Monday, December 12, 2005

Uncreativity and Generation Zero

So I'm having an msn chat with a friend of mine all about why there are so many license movies and games these days. Specifically, I'm talking about movies like the entirely blah Narnia, and he's pimping the teaser trailers for Superman and the new X-men film. Remakes seem to be everywhere, in music, in film, in re-set comics universes and games. Licenses likewise. It seems impossible to get a new idea out of the gate these days if it is not based on something that is already known.

We hit onto the topic of creativity in general. Weirdly, given the amount of power that recognition value seems to hold over us, we live in a time when we are inundated with creative options. We have PDAs to write our novels, DV cameras to make our movies, software that can create virtually any music that we choose, programming languages to create any game we can think of. We have the broadcast means via the internet, p2p networks and so on. We are literally sitting on an embarassment of creative riches.

Our societies similarly have come to embrace openness of thought and idea in ways that were impossible for previous generations. From this modest-priced PC in my room I can access a vast library of information. I can get news from anywhere, I can find discussion groups and forums on any subject. I can order any tool that I need and the modern media is highly free thinking in any one of a dozen directions. I can read anything and I can write anything, and no subject is taboo. I have gay friends, Buddhist neighbours, an empowered vegetarian girlfriend, it's all going on.

And yet we seem to be a profoundly uncreative generation. In the games industry the hot topics of new game creation all center around product design methodologies. In film, it's focus groups and properties. Music seems built on three pillars these days: the pop cover, the dance remix and the hip-hop rip-off. It goes further than this. We seem to have lost the idea of creativity with depth, so a lot of the material that is original is corny and based not exactly in the recognisable, but close enough. Like WW2 games that seem to spend their days copping a feel of Private Ryan's nuts. Or the Incredibles.

There are even a few noble examples amongst all this. My previously cited example of the new Galactica show is good one. The X-men movies actually make a good fist of it too, and some of those dance remix/resamples are cracking tunes. The Zelda games continue to inspire. The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen comic is basically a really cool mash-up.

Our society reflects a strange dichotomy of the possible and the old though. You will see more superhero movies, you will see Terminator 5. You have seen an exploitation of the Exorcist property and the Omen remake is around the corner. Where the film-from-a-book was often a derided practise except in Kubrick's hands (and he basically remade them from the ground up), now we are reviewing and praising these films based on how faithful they are to the source material - regardless and seemingly unaware of how bad or good the resulting movie is (usually turgid).

And here's another realisation. This past-mining trend works. It works and it works really well. Between the combined sales of DVDs, theatre tickets and merchandise tat, a known property can make an absolute fortune. We are not Generation X, we are Generation Retro. We think almost subconsciously about our entertainment in terms of whether we recognise it first and foremost. We objectivise what we see, which almost ruins the chances of good ideas making a splash, and we almost 100% predictably plum for recognition over new.

Some of this is wrapped up in sales technique, no doubt, because it's easier to make a trailer that starts with 'from the novel by' or 'from the creator of' or 'inspired by the hit show' or whatever. I don't blame the studios for buying into a trend that is palpable, because they are there to make a profit.

It seems to me that the problem lies with us ourselves. Despite our liberal outwards and our new society which values multiculturalism and our new technology that literally places the world and our talents at our fingertips, it seems we are in fact an incredibly conservative generation. This may come as no surprise to some, I guess, but it seems as though not only have we opted for safe over strange, we've done so to such an extent that we've forgotten what strange is.

Maybe the root of the uncreative problem is the embarassment of options itself. Maybe it's a profound lack of a spiritual connection that our generation seems to have tapped into robbing us of any sense of courage for the future. Maybe there's some weight to the idea that art and suffering are very deeply linked, or maybe the problem is that we are so media literate now that we only understand reference.

Ironically, if we look a bit further back into the past, we can see that this sort of thing has happened before many times. Modernism constituted a reaction against a staid late Victorian mentality. Postmodernism constituted a reaction against a conservative and violent 40s and 50s. Romanticism was a quite revolution against the intricate establishment aesthetic of its day by re-introducing natural poetry over highly knowing referential poetry before it. The creative bubble of society seems to wax and wane depending on trying to get out from under the binding and increasingly brittle precepts of the old.

