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Aug
28th
Tue
permalink

Found poetry


                                                            Click image to enlarge

unlock the moonlight,
forge a chain,
bring your candle to glitter again.

Found poetry is a type of poetry created by taking words, phrases, and sometimes whole passages from other sources and reframing them as poetry by making changes in spacing and lines, or by adding or deleting text, thus imparting new meaning. The resulting poem can be defined as either treated: changed in a profound and systematic manner; or untreated: virtually unchanged from the order, syntax and meaning of the original.

Franze Stenzel describes the Dadaism movement with its readymade philosophy as a predecessor for the practice that later became found poetry. Dadaists like Duchamp placed everyday practical objects in an environment that was aesthetic and in so doing called into question that object as art, the observer, the aesthetic environment and the definition of what is art.

Stylistically, found poetry is similar to the visual art of “appropriation” in which two- and three-dimensional art is created from recycled items, giving ordinary/commercial things new meaning when put within a new context in unexpected combinations or juxtapositions.” (Wiki)


                                                               Click image to enlarge

Silver sigh
and flames of dust:
you forget me.

I hesitate, pressed,
drumming answers of knives
into the night.

Illustrations above: Itti

            
                                                    Click image to enlarge Source: danidrastic

           
                                                                       source

      
                                                    Click image to enlarge Source

      
                             Illustration: Dog-Eared Poetry: Three Works by Erica Baum

Jul
19th
Thu
permalink

Paul Klee: Taking A Line For A Walk


Paul Klee, Swiss born German painter (1879-1940), Pedagogical Sketchbook1925, cited in S. Manghani, A. Piper, J. Simons, Images: A Reader, SAGE, 2006, p. 221-222. (tnx the-rx)

Jan
22nd
Sun
permalink

The Rise of the New Groupthink. ‘Without great solitude, no serious work is possible’

          

"The mind is sharper and keener in seclusion and uninterrupted solitude. No big laboratory is needed in which to think. Originality thrives in seclusion free of outside influences beating upon us to cripple the creative mind. Be alone, that is the secret of invention; be alone, that is when ideas are born. That is why many of the earthly miracles have had their genesis in humble surroundings.”

Nikola Tesla, Serbian-American inventor, mechanical engineer, and electrical engineer (1856-1943)

"Solitude is out of fashion. Our companies, our schools and our culture are in thrall to an idea I call the New Groupthink, which holds that creativity and achievement come from an oddly gregarious place. Most of us now work in teams, in offices without walls, for managers who prize people skills above all. Lone geniuses are out. Collaboration is in. 

But there’s a problem with this view. Research strongly suggests that people are more creative when they enjoy privacy and freedom from interruption. And the most spectacularly creative people in many fields are often introverted, according to studies by the psychologists Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and Gregory Feist. They’re extroverted enough to exchange and advance ideas, but see themselves as independent and individualistic. They’re not joiners by nature.

One explanation for these findings is that introverts are comfortable working alone — and solitude is a catalyst to innovation. As the influential psychologist Hans Eysenck observed, introversion fosters creativity by “concentrating the mind on the tasks in hand, and preventing the dissipation of energy on social and sexual matters unrelated to work.” In other words, a person sitting quietly under a tree in the backyard, while everyone else is clinking glasses on the patio, is more likely to have an apple land on his head. (Newton was one of the world’s great introverts: William Wordsworth described him as “A mind for ever/ Voyaging through strange seas of Thought, alone.”)

Solitude has long been associated with creativity and transcendence. “Without great solitude, no serious work is possible,” Picasso said. A central narrative of many religions is the seeker — Moses, Jesus, Buddha — who goes off by himself and brings profound insights back to the community.

Culturally, we’re often so dazzled by charisma that we overlook the quiet part of the creative process. (…)

In his memoir, Mr. [Steve] Wozniak offers this guidance to aspiring inventors:

Most inventors and engineers I’ve met are like me … they live in their heads. They’re almost like artists. In fact, the very best of them are artists. And artists work best alone …. I’m going to give you some advice that might be hard to take. That advice is: Work alone… Not on a committee. Not on a team.”

