AI: Stimulus and Response to Creative Anxiety

By now, we’ve all seen the hype cycle welcoming and lamenting AI’s advancements. It’s true: Its astonishing innovations are a source of wonder. And, at the same time, ill-conceived incentives and unintended consequences will probably lead us, led by AI, in a meandering race to the bottom, in some areas at least. 

We’re in the grey space of before, awaiting potential regulations and experiments in implementation that will determine ethical and practical usage. In the meantime, we can draw from AI many useful lessons. For writers and others, AI offers a lens for understanding and responding to creative anxiety, maybe even the creative anxiety provoked by AI.

Creative anxiety is the stress that follows from the pressure to think expansively and improvisationally. When we feel it, we freeze before our task, work superficially through a tough problem, or avoid whatever is causing our discomfort. 

As an existential threat to creativity, AI is a legitimate cause of this (and other) anxiety. But AI is not yet so much an existential threat as it is a reinforcing mechanism of two critical biases. To wit, it supports our tendency to confuse excess with meaning and our assumption that creativity is limited.

Our online lives encourage the conflation of excess with meaning in many, many ways. Such conflation is an efficient mechanism of/for the attention economy, in part because it eliminates the firsthand, active, participatory, and also time- and body-consuming experiences that typically inform significance. Our online experiences are gained second- or third-hand, passively and asynchronously. Their value depends not on impact but on endless accrual. 

Yet, the pervasiveness of digital ennui suggests that the accrual can’t really lead to the kinds of significance on which meaning depends. That’s one reason why the online scroll feels so endless and futile: We seek, infinitely, some meaning.

AI promises a new tool for making excess meaningful. In fact, its ability to accumulate the furthest pixels of the digital world suggests its output is particularly authoritative. This has implications for creativity, too: Those of us who experience creative anxiety often implicitly assume that creativity is a limited resource. It’s out there and acquirable mostly through discovery. AI’s capacity to access everything out there suggests a claim on locatable creativity.

But this isn’t quite right. Excess can inform significance and meaning, but it must do so by way of an interested interpreter. And creativity isn’t contingent on everything: It actually depends on nothing. By some measures, creativity is the improvisation that follows restriction—it’s an internal potential. In fact, it’s the possible basis of our evolutionary capacity and is therefore inherent, as possibility, in every living thing. 

Ultimately, while AI provokes anxiety, it also suggests strategies of response. We can, for instance, create significance and meaning by seeking out firsthand experiences (perhaps using AI as a tool to inform these experiences). We can also structure our work in restrictive ways that require improvisation (perhaps using AI as a tool to help set restrictions). 

AI can be a meaningful and creative, if fundamentally derivative, producer. But for now it requires interpreters to cull from its excess and respond to its nothings with flexible improvisation. It can help us to channel the very anxiety it provokes, even—or especially—when we consider it a stone against which to sharpen our response.