In England last year, over 126K freshman enrolled in 'creative arts & designs' programs while only 48.4K enrolled in computer science courses- but in the digital era, which will be better equipped for creativity?
In the beginning was the word. And it was spoken. It’s an easy technology to master, speaking. Then it was written: memories shrank and trees were felled. Then printed – simple enough, if messy. Now, words shift in complicated ways. They can be filtered by algorithms, untouched by human tongue; they can be rendered graphical and made to dance. They can be tweeted and texted, liked and shared. Technology has always dictated how stories are told – but the current breadth of opportunity for spreading the word is as complicating as it is exciting.
Modern media are dogged by a “two cultures” mentality. On one side are the traditional bastions of media – humanities graduates who tell the stories in newspapers, on billboards, in adverts and books. On the other side are the tech crew: the developers who provide the increasingly complex and flexible infrastructure by which those stories can be told. At the moment, the two sides are largely unintelligible to each other. “Is this possible?” asks the writer of a cunning wheeze to make a story more interactive. “Anything’s possible,” replies the developer, a reply that closes off possibilities while pretending to open them.
In part, it’s a simple question of skills. The tribe to which I belong knows how to tell a story, but can’t grasp the digital possibilities. Being a technically illiterate journalist in today’s multimedia world is like being a pilot who’s a bit shaky on landings.
It’s not just a knowledge gap; there are subtler cultural divides at play. Paul Bradshaw, who runs Birmingham City University’s online journalism MA and is a visiting professor at London’s City University, says that different ways of learning are inculcated early on and are reflected in working patterns. The humanities graduates expect to read a book and learn from it. Developers are more hands-on, trying things out and adapting as they go. “Failure is part of the process,” he says. Different ways of working spawn garbled conversations.
Glyn Mottershead, lecturer in digital journalism at Cardiff School of Journalism, says: “The holy grail is a journalist-developer who can write and understand the story and can also build, design and enact the whole project.” But in these early days few have the right skillset. In the interim Mottershead is encouraging greater links between the university’s journalism and computer science students, in a bid to get the two sides to communicate more effectively.
While some make the leap, largely the two sides remain entrenched and apart. But it’s clear whose star is in the ascendancy, and it’s not the wordsmiths. Growing numbers of arts graduates squabble over dwindling jobs in contracting media industries. The money’s rotten, the prospects are poor, and yet still the next generation come, drawn by the lure of being “creative”. And the faltering industries welcome them in, using them as unpaid labour and skivvies while pretending that the jobs at the end of the rainbow are worth having. They are worth having if you don’t mind working hard for minimal reward: an editor at a publishing house earning the average of £26,000 a year and saving 5% of salary would take 26 years to save a 15% deposit on the average house and still be £88,000 short of the asking price. A journalist on the average wage would take 28 years to find the deposit. Once your foot’s in the door it’s trapped; a contracting industry means an immobile, nervous workforce with nowhere to go if the boss is unbearable.
Even assuming that the Bank of Mum and Dad can help, which is a fair assumption about many unpaid media interns, it is questionable if they are in the really creative tribe any more. The migration of the written word, whether editorial or commercial, onto digital platforms can stifle the very creativity these graduates are looking for. In print media, what matters most is engaging prose. In digital media, what matters most is visibility. Google does not get wit. Google is literal. Your copy can be sparkling and a joy to read, but if Google can’t find it, no one sees it. The ultimate editor, the filter between you and your reader, is humourless and passionless. An algorithm.
Meanwhile, all the really exciting, innovative and creative stuff around in the media is coming out of the tech tribe. They are working towards smart homes, where our media are embedded within the very walls of our houses. The inventors of killer apps are feted. The techies at Google have created artificial intelligence (AI) so nuanced it can recognise a cat. The implications of AI capable of self-learning for the media industries are so vast as to be dizzying; and it is virgin territory.
Yet government figures show that last year 126,455 freshers began “creative arts and design” courses in English universities, compared to 48,505 starting computer science courses. In our segregated academic system, children choose their tribes at 16 without really understanding the choice they are being asked to make; is anyone telling them that it’s better to be the inventor of a technology than the dinosaur supplanted by it?