And yet. The New Groupthink has overtaken our workplaces, our schools and our religious institutions. Anyone who has ever needed noise-canceling headphones in her own office or marked an online calendar with a fake meeting in order to escape yet another real one knows what I’m talking about. Virtually all American workers now spend time on teams and some 70 percent inhabit open-plan offices, in which no one has “a room of one’s own.” During the last decades, the average amount of space allotted to each employee shrank 300 square feet, from 500 square feet in the 1970s to 200 square feet in 2010.

Our schools have also been transformed by the New Groupthink. Today, elementary school classrooms are commonly arranged in pods of desks, the better to foster group learning. Even subjects like math and creative writing are often taught as committee projects. In one fourth-grade classroom I visited in New York City, students engaged in group work were forbidden to ask a question unless every member of the group had the very same question.

The New Groupthink also shapes some of our most influential religious institutions. Many mega-churches feature extracurricular groups organized around every conceivable activity, from parenting to skateboarding to real estate, and expect worshipers to join in. They also emphasize a theatrical style of worship — loving Jesus out loud, for all the congregation to see. “Often the role of a pastor seems closer to that of church cruise director than to the traditional roles of spiritual friend and counselor,” said Adam McHugh, an evangelical pastor and author of “Introverts in the Church.”

Some teamwork is fine and offers a fun, stimulating, useful way to exchange ideas, manage information and build trust.

But it’s one thing to associate with a group in which each member works autonomously on his piece of the puzzle; it’s another to be corralled into endless meetings or conference calls conducted in offices that afford no respite from the noise and gaze of co-workers. Studies show that open-plan offices make workers hostile, insecure and distracted. They’re also more likely to suffer from high blood pressure, stress, the flu and exhaustion. And people whose work is interrupted make 50 percent more mistakes and take twice as long to finish it. (…)

Privacy also makes us productive. In a fascinating study known as the Coding War Games, consultants Tom DeMarco and Timothy Lister compared the work of more than 600 computer programmers at 92 companies. They found that people from the same companies performed at roughly the same level — but that there was an enormous performance gap between organizations. What distinguished programmers at the top-performing companies wasn’t greater experience or better pay. It was how much privacy, personal workspace and freedom from interruption they enjoyed. Sixty-two percent of the best performers said their workspace was sufficiently private compared with only 19 percent of the worst performers. Seventy-six percent of the worst programmers but only 38 percent of the best said that they were often interrupted needlessly.

[Learning] Solitude can even help us learn. According to research on expert performance by the psychologist Anders Ericsson, the best way to master a field is to work on the task that’s most demanding for you personally. And often the best way to do this is alone. Only then, Mr. Ericsson told me, can you “go directly to the part that’s challenging to you. If you want to improve, you have to be the one who generates the move. Imagine a group class — you’re the one generating the move only a small percentage of the time.”

Conversely, brainstorming sessions are one of the worst possible ways to stimulate creativity. The brainchild of a charismatic advertising executive named Alex Osborn who believed that groups produced better ideas than individuals, workplace brainstorming sessions came into vogue in the 1950s. “The quantitative results of group brainstorming are beyond question,” Mr. Osborn wrote. “One group produced 45 suggestions for a home-appliance promotion, 56 ideas for a money-raising campaign, 124 ideas on how to sell more blankets.”

But decades of research show that individuals almost always perform better than groups in both quality and quantity, and group performance gets worse as group size increases. The “evidence from science suggests that business people must be insane to use brainstorming groups,” wrote the organizational psychologist Adrian Furnham. “If you have talented and motivated people, they should be encouraged to work alone when creativity or efficiency is the highest priority.”

   

The reasons brainstorming fails are instructive for other forms of group work, too. People in groups tend to sit back and let others do the work; they instinctively mimic others’ opinions and lose sight of their own; and, often succumb to peer pressure. The Emory University neuroscientist Gregory Berns found that when we take a stance different from the group’s, we activate the amygdala, a small organ in the brain associated with the fear of rejection. Professor Berns calls this “the pain of independence.”

