Does digital creativity differ from non-digital creativity?


In order to answer the question of whether digital creativity differs from non-digital creativity we will explore the definition of the creative act as that of bringing together previously unassociated ideas from within or across domains (Koestler, 1981) and whether creativity is domain-specific (Baer, 1998) in order to understand how creativity in a digital context differs from the traditional. 

In exploring how digital media utilises ‘the double logic of remediation’ (Bolter & Grusin, 2000) we see how new media oscillates between immediacy and hypermediacy as it hides and reveals itself, and how it is digital media’s interactivity and multiplicity that results in it surpassing traditional media to become experience for participants.

And to consider how digital technology affects the production and consumption of new media we briefly discuss the foundational technologies and ‘proto-affordances’ (McMullan, 2020) that make new digital media fundamentally different from other forms of media.

The combination of this understanding of creativity in the digital context, modes of production and consumption for new media, and the underpinning technologies lead us to conclude that digital creativity is indeed different from a popular perception of non-digital creativity; different in origin, in format, in production, and in experience.

Defining creativity

In attempting to define creativity, Koestler speaks of conscious and unconscious processes which enact through the three forms of creative activity which he defines and have a basic pattern in common (1981). Describing that all creative activity falls into one or another of three categories: artistic originality, scientific discovery, and comic inspiration, or, more frequently, into a combination of them, we can consider creativity as a context-specific activity, that is to say that the way in which one is creative whilst making a scientific discovery differs from making a work of art. And in describing creative activity as having common patterns Koestler says, “The creative act consists in combining previously unrelated structures in such a way that you get more out of the emergent whole than you have put in” (1981). These definitions help us understand creativity as having categorically-specific and common characteristics.

General or specific creativity

How general or specific is creativity? Is it the same process for artistic creativity as it is for scientific discovery? The domain-specific view of creativity says that content matters, that no one is creative across all domains, that an artist has specific skills in visual arts that allows them to be creative in producing artworks, but wouldn’t be able to be creative in all domains. These domains are broadly defined as cognitive domains, for example mathematical, musical, and visual (Baer,1998). This raises the question of whether traditional arts and digital arts are fundamentally cognitively visual and so within the same domain, and so sharing the same creative processes. Or do we consider digital art to be a different domain to the traditional arts, perhaps less visual and more technical in cognitive processing, in which case we may conclude that digital creativity is within a different domain to the visual creativity that produces the traditional arts.

The computational bisociation of ideas

Creative activity does not create something out of nothing. It is an activity that, “combines, reshuffles, and relates already existing but hitherto separate ideas, facts, frames of perception, associative contexts. This act of cross-fertilization – or self-fertilization within a single brain – seems to be the essence of creativity. I have proposed for it the term bisociation.” (Koestler, 1981). The more unfamiliar and unconnected the joined ideas are, the more creative and original they appear (Koestler, 1981), which poses questions about collective creativity in the digital age. In new media artwork is it only the artist that conceived of the idea for the artwork who is being creative, or in the case of artwork that requires input from multiple people, are they all being creative? And if creativity in the digital age is the process of bisociation, then can computers be creative?

In considering the complex challenge of computational creativity, Dubitzky and Kötter (2012) utilise Koestler’s concept of bisociation to present a framework. They highlight a number of issues that require resolution in order for computational creativity to become a reality. The interoperability of the knowledge bases to allow ideas from one domain to be intersected with another, recognising usefulness and applicability of the idea, and deciding whether a new idea meets the definition of being creative, that is being new, surprising and valuable (Boden, 1994).

This attempt to discover how computers might be creative provides some insight into the complexities of human creativity in the realm of digital technologies. It highlights how the bisociation of ideas to lead to creative insight requires far more than simply joining two previously unconnected ideas together, the resulting creativity must be useful and new. As such, we can say that digital creativity must not only meet the criteria of traditional creativity but has additional criteria based on the limits of the technology being used.

How new media differs from traditional

If the digital creative act can be said to be different to the traditional act of creating something new, then how different can the outputs of those creative acts be? How different is new media from traditional media?

From the development of spoken language, to written language and the formalisation of an alphabet, the printing press and electronic media, to the world wide web, all were built on top of the previous media (McLuhan, 1964). The new media often fails to acknowledge the previous media (Bolter & Gromala, 2005) but arguably could not exist without earlier those versions. McLuhan’s assertions that the “content of any medium is always another medium” and “the “message” of any medium or technology is the change of scale or pace or pattern that it introduces into human affairs” (1964) helps us conceive of the ways in which new digital media differs from traditional media. It is not only the contents of the message of traditional media that become the message of new media, in the way that a story in a book is made into a film, it is also the traditional media itself that becomes the message of new media, such as characteristic notions of narrative and sequential story-telling that are taken from the medium of printed books and become raw materials of new media to be explored, critiqued, disrupted and challenged as the new medium evolves.