Generation Retro seems to me to be the tail end of the postmodern idea. What started out as a movement to break down the intricate symbolism of the past has now resulted in a generation that reveres a set of disconnected symbols instead and has gotten to the point that self-reference is built not on witty ground, but on the ground of faithful recreation and solemnity. How ironic in and of itself that many have chosen to call this decade the 'Noughties' when they are anything but. More like the 'Zeroes'.

And yet even calling for a change of ideas and new theories is in and of itself a postmodern idea. It's objectivising the creative, no matter what level you look at it from, to say 'what we need is a new Romanticism'. In the age of everything recycled, even thinking in the terms of 'what we need is a' is already buying into self-defeat and propagation of the product design/IP idea. It's a profoundly non-new way of thinking to say that what you need is a new way of thinking. Everything becomes a new branding exercise or theoretical discussion or Wired trend. A few have tried punching through the barrier, such as the transhuman idea or the posthuman idea, or even the transmodern 'bring back spirituality' idea, but these are all still inherently postmodern notions. It's all still mash-up, it's not creative.

There's one idea in Buddhism that particularly intrigues me, which is the idea of turning the mind off. Buddhism in general fascinates me, but in particular I had always assumed that meditation was in fact the act of quietening the mind by essentially taking the time to close your eyes and let your thoughts sort themselves out. Not so. Buddhism seems intent on dissolving the conscious mind in total, or rather, allowing a kind of true consciousness to emerge rather than a mind-dependent awareness. Buddhism seems to advocate a stance that most of us are actually unaware and unconscious all the time, that our minds and our egos are so busy reasoning and rationalising everything that we have no true awareness.

I think that there's something in this idea as regards Generation Retro, because the second thing that I've picked up from this is that the main reason that the mind is so engaged is because we fear change. We like control, we like our computers that we never use, our PDAs that sit idle for months on end, our PSPs that become toys for about three months and our DV-cams that we use all of twice. We like the sense of power over our own destiny that all this capability brings, but what we don't like is change. The reason that the retro-themed marketing works so well on us is that we want it to remind us of safety. It's a scary world out there, after all.

Mostly, what I think I'm talking about here is connecting with faith and instincts here. Not so much faith in God, just faith in faith. And instincts as in learning to understand what we feel rather than what we say to ourselves that we feel. There is an expression which says "Those who know don't speak, and those who speak don't know" which is humourously relevant to me while typing all this, perhaps telling me how little I know (after all, I am quite the talker).

Does it even matter that we are an uncreative generation anyway. The world is wracked by AIDS, impending wars, oil shortages and hurricanes. Does it matter so much that Joe on the street likes to go watch Narnia and maybe think back to nicer times?

Yes, I think that it does. Quite aside from the psychological unhealthiness of the symbol of living in the past, and the flip side that the technology promise makes which constitutes living in the future, we seem desperately unable to connect with reasons to live in the present. With all manner of Office-style grind on display and an increasingly vaccuous middle ground in most areas of society, I think creativity matters very much. I think self-acknowledgement matters a whole hell of a lot too, and we're losing track of both. Depression is up, stress is up, terror from planes crashing into office blocks leaves us unable to raise a passionate and clear argument as to why torture is a bad idea. We're all off in a hundred other places other than this one.

Generation Retro is all about being elsewhere.
Generation Zero could be about being right here.

So what is it I'm saying? That we need a new way to think?

No, I'm saying that thinking is the problem. Reasoning and rationality is itself the problem. Articulating meaning and quantifying creativity is the problem. Methodical attitudes are the problem. Self-prescribed rule structures for how things are made is the problem. Reference itself is the problem. Reaching to define our new era with the tools of the old is the problem. Casting creative efforts in an IP/genre/X meets Y framework is the problem.

We need to stop being overly rational and media-aware and start becoming conscious and actually-aware. Unlike in the modernist era or the post-modernist era, the pressing need of today is not to frame our era nor understand the frame. The pressing need is to stop looking at the frame and start looking at the picture. Stop recasting ourselves in the cloaks and symbols of bygone decades and start realising that we don't live in the 20th century any more. We should be conscious of the present, centered in the present and engaging with the present and leave the past and future be for a while.

Particleblog's comments have moved to The Play Room.