The Internet: a place where we can be alone together — and this is precisely what gives it power

The one important exception to this dismal record is electronic brainstorming, where large groups outperform individuals; and the larger the group the better. The protection of the screen mitigates many problems of group work. This is why the Internet has yielded such wondrous collective creations. Marcel Proust called reading a “miracle of communication in the midst of solitude,” and that’s what the Internet is, too. It’s a place where we can be alone together — and this is precisely what gives it power.

My point is not that man is an island. Life is meaningless without love, trust and friendship.

And I’m not suggesting that we abolish teamwork. Indeed, recent studies suggest that influential academic work is increasingly conducted by teams rather than by individuals. (Although teams whose members collaborate remotely, from separate universities, appear to be the most influential of all.) The problems we face in science, economics and many other fields are more complex than ever before, and we’ll need to stand on one another’s shoulders if we can possibly hope to solve them.

But even if the problems are different, human nature remains the same. And most humans have two contradictory impulses: we love and need one another, yet we crave privacy and autonomy.

To harness the energy that fuels both these drives, we need to move beyond the New Groupthink and embrace a more nuanced approach to creativity and learning. Our offices should encourage casual, cafe-style interactions, but allow people to disappear into personalized, private spaces when they want to be alone. Our schools should teach children to work with others, but also to work on their own for sustained periods of time. And we must recognize that introverts like Steve Wozniak need extra quiet and privacy to do their best work.

Before Mr. Wozniak started Apple, he designed calculators at Hewlett-Packard, a job he loved partly because HP made it easy to chat with his colleagues. Every day at 10 a.m. and 2 p.m., management wheeled in doughnuts and coffee, and people could socialize and swap ideas. What distinguished these interactions was how low-key they were. For Mr. Wozniak, collaboration meant the ability to share a doughnut and a brainwave with his laid-back, poorly dressed colleagues — who minded not a whit when he disappeared into his cubicle to get the real work done.”

— Susan Cain, The Rise of the New Groupthink, NYT, Jan 13, 2012. (Photo source)

See also:

William Deresiewicz on solitude
The power of lonely. What we do better without other people around, The Boston Globe
William Deresiewicz on multitasking and the value of solitude

Dec
27th
Tue
permalink

'To understand is to perceive patterns'

                  

"Everything we care about lies somewhere in the middle, where pattern and randomness interlace."

James Gleick, The Information: A History, a Theory, a Flood, Pantheon, 2011

"Humans are pattern-seeking story-telling animals, and we are quite adept at telling stories about patterns, whether they exist or not."

Michael Shermer

"The pattern, and it alone, brings into being and causes to pass away and confers purpose, that is to say, value and meaning, on all there is. To understand is to perceive patterns. (…) To make intelligible is to reveal the basic pattern.”

Isaiah Berlin, British social and political theorist, philosopher and historian, (1909-1997), The proper study of mankind: an anthology of essays, Chatto & Windus, 1997, p. 129.

"One of the most wonderful things about the emerging global superbrain is that information is overflowing on a scale beyond what we can wrap our heads around. The electronic, collective, hive mind that we know as the Internet produces so much information that organizing this data — and extracting meaning from it — has become the conversation of our time.

Sanford Kwinter’s Far From Equilibrium tackles everything from technology to society to architecture under the thesis that creativity, catharsis, transformation and progressive breakthroughs occur far from equilibrium. So even while we may feel overwhelmed and intimidated by the informational overload and radical transformations of our times, we should, perhaps, take refuge in knowing that only good can come from this. He writes:

“(…) We accurately think of ourselves today not only as citizens of an information society, but literally as clusters of matter within an unbroken informational continuum: "We are all," as the great composer Karlheinz Stockhausen once said, "transistors, in the literal sense. We send, receive and organize [and] so long as we are vital, our principle work is to capture and artfully incorporate the signals that surround us.” (…)

Clay Shirky often refers to the “Cognitive Surplus,” the overflowing output of the billion of minds participating in the electronic infosphere. A lot of this output is silly, but a lot of it is meaningful and wonderful. The key lies in curation; which is the result of pattern-recognition put into practice. (…)

Matt Ridley’s TED Talk, “When Ideas Have Sex” points to this intercourse of information and how it births new thought-patterns. Ideas, freed from the confines of space and time by the invisible, wireless metabrain we call The Internet, collide with one another and explode into new ideas; accelerating the collective intelligence of the species. Creativity thrives when minds come together. The last great industrial strength creative catalyst was the city: It is no coincidence than when people migrate to cities in large numbers, creativity and innovation thrives.  