Means of comparing media

It is degrees of definition that separates hot and cool media. Hot media are high definition, that is containing lots of sensory data, whilst cool media are low-data, low-definition (McLuhan, 1964). Although McLuhan’s idea of hot and cold media may lack empirical basis (Douglas,1970) it provides a means by which we can compare one media with another. Cool media require higher involvement from the viewer, expecting them to fill in the gaps in their understanding whilst hot media is usually linear, sequential and logical requiring less of the viewer in order to understand the message. (McLuhan, 1964). Writing in the sixties, McLuhan did not have any examples of modern digital media to consider in his definitions but it is useful to consider both of McLuhan’s concepts, that of ‘the medium is the message’ and that of ‘hot and cool media’, together in order understand how new media builds on existing media and may change its nature in comparison to the existing media.

We can consider, as an example, the remediation of the moving image in how online videos took from cinema. Online videos on platforms such as YouTube maintain and reference many of the conventions established by earlier cinema including the rectangular format of the image and the synchronised image and sound. Remediating moving images changed video from hot media to cool, taking the immersive and single-sense experience that cinema provides and replacing it with a low-definition experience that asks of the viewer far more participation in order to gain any value from the experience. YouTube, as a cool media, provides viewers with the means to pause, skip, replay, choose another video; all mechanisms for increasing engagement that do not exist, and are not required, as part of the hot experience cinema provides. YouTube did not invent watching videos but it has accelerated and enlarged the scale (McLuhan, 1964) of the production and consumption of video, making cinema the message of its medium.

New media converges in the minds of the viewer

The idea of convergence offers a contrast with older notions of media spectatorship (Jenkins, 2006) and passive consumption, transforming those who experience the media into participants each at the centre of their own network of multiple media platforms. The experiencers of new media have no choice in this. Convergence occurs within the brains of every individual consumer (Jenkins, 2006) as they interact with media generated by each other and every kind of organisation. Social media, as a pervasive, widely used, and culturally relevant (Appel et al, 2020) means of propagating content in various forms to billions of people, offers an example of the difference convergence suggests occurs from consuming television. Social media offers a multitude of points-of-view leading to what Appel et al refer to as how “digitally enabled social interactivity is shaping culture itself” (2020) by removing the trusted authority of a single source of media. New media, utilising network effects and not presenting itself with singular coherent narrative as in traditional media forces different patterns of consumption.

How digital changed consumption of new media

Having critiqued the position that creativity differs depending on the cognitive domain and that technology creativity may exist within a different domain to the visual, we can consider the medium by which those creative outputs are engaged with to understand how digital media may differ from traditional media.

In traditional media such as painting, artists have adopted the mechanisms of perspective, natural light and shade and the removal of brush strokes from the painting in an attempt to achieve immediacy and cause the viewer to forget the presence of the medium (Bolter & Grusin, 2000). In expressing this cultural need to reflect our reality through the media we consume, media producers have adopted these mechanisms to allow the viewer to regard the medium as transparent. This transparency, whilst not intending to fool the viewer into believing that the medium they engage with is reality (Bolter & Grusin, 2000) has sought to express that reality in ways that enable interaction. Perhaps an artist’s expression of the reality and their emotional experience of the reality can be felt more deeply by a viewer where the interface does not seem to be a barrier.

Digital media requires and creates a different relationship with its viewer. It also intends to make itself disappear and so enable a direct “confrontation with the original” (Bolter & Gromala, 2005), but recognises that this can never be possible. Digital media is interactive and multiple in nature, which requires that it reveals the interface to the viewer. Hypermediacy is a reusing and refashioning of traditional and contemporary media to offer a more authentic experience (Bolter & Gromala, 2005). McLuhan’s point that the, “The business of art is no longer the communication of thoughts or feelings which are to be conceptually ordered, but a direct participation in an experience. The whole tendency of modern communication… is towards participation in a process, rather than apprehension of concepts.” (1951, p.73) expresses a recognition of the difference in intention between traditional and new media. Experience rather than expression is the aim of digital media. In participating, or converging as Jenkins would describe it (2006), the viewer becomes part of a digital artwork, fundamentally challenging conceptions of originality and creative ownership held as essential aspects of traditional art.

The oscillation of media

This oscillation between immediacy and hypermediacy, hiding the medium and revealing it, is what Bolter and Grusin refer to as the double logic of remediation (2000). It expects of the viewer a shifting between interacting with the media through a transparent interface and knowing that the interface is mediating that experience. Bolter and Gromala argue that “remediation is a defining characteristic of the new digital media” (2005) and as such guides us to consider how remediation takes place within a medium and between mediums, in often contradictory ways.

