BOX 1.1 The Utility of Information Technology

A common answer to the question, What good is information technology?, is that it enhances productivity. Unquestionably, information technology (IT) now helps one to perform many routine tasks with greater speed and accuracy, with fewer errors, and at lower cost. So computers and software products are marketed as productivity tools, investments in IT are justified in terms of productivity gains, and economists try (sometimes without success) to measure those gains. In this role, IT is a servant.

An additional claim, which can be justified in certain contexts, is that IT enhances the quality of results. Laser-printed documents not only are quicker and cheaper to produce than handwritten or typewritten ones but may also be crisper and more legible. The outputs of detailed computer simulations of systems may be more reliable, and more useful to engineers, than the approximate, rule-of-thumb hand calculations that were used in earlier eras. And a sophisticated optimization program may produce a better solution to an allocation problem than manual trial and error. In this role, IT supports creative craftsmanship.

A still stronger, but frequently defensible, claim is that IT enables innovation—the production of outcomes that would otherwise simply not be possible. Scientists may use computers to analyze vast quantities of data and thereby derive new knowledge that would not be accessible by other means. Architects may use curved-surface modeling and computer-aided design/manufacturing systems to design and build forms that would have been infeasible—and probably would not even have been imagined—in earlier times. And new, electronic musical instruments, which make use of advanced sensor and signal-processing technology, may open up domains of composition and performance that could not be explored using traditional instruments. In this role, IT becomes a partner in processes of innovation.

Perhaps the strongest claim is that IT can foster practices that are creative in the most rigorous sense— scholarly, scientific, technological, design, and artistic practices that produce valuable results in ways that might be explained in retrospect but could not have been predicted. At this point, one might detect a whiff of paradox—a variant on Plato’s famous Meno paradox. Unless it offers users a means to produce something they already know they want, IT is not helpful. But if someone produces something merely by running a program, the production process is predetermined and potentially standardized, so how can the result be truly creative?

INVENTIVE AND CREATIVE PRACTICES

Creativity is a bit like pornography; it is hard to define, but we think we know it when we see it.1 The complexities and subtleties of precise definition should not detain us here, but it is worth making a few crucial distinctions.

Certainly, creative intellectual production can be distinguished from the performance of routine (though perhaps highly skilled) intel-

1  

For a concise summary of attempts to define creativity within a variety of intellectual traditions, see Carl R. Hausman, 1998, “Creativity: Conceptual and Historical Overview,” pp. 453-456 in Encyclopedia of Aesthetics, Vol. 1, Michael Kelly, ed., Oxford University Press, New York.



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