Now take this very idea and apply it to the web:  the web  essentially is a planetary-scale nervous system where individual minds take on the role of synapses, firing electrical pattern-signals to one another at light speed — the net effect being an astonishing increase in creative output. (…)

Ray Kurzweil too, expounds on this idea of the power of patterns:

“I describe myself as a patternist, and believe that if you put matter and energy in just the right pattern you create something that transcends it. Technology is a good example of that: you put together lenses and mechanical parts and some computers and some software in just the right combination and you create a reading machine for the blind. It’s something that transcends the semblance of parts you’ve put together. That is the nature of technology, and it’s the nature of the human brain.

Biological molecules put in a certain combination create the transcending properties of human intelligence; you put notes and sounds together in just the rightcombination, and you create a Beethoven symphony or a Beatles song. So patterns have a power that transcends the parts of that pattern.”

R. Buckminster Fuller refers to us as “pattern integrities.” “Understanding order begins with understanding patterns,” he was known to say E.J. White, who worked with Fuller, says that:

“For Fuller, the thinking process is not a matter of putting anything into the brain or taking anything out; he defines thinking as the dismissal of irrelevancies, as the definition of relationships” — in other words, thinking is simultaneously a form of filtering out the data that doesn’t fit while highlighting the things that do fit together… We dismiss whatever is an “irrelevancy” and retain only what fits, we form knowledge by ‘connecting the dots’… we understand things by perceiving patterns — we arrive at conclusions when we successfully reveal these patterns. (…)

Fuller’s primary vocation is as a poet. All his disciplines and talents — architect, engineer, philosopher, inventor, artist, cartographer, teacher — are just so many aspects of his chief function as integrator… the word “poet" is a very general term for a person who puts things together in an era of great specialization when most people are differentiating or taking things apart… For Fuller, the stuff of poetry is the patterns of human behavior and the environment, and the interacting hierarchies of physics and design and industry. This is why he can describe Einstein and Henry Ford as the greatest poets of the 20th century.” (…)

In a recent article in Reality Sandwich, Simon G Powell proposed that patterned self-organization is a default condition of the universe: 

“When you think about it, Nature is replete with instances of self-organization. Look at how, over time, various exquisitely ordered patterns crystallise out of the Universe. On a macroscopic scale you have stable and enduring spherical stars, solar systems, and spiral galaxies. On a microscopic scale you have atomic and molecular forms of organization. And on a psychological level, fed by all this ambient order and pattern, you have consciousness which also seems to organise itself into being (by way of the brain). Thus, patterned organisation of one form or another is what nature is proficient at doing over time

This being the case, is it possible that the amazing synchronicities and serendipities we experience when we’re doing what we love, or following our passions — the signs we pick up on when we follow our bliss- represent an emerging ‘higher level’ manifestation of self-organization? To make use of an alluring metaphor, are certain events and cultural processes akin to iron filings coming under the organising influence of a powerful magnet? Is serendipity just the playing out on the human level of the same emerging, patterned self-organization that drives evolution?

Barry Ptolemy's film Transcendent Man reminds us that the universe has been unfolding in patterns of greater complexity since the beginning of time. Says Ptolemy:

First of all we are all patterns of information. Second, the universe has been revealing itself as patterns of information of increasing order since the big bang. From atoms, to molecules, to DNA, to brains, to technology, to us now merging with that technology. So the fact that this is happening isn’t particularly strange to a universe which continues to evolve and unfold at ever accelerating rates.”

Jason Silva, Connecting All The Dots - Jason Silva on Big think, Imaginary Fundation, Dec 2010

"Networks are everywhere. The brain is a network of nerve cells connected by axons, and cells themselves are networks of molecules connected by biochemical reactions. Societies, too, are networks of people linked by friendships, familial relationships and professional ties. On a larger scale, food webs and ecosystems can be represented as networks of species. And networks pervade technology: the Internet, power grids and transportation systems are but a few examples. Even the language we are using to convey these thoughts to you is a network, made up of words connected by syntactic relationships.”