Stories, the mobile-device full-screen vertical video format introduced by Snapchat in 2012 and adopted by many other products, including Twitter, Spotify and LinkedIn since (Moriarty, 2017), is an example of the remediation of the portrait format from painting and an attempt by digital media to achieve immediacy by enabling viewers to use video in ways that are more natural to their use of the mobile device. Despite the initial barriers to adoption (Glove and Boots, 2012) vertical video has become mainstream and can be expected to shift towards hypermediacy, making viewers aware that their act of viewing is not reality. “If the ultimate purpose of media is indeed to transfer sense experiences from one person to another” (Bolter & Grusin, 2000), then vertical video will experience the oscillation of remediation as the technology that replaces it emerges with increased immediacy. 

New media attempts to surpass old media, to replace it with something that better meets the promise of immediacy (Bolter & Grusin, 2000). It attempts to create the belief that digital technologies have passed beyond mediation, that they have achieved such immediacy of experience that the interface no longer exists and the viewer is interacting directly with reality. In many respects new media is on a continuum with old media. All expressions of creativity are remediations of other mediums and digital expressions are no different (Bolter, & Gromala, 2005). But where new digital media deverges and differs is in its interactivity and multiplicity leading us to adopt a position that creativity expressed through digital media differs from creativity expressed in traditional media.

The foundational technologies of new media

McMullan goes even further, suggesting that digital media is not merely a continuation and remediation of older media but that it is based on different foundational technology and so is fundamentally different. This difference is explained through the concept of proto-affordances (McMullan, 2020) which define a technology’s relationship with a culture. The predominant foundational technology in play prior to the digital age was ‘electronic’ from which we see media that is instantaneous in nature and associated with technologies such as television. The proto-affordance of the foundational technologies of digital media is computability, that is, McMullan says, that all digital media has in common that it was produced by computer and as such is determinable by mathematical means. It could be considered counter-intuitive to speak of mathematics when discussing creativity but this only serves to further reinforce our earlier conclusion about the cognitive nature of digital creativity.

Artificial Intelligence has been used to create music since the 1990’s (Deahl, 2018). If any creative endeavour lends itself to being mathematically determinable, then music with its formalised language and relationships must be it. A wide range of methods have been successfully used in music composition including heuristics in evolutionary algorithms, neural networks, stochastic methods, generative models, agents, decision trees, declarative programming and grammatical representation (Lopez-Rincon, 2018) with results indistinguishable from that of human composers (Barbican, 2019). This remediation of music by software into data where production can be automated (Manovich, 2003) is indicative of the effect digital technology has and will continue to have on media production.

The most fundamental of digital technologies; the internet, has and stands to continue to have a profound effect on the remediation of traditional media. The internet combined with other modern technologies such as 3D printing and artificial intelligence has the potential to remediate all other mediums (McMullan, 2020) and generate entirely new, new media (Manovich, 2003). No other technology in the history of our culture has had that power.


Digital creativity differs from non-digital creativity. It differs in the nature of the creative act, in its definition of creativity, in its outputs as digital media, in how new media is experienced by its participants, and in the technology that underpins new media. 

Taking Koestler’s definition of the creative act as “combining previously unrelated structures in such a way that you get more out of the emergent whole than you have put in” (1981) and his notion of the bisociation of ideas across domains, we developed an understanding of creativity having common patterns and categorical specificites. Baer’s work on the domains of creativity (1998) builds on Koestler and provides insight into the creative act leading us to conclude that when digital creativity stems from a different cognitive domain to more traditional visual creativity then we can consider this a fundamental difference in the source and nature of the creativity, especially as it pertains to the production of new and digital media. 

McLuhan’s oft quoted, “the medium is the message” (1964) began our understanding of the difference between old media and new media, and how new media references what has been before but generates a change of scale or pace for that message. The nature of this change is particularly important for understanding how different digital media in the 21st century is from traditional media in previous centuries as the internet has enabled a speed of change that has been impossible in earlier decades. The ways in which we understand new media as different from old media continued with McLuhan’s definition of hot media as high definition whilst cool media requires more viewer participation (1964). Using this perspective we considered cinema as old media and online videos such as those on YouTube as cool media, showing that for the medium of online video the message of the moving image had undergone a change in scale and pace from how viewers experience cinema. Also, in appreciating the difference between new and old media we looked at the concept of convergence (Jenkins, 2006) which described how old media is consumed in a passive spectator mode whilst new digital media is more of an experience participated in by individual consumers at the centre of a network of media content. New digital media differs in these many aspects from traditional media.

Finally, in considering the effects that foundational digital technology (McMullan, 2020), artificial intelligence and the internet has on new media production we conclude, as McMullan (2020) and Manovich (2003) do, that new media is fundamentally different from traditional media. 

We can also put forward the opinion that digital creativity will continue to diverge from traditional creativity as technology becomes more embedded in more creative endeavours.


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OxCom Day 1

Had my first session with the Oxford College of Marketing for my Diploma in Digital Marketing. The session was really good, and I was impressed with their professionalism and seriousness. The sessions all have learning outcomes attached, the powerpoint slides have a bibliography, and there is a strong focus on making sure you know what needs to be included in your assignment. They also seem to make good use of web-based learning materials with webinars on each topic and all the course material available online.