Michael Keane

Independent scholar

Digital Civilisation in the Making (Part 2)

The Future of the Creative Industries or the Creative Industries of the Future?

The digital revolution is changing the way people communicate. More significantly, the algorithmic curation of peoples’ decisions to consume and view content raises important questions about the future of the creative industries.

In the past policy makers were primarily concerned with the viability of the creative industries: how to create new markets; how to reward copyright holders, how to identify emerging talent.

A more relevant discussion today is: what are the “creative industries of the future?” How will people produce, consume, and share cultural works in the future? Streaming content is already the new normal. Influencers, podcasters, and a plethora of snake oil salesman constitute the new attention economy. What Stuart Cunningham and David Craig call “social media entertainment” is now the default setting for so much content innovation.

Recently in China the state media drew attention to “four great new inventions”:  mobile payments, high speed rail, e-commerce, and bike-sharing, which are now part of peoples’ daily lives. These are more accurately described as innovations, emblematic of a new kind of digital civilisation, which includes the Internet of Things, Artificial Intelligence, Virtual Reality, drones, digital currencies and Blockchain.

There is much at stake here. Scientists have transformed the world we live in, from providing solutions to complex social problems, working out the structure of DNA, and developing airplane navigation systems. The Silicon Valley based virtual reality pioneer, Jaron Lanier, argues that digital globalization repatterns the world, shifting our collective organizing protocols toward a new kind of network efficiency. The question is not whether this shift is happening but rather the degree to which everyone participates. In China, it seems everyone is willing to participate.

The next question to ask is: does this change the way we think? Are we more creative because of our new digital affordances?

Increasingly scholars in the humanities and the sciences are collaborating. The common ground for collaboration is building a better future for humanity. Creative solutions to social problems are needed more than ever and many disciplines have a role to play.

In my work I refer to the cultural evolution timeline in China, from mass production of cultural goods, largely in factories (the 1990s) to the beginnings of mass customisation (from the 2000s). The term cultural evolution even made its way into Chinese policy language by the end of the 2000s decade.

China was moving out of the era of being the world’s factory. The 2000s had seen an enormous amount of funding invested in cultural industries: mostly theme parks, cultural quarters, and film production bases. This is an example of policy makers’ concern with the future of cultural industries: how to protect heritage while ensuring that turnstiles click over.

But by the second decade mass innovation was the spirit of the times. Incubators and maker spaces began to flourish. The grass roots were showing signs of a new vitality. With people online in mass numbers, it was necessary to transform this participation into something positive. The Chinese government moved to legitimise the entrepreneurial spirit of start-up culture, which required people with both skill sets, technological and creative. The two cultures (the sciences and the humanities) were coming closer together and it was possible to talk of the cultural industries of the future.

Rethinking the future of ideas and of human creativity

With science and technology driving forces behind social transformation, and with automation and machine learning now central to the industries of the future, we need to ask: what is the future of human creativity?

The digital entrepreneur Kai-fu Lee, believes that human creativity will be less important for China in the future. He sees a global shift occurring—from the age of discovery to the age of implementation, and from the age of expertise to the age of data. In Lee’s view, talented entrepreneurs, engineers and product managers will be the ultimate winners in this new natural selection. We now have drones, robots, smart cars, smart cities, smart phones. Lee has co-authored a new book with science fiction writer Chen Qiufan called AI 2021: Ten Visions for Our Future. The scenarios here are mostly optimistic, which I think reflects the prevailing sentiment in China.

Educating for the future

On a more global front, recent times have seen a renaissance in education:  a focus on science, technology, engineering and maths, the STEM disciplines. Proponents argue that there is a higher degree of rigour involved in scientific research. Accordingly, universities’ reputations are enhanced by the number of research grants, patents, and citations. The solution, at least in the humanities field in which I work, is now called Computational Social Sciences. The ability to analyse large data sets creates a demand for a new job description—data scientists.

This is happening in many universities at the same time as traditional disciples like anthropology and sociology, which involve people engaging in face-to-face investigation, are facing the axe.

So, what does this mean for human creativity, the faculty that distinguishes us from all other animals? Will the new kind of thinker be a hybrid? Is teaching students computational skills rather than critical enquiry skills the recipe for the future? What will be the skills required to survive in the humanities of the future, or to revert to the other side of the argument: what is the future of the humanities?

Practical task-oriented skills can be learned with application. Hours spent studying engineering subjects translates to good grades more easily than in arts course. The long process of learning how to think requires time and it requires us to relearn the lessons of history, to re-read the works of Shakespeare again, or the Analects of Confucius.

In the humanities the power of the idea (or even the metaphor) is paramount; having this kind of critical expertise is not simply a matter of time spent studying. It’s about dialogue, questioning and self-reflection. The defence of the traditional humanities is that critical skills are vital to our future. We can create better algorithms, but we can’t always predict human nature.

The COVID-19 crisis is an example of this. Scientists can harvest the best data available but human behaviour is often irrational.  We therefore need to constantly be asking how and why questions, which have a lot to do with ethics and moral values, which artificial intelligence and machine learning are not very good at.

Machines are changing the way we interact and much of this is for good. Collectively we are smarter. But there are downsides. Too much information feeds conspiracy theories which lead to misinformation and encourage disinformation, which eats away at the social fabric.

Many people use their thumbs more than hands, they use emojis instead of expressing real thoughts in words; and they ‘like’ a post on social media because they feel obliged to like it, because online friends have liked it. Mimesis rules.  

Despite the affordances that make entertainment easier to access and provide more “choices”, “old-fashioned” human creativity remains critical, no matter how smart machine learning becomes. This is exactly why we need to resist calls to diminish the role of the humanities, while at the same time being more open to inter-disciplinarity.

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About Me

I am an independent scholar with a background in Chinese media and culture. I have authored or edited 20 books since 2001. These are listed under research.


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