'For decades, we assumed that the components of such complex systems as the cell, the society, or the Internet are randomly wired together. In the past decade, an avalanche of research has shown that many real networks, independent of their age, function, and scope, converge to similar architectures, a universality that allowed researchers from different disciplines to embrace network theory as a common paradigm.”

Albert-László Barabási , physicist, best known for his work in the research of network theory, and Eric Bonabeau, Scale-Free Networks, Scientific American, April 14, 2003.

Coral reefs are sometimes called “the cities of the sea”, and part of the argument is that we need to take the metaphor seriously: the reef ecosystem is so innovative because it shares some defining characteristics with actual cities. These patterns of innovation and creativity are fractal: they reappear in recognizable form as you zoom in and out, from molecule to neuron to pixel to sidewalk. Whether you’re looking at original innovations of carbon-based life, or the explosion of news tools on the web, the same shapes keep turning up. (…) When life gets creative, it has a tendency to gravitate toward certain recurring patterns, whether those patterns are self-organizing, or whether they are deliberately crafted by human agents.”

— Steven Johnson, author of Where Good Ideas Come From, cited by Jason Silva

"Network systems can sustain life at all scales, whether intracellularly or within you and me or in ecosystems or within a city. (…) If you have a million citizens in a city or if you have 1014 cells in your body, they have to be networked together in some optimal way for that system to function, to adapt, to grow, to mitigate, and to be long term resilient."

Geoffrey West, British theoretical physicist, The sameness of organisms, cities, and corporations: Q&A with Geoffrey West, TED, 26 July 2011.

“Recognizing this super-connectivity and conductivity is often accompanied by blissful mindbody states and the cognitive ecstasy of multiple “aha’s!” when the patterns in the mycelium are revealed. That Googling that has become a prime noetic technology (How can we recognize a pattern and connect more and more, faster and faster?: superconnectivity and superconductivity) mirrors the increased speed of connection of thought-forms from cannabis highs on up. The whole process is driven by desire not only for these blissful states in and of themselves, but also as the cognitive resource they represent.The devices of desire are those that connect,” because as Johnson says “chance favors the connected mind”.

Google and the Myceliation of Consciousness, Reality Sandwich, 10-11-2007

Jason Silva, Venezuelan-American television personality, filmmaker, gonzo journalist and founding producer/host for Current TV, To understand is to perceive patterns, Dec 25, 2011 (Illustration: Color Blind Test)

[This note will be gradually expanded]

See also:

The sameness of organisms, cities, and corporations: Q&A with Geoffrey West, TED, 26 July 2011.
☞ Albert-László Barabási and Eric Bonabeau, Scale-Free Networks, Scientific American, April 14, 2003.
Google and the Myceliation of Consciousness, Reality Sandwich, 10.11.2007
The Story of Networks, Lapidarium notes
Geoffrey West on Why Cities Keep Growing, Corporations and People Always Die, and Life Gets Faster
☞ Manuel Lima, visualcomplexity.com, A visual exploration on mapping complex networks
Constructal theory, Wiki
☞ A. Bejan, Constructal theory of pattern formation (pdf), Duke University
Pattern recognition, Wiki
Patterns tag on Lapidarium
Patterns tag on Lapidarium notes

Dec
17th
Sat
permalink

Infinite Stupidity. Social evolution may have sculpted us not to be innovators and creators as much as to be copiers


A review of some big events

"Obviously one of the big events in our history was the origin of our planet, about 4.5 billion years ago. And what’s fascinating is that about 3.8 billion years ago, only about seven or eight hundred million years after the origin of our planet, life arose. That life was simple replicators, things that could make copies of themselves. And we think that life was a little bit like the bacteria we see on earth today. It would be the ancestors of the bacteria we see on earth today.

