I just came across the New York Times’ review of Jaron Lanier’s new book. Ordinarily I’d read it before opining, but I’m not sure I’m willing to pay him for a copy. Here’s one example of why:

His new book, “You Are Not a Gadget,” is a manifesto against “hive thinking” and “digital Maoism,” by which he means the glorification of open-source software, free information and collective work at the expense of individual creativity.

As a creativity scholar, I find the notion of “individual creativity” as constructed in our culture to be a myth. Creativity is not something that happens in a vacuum. Even if you take a fairly narrow definition of the term (as, say, novel creations), almost no one works alone. Most fields require collaboration for people in them to function, let alone to advance. We also perpetually underestimate the degree to which personal and chance connections influence people’s creative work.

Worse, the myth of “individual creativity” is a poisonous one. It’s rooted in a Great Man approach to the world, which has been debunked in most fields but somehow not this one. Under this theory, creative advances happen because of the heroic efforts and remarkable capabilities of one person. This is just not realistic, as Herbert Spencer pointed out back in the day. It’s also used to argue that women and minorities are less creative than men (because, you know, where’s our Mozart?). This theory is seriously not even wrong.

Lanier may be right that collective work is being glorified at the expense of individual creativity, but he’s wrong to be upset about it. “Individual creativity” deserves to have some of the air taken out of it. Jaron Lanier may have something to lose if that happens, but the millions of people doing unrecognized collaborative creative work have far more to gain.

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