Productivity in the Arts

Just the other day, I came across a reference to the Baumol effect . In short it says that the productivity of some activities cannot be improved. It has been used to explain the growth of government, but that isn’t what caught my interest.

The prime example used to illustrate the concept is a string quartet. It takes just as many people and takes just as long to perform a piece of string quartet music now as it took in the 18th century.

If the productivity of a symphony orchestra increased as much as computer speed has over the last 30 years, it would take 4 milliseconds to play Beethoven’s 9th Symphony. Even if this were possible, why would you want to?

I wondered if this were true of filmmaking. Certainly the introduction of new technology has had and will continue to have a profound impact on how films are made. I know that the technological changes have made it much cheaper and easier to make films. Where once you needed a film crew to shoot a film, one person now can shoot on their own.

That isn’t the whole story though. There are parts of the creative process that new technology cannot improve. Writers need just as long to conceive and write. Actors need just as long to rehearse and perform.

What is productivity mean in an artistic work?

Today, you can get software that provides more power to create music than the Beatles could have dreamed of in 1967. Millions of people around the world can and have acquired these technologies.

If it were just a matter of technological improvement, then we would expect the world to produce a thousand musical works with the same impact as Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. I don’t pay as much attention to music as I used to, but I have had the feeling that this has happened.

I do believe that technology has opened doors to many more people to express their creativity. While I think this is a good thing for the world, creativity can still not be mass produced. Who knows if it ever can?

Watson, the Jeopardy playing computer has shown that many mental abilities we thought only humans could achieve can be done by computers. Maybe one day computers will be creative.

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