That life ruled the world for 2 billion years, and then about 1.5 billion years ago, a new kind of life emerged. These were the eukaryotic cells. They were a little bit different kind of cell from bacteria. And actually the kind of cells we are made of. And again, these organisms that were eukaryotes were single-celled, so even 1.5 billion years ago, we still just had single-celled organisms on earth. But it was a new kind of life.

It was another 500 million years before we had anything like a multicellular organism, and it was another 500 million years after that before we had anything really very interesting. So, about 500 million years ago, the plants and the animals started to evolve. And I think everybody would agree that this was a major event in the history of the world, because, for the first time, we had complex organisms.

After about 500 million years ago, things like the plants evolved, the fish evolved, lizards and snakes, dinosaurs, birds, and eventually mammals. And then it was really just six or seven million years ago, within the mammals, that the lineage that we now call the hominins arose. And they would be direct descendants of us. And then, within that lineage that arose about six or seven million years ago, it was only about 200,000 years ago that humans finally evolved.

Idea of idea evolution

And so, this is really just 99.99 percent of the way through the history of this planet, humans finally arose. But in that 0.01 percent of life on earth, we’ve utterly changed the planet. And the reason is that, with the arrival of humans 200,000 years ago, a new kind of evolution was created. The old genetical evolution that had ruled for 3.8 billion years now had a competitor, and that new kind of evolution was ideas.

It was a true form of evolution, because now ideas could arise, and they could jump from mind to mind, without genes having to change. So, populations of humans could adapt at the level of ideas. Ideas could accumulate. We call this cumulative cultural adaptation. And so, cultural complexity could emerge and arise orders and orders of magnitude faster than genetic evolution.

Now, I think most of us take that utterly for granted, but it has completely rewritten the way life evolves on this planet because, with the arrival of our species, everything changed. Now, a single species, using its idea evolution, that could proceed apace independently of genes, was able to adapt to nearly every environment on earth, and spread around the world where no other species had done that. All other species are limited to places on earth that their genes adapt them to. But we were able to adapt at the level of our cultures to every place on earth. (…)

If we go back in our lineage 2 million years or so, there was a species known as Homo erectus. Homo erectus is an upright ape that lived on the African savannah. It could make tools, but they were very limited tools, and those tools, the archaeological record tells us, didn’t change for about 1.5 million years. That is, until about the time they went extinct. That is, they made the same tools over and over and over again, without any real changes to them.

If we move forward in time a little bit, it’s not even clear that our very close cousins that we know are related to us 99.5 or 99.6 percent in the sequences of their genes, the Neanderthals, it’s not even clear that they had what we call idea evolution. Sure enough, their tools that they made were more complex than our tools. But the 300,000 or so years that they spent in Europe, their toolkit barely changed. So there’s very little evolution going on.

So there’s something really very special about this new species, humans, that arose and invented this new kind of evolution, based on ideas. And so it’s useful for us to ask, what is it about humans that distinguishes them? It must have been a tiny genetic difference between us and the Neanderthals because, as I said, we’re so closely related to them genetically, a tiny genetic difference that had a vast cultural potential.

That difference is something that anthropologists and archaeologists call social learning. It’s a very difficult concept to define, but when we talk about it, all of us humans know what it means. And it seems to be the case that only humans have the capacity to learn complex new or novel behaviors, simply by watching and imitating others. And there seems to be a second component to it, which is that we seem to be able to get inside the minds of other people who are doing things in front of us, and understand why it is they’re doing those things. These two things together, we call social learning.

Many people respond that, oh, of course the other animals can do social learning, because we know that the chimpanzees can imitate each other, and we see all sorts of learning in animals like dolphins and the other monkeys, and so on. But the key point about social learning is that this minor difference between us and the other species forms an unbridgeable gap between us and them. Because, whereas all of the other animals can pick up the odd behavior by having their attention called to something, only humans seem to be able to select, among a range of alternatives, the best one, and then to build on that alternative, and to adapt it, and to improve upon it. And so, our cultures cumulatively adapt, whereas all other animals seem to do the same thing over and over and over again.

