Creativity and Data: A Happy Marriage?


Earlier this week at Cannes Lions, a session from Dentsu Labs Tokyo served up an interesting discussion of data and creativity, with a focus on how we as creative professionals leverage the veritable sea of data our global culture is quickly amassing.

Last year alone, we generated 4.5 zettabytes of data (that’s 4.5 trillion gigabytes), a trend that will further accelerate over the next ten years with the explosion of data-gathering devices: mobile phones, watches, wearables, environmental and biotech sensors, traffic cams and so on. At a rough estimate, it’s anticipated that 50 billion devices out there will soon be connected to the Internet.

Data, as the Dentsu presenter suggested, is indeed the “new air—as essential as air, water and energy.” And while data makes marketing better, can data make creativity richer? Multiple examples were shared to demonstrate data’s ability to curate culture, power creative thinking and reimagine storytelling.

Perhaps one of the best-known examples is “Flight Patterns,” a data visualization of commercial flight patterns over the US at night (Aaron Koblin, 2005). It puts a seminal visual to our frenetic modern lives.

Hip Hop Word Count (Tahir Hemphill), established in 2008, is a database of more than 50,000 rap songs from 3,000 artists. It lets users distill highly nuanced information from the ever-growing catalog of rap music—capturing the living language of rap and the quickly evolving cultural trends reflected in lyrics (see visual on champagne brand of choice by year).


Hip Hop Word Count (Tahir Hemphill)

Other examples: “We Feel Fine: An Almanac of Human Emotion” (Jonathan Harris and Sep Kamvar) is a data collection engine that scans blogs and posts for the phrase “I feel” or “I am feeling” to chronicle our collective mood. And “Forms” (a collaboration between visual artists Quayola and Memo Akten) is a series of studies on human motion—such as athletes in competition—and its reverberations through space and time.


So what is all this data leading to? Artificial intelligence, and its enormous appetite for data to drive ever more human-like responses and behavior. Think IBM’s Watson defeating the Jeopardy champion.

And with services such as automated copywriting, automated website design, automated voice-over talent, will AI eventually take over the creative profession?

Not so fast. Data, after all, is a reflection of where we have been, not necessarily where we are going. And only human brains have the ability to imagine. So our jobs are safe. At least for now.

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