“Creative Computing”: An Oxymoron?

“I’d rather do something creative with my life,” he said. The student seated before me was not interested in computer science but had been assigned to my advisee group by mistake. It had been an easy enough mistake to make. He was interested in the CAS program, media studies in particular, not the CS program, and I can still see him there in my office displaying all the telltale marks of creativity: all black clothing, retro tennis shoes, inappropriate piercings, a lively, questioning mind, and a potent distaste for the prospect of a life chained to a terminal. He saw computing as what Frederick Brooks called a “tar pit” whose myriad constraints would stifle his creativity. He was right to forsee constraints, but I wondered why he couldn’t see computing as I see it, as a field that, in Brooks’s words, “gratifies creative longings built deep within us.” (F.P. Brooks, The Mythical Man-Month)

While I believe that this student was likely better suited to his field of choice and I wish him well, I do lament the milieu that led him to conclude that computing is not creative. People tend to believe that media studies is creative and computing isn’t. Art and music are creative; engineering and accounting aren’t. They see “creative computing” and “creative engineering” as oxymorons, and “creative accounting” as much worse. This perception is incomplete at best. Constraints do play a significant role in the so-called “non-creative” fields, but they make appearances in the “creative” fields as well, and they certainly don’t kick the creative life out of any field.

Constraints in the “non-creative” fields are obvious right up front. If the system can’t compile a program, it won’t help the programmer to say “Look, I’m an artist and I want my program to have unbalanced parentheses” any more than it would help an engineer to point out that while the bridge may have collapsed and killed 100 people, it did “look breathtaking when it was still standing,” or an accountant to relabel a fraudulent report as a “creative vision for the future.” Computing and other related fields must honor constraints.

Don’t assume, however, that the so-called “creative” fields transcend constraints. They don’t. You won’t get far in media production or graphic art without knowing the technical details of your materials and your tools. You won’t stay in a choir very long if you try to convince the tenor section to sing the minor 3rd rather than the major 3rd the final chord on Handel’s Messiah. Every field has its materials and tools that must be mastered, and its realities that must be honored.

While constraints may frustrate, they are the basis upon which we inaugurate new ideas. Mastering them is the essence of creativity. The sooner we see computing, and engineering and accounting, as fields ready to welcome and reward creative people, the sooner we’ll see more quantum leaps of progress akin to those that inspired the information age.

Keith Vander Linden
August, 2007