The digital issue we don’t discuss and its implications for the creative economy
Computers’ ability to effectively simulate a huge variety of functions has allowed them to replace hi-fis, cameras, maps, DVD players, calculators, typewriters, cash registers, musical instruments, watches, TVs, newspapers, books, shopfronts, money and more. Although the changes caused by the general-purpose power of computation are widely observed, it is arguably less discussed than the role of data and/or the costless copying of information. Perhaps due to the high visibility of the large data-driven US tech companies and because talking about costs fits more readily with the world view of policymakers and economists than general-purpose machines.  It is though no less important.
The versatility of computation unifies many seemingly disconnected phenomena. It is not just a neutral technological change; it has economic and political implications too. Spotting early on that many devices could be replaced by software on premium hardware is a key part of Apple’s success and other companies’ decline (Nokia, Kodak). That computers can simulate other computers - virtual machines - is central to cloud computing. The largest cloud provider, Amazon, leverages the spare capacity of its huge computing resources by virtualising and reselling it to provide on demand digital infrastructure for many companies.  The Raspberry Pi has sparked a wave of inventiveness as, within the constraints of its hardware, it can do what any other computer can at small scale and low cost. A future of self-driving cars steered by software is highly concerning to any country with large traditional car industries such as Germany and Japan. The great public interest in Artificial Intelligence (AI), and on the automation of work are, in many ways, concentrations on specific manifestations of the general phenomenon that lots of things can be simulated by software on the right hardware.
Some things follow from this:
Computation is however having its own impact on the creative industries.
The ability of computers to perform many activities is having several effects on the creative economy; the creative industries and wider sectors that employ creative skills.
These changes are well known within the sector, but are less known outside it.
Computation democratising creation That computers are enabling individuals to undertake a wide range of tasks is democratising creative potential. It enables people to programme, to create music, games and graphic designs from just a laptop. This is having artistic impacts. A reason for electronic music’s increased popularity is advances in what can be produced with a laptop and software such as Ableton and Pro Tools. This change is also contributing to the structure of labour markets. The ability for many creative activities to be produced from a laptop, combined with the ability to distribute it electronically, has enabled people to work more flexibly encouraging freelancing in the creative industries.
Games technology being used more widely Computer games are, perhaps, the ultimate example of the computer’s power of simulation – the creation of an interactive virtual environment in real time. Games technology is being deployed in more areas. It is also expanding into more immersive experiences with Virtual Reality and the real world with Augmented Reality. In the recent TV adaption of Phillip Pullman’s His Dark Materials the Unreal engine (A programme used to create computer games) was used to create a replica of the film sets and the animated characters. An animated game simulation of the visual effects was then superimposed on the real set using Augmented Reality, linking what could be seen through the viewfinder to digital animation in real time informing the final version.  The Weather Channel uses the Unreal engine to visualise extreme weather events, such as a storm surge. Self-driving car companies are using environments from driving games to test drive their algorithms. Games are also being used to train AI algorithms more generally. For example there is a partnership between the AI company DeepMind and the games engine Unity to develop game environments for AI.
Computation powering creation by producing new techniques There are many digital creative software tools: ranging from Instagram filters to dedicated software like Photoshop, Blender (3D animation), Renderman (Rendering), Processing (programming to create images), TidalCycles (programming to create live music) to name but a few not already mentioned. Recent developments in AI such as Generative Adversarial Networks (GANs) and style transfer are starting to be used creatively, such as in the Aphex Twin's T69 collapse video. There are also other approaches such as generative design, where algorithms are used to produce designs that are becoming more influential.
The convergence of creative domains Digital convergence has created a universal medium for production and distribution bringing different parts of the creative industries closer together leading to a common skill set – a trend that is likely to continue in future. There are a range of technical skills relating to 3D modelling such as rendering, photogrammetry and motion capture that are used in multiple areas. For example motion capture, where people’s movements are tracked and then used to move a digital avatar (perhaps most famously Andy Serkis’ Gollum in Lord of the Rings) is deployed in both visual effects and computer games.  The 3D digital models that represent characters inside computer games can sometimes be downloaded and 3D printed.
Although these trends are common knowledge within the sector, institutions and policies are still catching up with them. Several implications follow from them:
The pervasiveness of digital certainly does not mean we will see the end of the many traditional creative artforms. As happened with painting and photography, the development of new media does not necessarily eliminate existing ones, although it may lead to a change in focus. However, there has never been a creative tool with the computer's range of possibilities and we need to think harder how to get the most from it.
Acknowledgements: The second stage of this post draws on the findings from a report that the author wrote with Georgia Ward Dyer for the EU Parliament
Davies, J. and Ward Dyer, G. (2019), ‘The relationship between artistic activities and digital technology development’, European Parliament. https://www.europarl.europa.eu/RegData/etudes/STUD/2019/634440/EPRS_STU(2019)634440_EN.pdf
 It’s not that it’s never discussed. The most famous statement of this being Andreessen (2011), ‘Why Software Is Eating the World’ https://a16z.com/2011/08/20/why-software-is-eating-the-world/, Wall Street Journal. In economics there is a growing field of work algorithmic game theory that combines elements of economics and computer science, and work on the effects of digitisation, but it is probably fair to say that computation itself is not something that is fully embedded in the subject.
 The versatility of computation should not be a complete surprise. When Alan Turing first proposed a mathematical model for the computer he, in an abstract mathematical sense, showed that given a few set elements a programmable computer was in principle capable of doing what any other form of computational device could do: a universal machine. Due to huge technical progress in both hardware and software this theoretical potential is being brought into ever greater fulfilment. This does not mean computers can do everything. Turing also showed there are things it is impossible for computers to do. For example it is not possible to programme a computer to generate certain kinds of number (so called incomputable numbers) or to develop a general procedure for deciding whether a given programme when presented with a particular input will terminate or not. Whether human intelligence is computable i.e. can be simulated by computer has been a long running debate ever since.
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