The iPad and the False Distinction Between Consumption and Creation

Image of a colorful Japanese manhole cover on an iPadListening yesterday to Leo Laporte’s podcast, This Week in Tech, I was reminded how technology is constantly befuddling those who believe in a clear distinction between content consumption and creation.

Midway through the show (at about 1:09), discussion turned to how Adobe will soon be releasing Photoshop for the iPad, and how Microsoft is expected to do the same for its Office suite. As Laporte and guest Dan Patterson noted, it’s remarkable how this small device that was once pigeonholed as “just a content consumption device” has opened up new creative outlets.

But this achievement is not unique to the iPad or even to other mobile computing devices. Think, for instance, of how turntables, which might seem pure consumption devices, become creative tools in the hands of hip hop DJs.

The important thing here is that technology is not changing the nature of content consumption, but revealing it. The technology simply reminds us that the act of “consuming” content—a bad metaphor really—can in fact be creative.

Thus, it’s unwise for anyone engaged in content creation—whether a journalist, creative writer, or artist—to think of their audience as mere consumers. They are not passive vessels waiting to be filled up with the creator’s content. Rather, they are active collaborators, interpreting, responding to, and mashing up that content—just, in fact, as the creator is doing.

Are there differences between what you do as a content consumer and what you do as a creator? Of course. But these activities are the two ends of a continuum, and there is no clear dividing line between them.

As audience, we have not just the freedom but the responsibility to creatively respond to content. And as creators, we do not absolutely own or control our content—we’re simply leasing it, and owe a debt both to those who contributed to it in the past as well as those who will do so in the future. If we understand this, we will be better consumers and creators of content alike.

(The image of a Japanese manhole cover on an iPad above, courtesy of Tokyo Japan Times, refers to a phenomenon known as drainspotting, or collecting and sharing pictures of colorful manhole covers, popularized by artist/content consumer Remo Camerota.)