Adobe’s CEO is Just Not on the Same Wavelength as Artists

Shantanu Narayan with glasses and a beard, wearing a suit jacket, is shown against a vibrant background of pink and red soundwaves. The image has a purple tint and a white outline around the person, giving a graphic design effect.

Adobe CEO Shantanu Narayen has been in charge of Adobe for nearly two decades and in that time has rarely done interviews. However, he has been making the rounds lately to pump up AI’s tires, including an interview published this week with The Verge‘s Nilay Patel for the publication’s Decoder podcast. There, Narayen said some interesting, if not disconcerting, things.

Adobe’s Longtime CEO Has Overseen Major Transformation

The 60-year-old Narayen has been with Adobe since 1998 when he joined from Pictra, a digital photo sharing company he co-founded in 1996. Narayen started pretty high up within Adobe, occupying the role of senior vice president of worldwide product development until 2001. He got a slight promotion and then, in 2005, was appointed chief operating officer. Narayen replaced Bruce Chizen as CEO in late 2007, a position he’s held since.

Narayen has been in charge of Adobe through some of the company’s most controversial decisions, including the transformation into a software-as-a-service company. This move frustrated most users, set the stage for other companies to follow suit, and ultimately helped Adobe achieve record revenues year after year. By Narayen’s tally, it has undoubtedly been nothing short of success.

This is an excellent example of the potential disconnect between something being good for the bottom line and bad for the customer, a privilege reserved exclusively for companies with a complete and total stranglehold on a market.

However, in the long run, perhaps nothing Adobe has ever done will prove quite as disruptive as the company’s push into artificial intelligence. AI fundamentally changes the way that art is created, distributed, and sold. It has the potential to utterly upend the very ways in which humans make art, one of our most valuable and precious creations.

A line graph showing stock price trends from 2005 to 2023. The graph starts lower, shows steady growth until around 2013, then spikes sharply upward, reaching a peak around 2021, followed by a noticeable fluctuation and dip in the prices after.
Adobe’s share price over the last 20 years. | Graph created by Macrotrends

The Quest for More Money

Adobe has long been a company that trades in commodification — how could it not be? — but it has not always been so apparent as it is right now, with an Adobe exec calling AI “the new digital camera” and the company’s marketing efforts throwing photographers under the bus.

The company makes impressive software crafted with care and passion by people who genuinely want to empower artists to be their best. However, this is but one side of the story.

The other side is that the man in charge of Adobe is tasked with satisfying shareholders. While a product designer or engineer may care about how a new feature affects existing users, Narayen is, understandably, more concerned about turning one user into two, which means finding ways to push Adobe’s products and services into new and larger markets.

Many technology companies, Adobe among them, are betting on AI to be that entry into bigger markets, more revenue, and, ideally, record-setting profits.

Are there costs to AI? Yes, some are monetary, others significant from a moral standpoint. There are also potential windfalls. It’s unreasonable to expect a for-profit, publicly traded operation to prioritize nebulous ethical concerns, complex as they are, over numbers with more zeroes at the bottom of a spreadsheet. That’s just not what companies do.

And that is part of what makes Adobe such a fascinating company to think about, because unlike a tech startup like OpenAI or Midjourney, or even a stalwart like Microsoft or Google, Adobe has a rich history of making products and services for artists. OpenAI doesn’t have a relationship with artists it must worry about as it works to replace humanity’s place in the creative equation. Google doesn’t either — not really.

But Adobe does.

With one hand, the company sells photographers apps to help them turn their real, actual photos into works of art for personal and professional gain. Using its other hand, Adobe toils away at developing a generative AI platform that threatens to render photographers and other artists, visual and audio alike, disposable.

This is a very delicate and terrifying balance and one that is remarkably challenging to navigate. How do you both empower artists with AI tools while not making these tools so robust and far-reaching that they behead that same creator?

Nothing Narayen says gives me confidence that he is the person to navigate Adobe’s ship through these increasingly treacherous waters — at least not without tossing artists overboard. It’s not even clear that Adobe sees anything other than smooth sailing, which makes my anxiety all the more frustrating.

A view of the Adobe Systems headquarters, featuring two modern high-rise office buildings with numerous windows. The buildings are white with grey accents and are connected by a glass bridge. Flags are displayed near the entrance, and the sky is clear and blue.
Image captured by “Coolcaesar” and used via CC-BY-SA 4.0 license.

A Washington Post interview in March touched on a similar idea.

