Here’s why.

[Photo: Will Ireland/Edge Magazine/Getty Image]

I’m a grown man, sitting in a high school class, writing a poem that will be read dramatically to a beat and a backdrop of stock photos. If I were 13, I’d be embarrassed as hell. I’m 35, and I’m still embarrassed as hell.

Along with about 30 other adults, I’m sitting in Lane Tech high school in Chicago, trying out Apple’s new educationally focused iPad. A real teacher has hijacked our tablets and locked them down to run the video editing app Clips, and Clips only. There will be no note passing or Candy Crush today. We’re going to learn about the Fibonacci sequence, the mathematical pattern that many have dubbed the Golden Ratio. And to experience the math firsthand, it’s poem-writing time.

Following the curriculum guide now offered by Apple, we must aim the iPad at our face, selfie-style, and record an intro.

“Hi. I hope you will enjoy my Fibonacci poem.”

The software translates our spoken words into text on the screen, through a feature called LiveTiles. Then we choose from a few pre-stocked Fibonacci-approved photos–snail shells and the like–to put behind our words.

That, of course, is the best-case scenario laid out in the lesson plan. In reality, my partner and I are confounded by the Clips interface. We couldn’t even figure out how to record our first clip, and each stage of the project became a race against time. I have to swipe through all sorts of virtual instruments to find stock audio tracks. And after all that, LiveTiles doesn’t even register the word “Fibonacci,” so I have to type in the word manually.

By the time our project is done, we had something between an episode of Deep Thoughts by Jack Handy and a particularly lazy YouTube video. I’m left wondering–did I just learn anything about Fibonacci numbers, or did I just learn how to use Clips?

That’s when Tim Cook’s words from earlier that day range in my head again. He was introducing Apple’s renewed push into creative, educational software onstage with the new iPad. “Making tools that empower creativity . . . this is something only Apple can do,” he said.

The statement was ridiculous because, in truth, it’s now downright trendy for tech companies to brand their software as conduits of human creativity–even if software can limit creativity as much as it extends it. While you’d expect that kind of language from companies like Adobe, whose production tools are literally its entire business, many other tech companies are packaging themselves as creative tools, too. The file-sharing company Dropbox recently rebranded to be about what people make with Dropbox. Tagline? “Put creative energy to work.” Meanwhile, Samsung is urging customers to “Make Something” with Galaxy phones and devices. Snapchat will tell you it’s not a social network . . . it’s a camera with limitless possibility.

For any app or platform to claim creativity itself sounds like hubris at best and opportunism at worst. But it’s not only that many of these platforms are, frankly, only tangentially involved with the creative process. It’s that software like Clips and other tools implicitly shape the end-product. My crappy poem looked like a Clips product, just like many other end-products are subtly shaped by the design of the tool itself.

There are few blank canvases left in the digital world. Visual design is shaped by the tools we use. There is no Microsoft Word for design. Even Paper–unequivocally the iPad’s best sketching app--has a certain algorithmically smoothed aesthetic. On one hand, it sure does make your finger sketches look nice. On the other, the second you touch the screen, you’re drawing through a machine that creates that Paper look. Then you have apps like Prisma, which seem amazing because they can transfer the brushstrokes and style of famous artists onto your own photos and videos. But is it really creative to copy van Gogh? No, Prisma is incapable of giving us the next van Gogh.

These apps and platforms are designed to be efficient. They’re designed to feel like branded experiences. They’re also designed to help you feel a little bit better about your skills. But they’re not designed to make you more creative, because software isn’t really capable of that–at least not yet. Software is a tool, and like any other tool, it leaves its fingerprints on whatever you create.

Back in the classroom, I’m watching my cheesy Fibonacci video. Most of my bad art projects I can at least love to regret. I think back to the dramatic VHS-C short I shot as a high school senior to apply to NYU (it ends with me attempting to sob into the phone for a dramatic twist–the lead actor has just died), or the loads of cheesy car commercials I edited as a young commercial producer trying to make his mark–these were spectacular failures of my own making.