Even though other animals can learn, and they can even learn in social situations, only humans seem to be able to put these things together and do real social learning. And that has led to this idea evolution. What’s a tiny difference between us genetically has opened up an unbridgeable gap, because only humans have been able to achieve this cumulative cultural adaptation. (…)

I’m interested in this because I think this capacity for social learning, which we associate with our intelligence, has actually sculpted us in ways that we would have never anticipated. And I want to talk about two of those ways that I think it has sculpted us. One of the ways has to do with our creativity, and the other has to do with the nature of our intelligence as social animals.

One of the first things to be aware of when talking about social learning is that it plays the same role within our societies, acting on ideas, as natural selection plays within populations of genes. Natural selection is a way of sorting among a range of genetic alternatives, and finding the best one. Social learning is a way of sifting among a range of alternative options or ideas, and choosing the best one of those. And so, we see a direct comparison between social learning driving idea evolution, by selecting the best ideas —we copy people that we think are successful, we copy good ideas, and we try to improve upon them — and natural selection, driving genetic evolution within societies, or within populations.

I think this analogy needs to be taken very seriously, because just as natural selection has acted on genetic populations, and sculpted them, we’ll see how social learning has acted on human populations and sculpted them.

What do I mean by “sculpted them”? Well, I mean that it’s changed the way we are. And here’s one reason why. If we think that humans have evolved as social learners, we might be surprised to find out that being social learners has made us less intelligent than we might like to think we are. And here’s the reason why.

If I’m living in a population of people, and I can observe those people, and see what they’re doing, seeing what innovations they’re coming up with, I can choose among the best of those ideas, without having to go through the process of innovation myself. So, for example, if I’m trying to make a better spear, I really have no idea how to make that better spear. But if I notice that somebody else in my society has made a very good spear, I can simply copy him without having to understand why.

What this means is that social learning may have set up a situation in humans where, over the last 200,000 years or so, we have been selected to be very, very good at copying other people, rather than innovating on our own. We like to think we’re a highly inventive, innovative species. But social learning means that most of us can make use of what other people do, and not have to invest the time and energy in innovation ourselves.

Now, why wouldn’t we want to do that? Why wouldn’t we want to innovate on our own? Well, innovation is difficult. It takes time. It takes energy. Most of the things we try to do, we get wrong. And so, if we can survey, if we can sift among a range of alternatives of people in our population, and choose the best one that’s going at any particular moment, we don’t have to pay the costs of innovation, the time and energy ourselves. And so, we may have had strong selection in our past to be followers, to be copiers, rather than innovators.

This gives us a whole new slant on what it means to be human, and I think, in many ways, it might fit with some things that we realize are true about ourselves when we really look inside ourselves. We can all think of things that have made a difference in the history of life. The first hand axe, the first spear, the first bow and arrow, and so on. And we can ask ourselves, how many of us have had an idea that would have changed humanity? And I think most of us would say, well, that sets the bar rather high. I haven’t had an idea that would change humanity. So let’s lower the bar a little bit and say, how many of us have had an idea that maybe just influenced others around us, something that others would want to copy? And I think even then, very few of us can say there have been very many things we’ve invented that others would want to copy.

This says to us that social evolution may have sculpted us not to be innovators and creators as much as to be copiers, because this extremely efficient process that social learning allows us to do, of sifting among a range of alternatives, means that most of us can get by drawing on the inventions of others.

The formation of social groups

Now, why do I talk about this? It sounds like it could be a somewhat dry subject, that maybe most of us are copiers or followers rather than innovators. And what we want to do is imagine that our history over the last 200,000 years has been a history of slowly and slowly and slowly living in larger and larger and larger groups.

Early on in our history, it’s thought that most of us lived in bands of maybe five to 25 people, and that bands formed bands of bands that we might call tribes. And maybe tribes were 150 people or so on. And then tribes gave way to chiefdoms that might have been thousands of people. And chiefdoms eventually gave way to nation-states that might have been tens of thousands or even hundreds of thousands, or millions, of people. And so, our evolutionary history has been one of living in larger and larger and larger social groups.

What I want to suggest is that that evolutionary history will have selected for less and less and less innovation in individuals, because a little bit of innovation goes a long way. If we imagine that there’s some small probability that someone is a creator or an innovator, and the rest of us are followers, we can see that one or two people in a band is enough for the rest of us to copy, and so we can get on fine. And, because social learning is so efficient and so rapid, we don’t need all to be innovators. We can copy the best innovations, and all of us benefit from those.