When asked what he would tell creatives who buy Adobe software that Adobe wasn’t trying to replace them with AI, Narayen said, instead of directly answering the question, “Well, a couple of thoughts. I mean, the first thing is that, you know, we’ve always been about enabling people to be more productive and more creative, and I’m firmly convinced that the creatives who use artificial intelligence to take whatever idea they have in their brain and have that manifested on whatever media type that they want to use it for are going to replace potentially people who don’t use AI and don’t use technology.”

Narayen continued, “And Firefly for us was just a mechanism of saying how do we make this available in an easy-to-use ideation, the concept of cards, and so, you know, we not only have it within our products, like Photoshop and Illustrator where we’ve integrated AI, but the fact that anybody with a web browser can go and tell us what’s in their head and start the creative process, I believe that’s magical.”

Narayen went on to suggest that a “young creative today” should use “everything that’s out there” to be a “better creative.”

On the one hand, Adobe has demonstrated that some AI tools can do just that for some creatives, and make their lives easier and provide them with more time and energy to make meaningful work.

But the issue is that for Narayen, and this pops up constantly in the way he talks, “better” is not about being a more passionate and creative photographer, illustrator, writer, musician, etc. “Better” is being a more prolific, productive cog in the content creation machine.

When art is measured in units and dollars, is it still art? I genuinely don’t know. But I hesitate to believe it’s a question Narayen would consider, let alone grapple with in earnest.

Adobe ‘Changes the World Through Digital Experiences’

When asked to describe Adobe at the top of his interview with Patel, Narayen responds, “I think Adobe has always been about fundamental innovation, and I think we are guided by our mission to change the world through digital experiences. I think what motivates us is: Are we leveraging technology to deliver great value to customers and staying true to this mission of digital experiences?”

It’s a bit bland and vague, but not a bad start. When pressed to explain “digital experiences,” the wheels shake.

“The way people create digital experiences, the way they consume digital experiences, the new media types that are emerging, the devices on which people are engaging with digital, and the data associated with it as well,” Narayen says. “I think we started off way more with the creative process, and now we’re also into the science and data aspects. Think about the content lifecycle — how people create content, manage it, measure it, mobilize it, and monetize it. We want to play a role across that entire content life cycle.”

A few back-and-forth exchanges later, the wheels come fully off.

A serene painting depicts two angelic figures with flowing white robes ascending into the sky. One angel holds another, who has her arms outstretched upward. Below them, a person lies on a rocky shoreline, partially covered by a red cloth. The background shows a calm sea.
‘The Human Soul’ by Luis Ricardo Falero, 1894, oil on canvas.

AI Has No Soul

“…The reality is that there are way more stories that people want to tell than skills that exist to be able to tell that story with the soul that they want and the emotion that they want.”

Excuse me, but what in the hell is he talking about? What “soul” and “emotion” are in generative AI?

No matter which side of the metaphysical fence you land on as it concerns the existence of a soul, it doesn’t much matter because practically everyone can agree that there is something that makes humans human. There is some part of us that becomes a vital component in what it is we create.

When you have an idea and take genuine action to turn that idea into something real, something artistic, a piece of you lives through that work.

‘There are way more stories that people want to tell than skills that exist to be able to tell that story,’ Narayan says.

That’s not what generative AI does, at least not in the grand sense of something going from a text prompt input to an image output. All the work, all those integral moments where a person puts a piece of themselves into something, they’re happening under the hood, fueled by actual art created by countless other people — the prompt typist not among them.

There are exceptions, and there are intricacies and subtleties far outside the scope of this article. But what’s not subtle at all is that throughout Narayen’s new interview, and others that have come before, it is painfully apparent that it has never been about human creativity.

Investing in Technology, Not People, is a Dangerous Path

“Again, we are in the business of investing in technology,” Narayen says. Technology can empower artists. However, if Adobe and others have their way, technology will also be able to replace them. If that’s the path toward more money, what company that invests in “technology” — not people — wouldn’t take it?

It’s impossible to know precisely how much of humanity’s best art in the past three-plus decades has been created with the aid of Adobe software, but the amount must be staggering. This will continue to be the case for years, that people can flex their creative muscles in new and exciting ways. I hope there will never be a point where the creative muscles are no longer human. I don’t think Adobe’s leadership shares this desire.

Image credits: Header image uses combination of creative commons photo (by Brian Cummings) and image licensed from Depositphotos.