By Arun Sharma
Creative and performing arts disciplines are at an interesting juncture. After decades of concern about lack of funding, and about being sidelined in favour of the STEM disciplines, there may be some positive signals. The question is whether these disciplines are ready for the opportunities emerging from these signals.
Much has been written about the significant scale of the creative sector, and the enhanced value that creative and design inputs bring to almost every sector of the economy. Creativity in the workforce is increasingly seen as a desirable and differentiating capability – it is not uncommon for business executives to take acting lessons to enhance their effectiveness, and the MFA (Master of Fine Arts) has been promoted in business periodicals as an out of the box alternative to the MBA.
Martha Nussbaum has eloquently noted in her book "Not for Profit" that the creative and performing arts have been an integral part of a broad liberal education dating back to the experiments of Dewey and Tagore during the first half of the twentieth century. These disciplines cultivate the imagination and engender empathy. A case can be made that they are even more relevant in a world being transformed by technology.
Technologies of automation and big data, underpinned by the cumulative effect of exponential growth in computing power – a growth that began in the 1950s – are transforming professions and disrupting almost every sector of the economy. There is no immediate end in sight to this exponential growth, and with each doubling of computing power, Artificial Intelligence increasingly begins to resemble human intelligence. There has been much speculation, often with alarming overtones, about the dire consequence of these advances on current jobs and professions.
It is difficult to predict the extent and the rate at which machines will replace humans in the workforce, but it is clear that "rationality" is more vulnerable to automation than emotions, drives and storytelling imperatives that make us human, if only for the reason that the search space for the latter is immensely more complex and vast. This has consequences for skills and capabilities that will continue to have currency in the job market. Employers will seek out graduates with attributes often associated with the creative and performing arts, which in turn may influence students to broaden their educational experience by including study of these disciplines as a means of differentiation.
Let us fast forward and imagine a time in the not too distant future where every student wishes to take a minor in one of the creative and performing arts disciplines – they have become the source of a new set of sought-after generic attributes. This will surely do wonders for the financial viability of those disciplines, but can they scale up in a way that society can afford?
A discussion on productivity improvement does not always sit well with the creative and performing arts. At the risk of dredging up the now familiar argument by Baumol and Bowen on the subject of "cost disease", they observed as early as the 1960s that productivity gains are unlikely to offset wage increases in the arts and education sectors as they do in other sectors of the economy. Bowen, in his recent book, "Higher Education in the Digital Age" quotes Robert Frank, "While productivity gains have made it possible to assemble cars with only a tiny fraction of the labour that was once required, it still takes four musicians nine minutes to perform (the first movement of) Beethoven's String Quartet No. 4 in C minor just as it did in the 19th century."
Now, one may say that this is perfectly fine, experimental attempts to replace a musician or two by a robot may have some novelty value, find a niche following and may even one day become a popular genre, but by and large we are not talking about productivity improvement in the "outputs" of the creative and performing arts. In fact, as Bakker has noted, the technology of motion picture did make theatre accessible by transforming a labour-intensive service into a non-rival commodity, and one can see how photography did the same to aspects of visual arts.
What is needed is productivity improvement in the way we teach our students in these fields. Technology is beginning to tackle the "cost disease" in education, and nowhere is the need more urgent than in the teaching of creative and performing arts. The traditional approaches may have served us well, but they simply cannot scale in a cost effective way if there is a quantum jump in demand. Of course there may well be some cultural resistance to changing the way we have done things in the past. However, it is difficult to argue that technology has no role to play in improving productivity in how students learn creative and performing arts, whether it is the use of motion capture cameras in teaching dance, or the potential for technologies such as speech recognition, machine learning and cognitive assistants in facilitating practice of music. A careful analysis of the teaching and learning process, followed by an understanding of where human experts and expertise are essential and where technology is better able to assist, will allow for larger class sizes without any loss of learning effectiveness. If such initiatives were rigorously tested for learning outcomes via randomized controlled trials, universities would have the confidence to prescribe these subjects as part of a broader curriculum for all students.
Universities are about human capital, and the human capital needed for a world where rationality is commodified will necessarily benefit from an education that appeals to our humanity. The creative and performing arts have a major role to play, and one with enormous potential to expand. But to make this expansion possible they will have to reach out to computer scientists in the first instance, and eventually to behavioural economists and neuroscientists to entice the "engineer" to their courses.
Arun Sharma is Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Research and Commercialisation) at QUT. He has played a leadership role in developing Australian research capability in information and communication technology. He was co-founder of NICTA and the CRC for Smart Internet Technology, and also served as the Head of School of Computer Science and Engineering at UNSW. He is currently a member of the Advance Queensland Expert Advisory Panel and has served on a number of advisory roles, including the ARC Council, Queensland Premier's Smart State Council and the Premier's Business Roundtable. He is a past National Chair of the Australia India Business Council.