But now let’s move to a slightly larger social group. Do we need more innovators in a larger social group? Well, no. The answer is, we probably don’t. We probably don’t need as many as we need in a band. Because in a small band, we need a few innovators to get by. We have to have enough new ideas coming along. But in a larger group, a small number of people will do. We don’t have to scale it up. We don’t have to have 50 innovators where we had five in the band, if we move up to a tribe. We can still get by with those three or four or five innovators, because all of us in that larger social group can take advantage of their innovations.

Language is the way we exchange ideas

And here we can see a very prominent role for language. Language is the way we exchange ideas. And our eyes allow us to see innovations and language allows us to exchange ideas. And language can operate in a larger society, just as efficiently as it can operate in a small society. It can jump across that society in an instant.

You can see where I’m going. As our societies get larger and larger, there’s no need, in fact, there’s even less of a need for any one of us to be an innovator, whereas there is a great advantage for most of us to be copiers, or followers. And so, a real worry is that our capacity for social learning, which is responsible for all of our cumulative cultural adaptation, all of the things we see around us in our everyday lives, has actually promoted a species that isn’t so good at innovation. It allows us to reflect on ourselves a little bit and say, maybe we’re not as creative and as imaginative and as innovative as we thought we were, but extraordinarily good at copying and following.

If we apply this to our everyday lives and we ask ourselves, do we know the answers to the most important questions in our lives? Should you buy a particular house? What mortgage product should you have? Should you buy a particular car? Who should you marry? What sort of job should you take? What kind of activities should you do? What kind of holidays should you take? We don’t know the answers to most of those things. And if we really were the deeply intelligent and imaginative and innovative species that we thought we were, we might know the answers to those things.

And if we ask ourselves how it is we come across the answers, or acquire the answers to many of those questions, most of us realize that we do what everybody else is doing. This herd instinct, I think, might be an extremely fundamental part of our psychology that was perhaps an unexpected and unintended, you might say, byproduct of our capacity for social learning, that we’re very, very good at being followers rather than leaders. A small number of leaders or innovators or creative people is enough for our societies to get by.

Now, the reason this might be interesting is that, as the world becomes more and more connected, as the Internet connects us and wires us all up, we can see that the long-term consequences of this is that humanity is moving in a direction where we need fewer and fewer and fewer innovative people, because now an innovation that you have somewhere on one corner of the earth can instantly travel to another corner of the earth, in a way that it would have never been possible to do 10 years ago, 50 years ago, 500 years ago, and so on. And so, we might see that there has been this tendency for our psychology and our humanity to be less and less innovative, at a time when, in fact, we may need to be more and more innovative, if we’re going to be able to survive the vast numbers of people on this earth.

That’s one consequence of social learning, that it has sculpted us to be very shrewd and intelligent at copying, but perhaps less shrewd at innovation and creativity than we’d like to think. Few of us are as creative as we’d like to think we are. I think that’s been one perhaps unexpected consequence of social learning.

Another side of social learning I’ve been thinking about - it’s a bit abstract, but I think it’s a fascinating one -goes back again to this analogy between natural selection, acting on genetic variation, and social learning, acting on variation in ideas. And any evolutionary process like that has to have both a sorting mechanism, natural selection, and what you might call a generative mechanism, a mechanism that can create variety.

We all know what that mechanism is in genes. We call it mutation, and we know that from parents to offspring, genes can change, genes can mutate. And that creates the variety that natural selection acts on. And one of the most remarkable stories of nature is that natural selection, acting on this mindlessly-generated genetic variation, is able to find the best solution among many, and successively add those solutions, one on top of the other. And through this extraordinarily simple and mindless process, create things of unimaginable complexity. Things like our cells, eyes and brains and hearts, and livers, and so on. Things of unimaginable complexity, that we don’t even understand and none of us could design. But they were designed by natural selection.

Where do ideas come from?

Now let’s take this analogy of a mindless process and take - there’s a parallel between social learning driving evolution at the idea level and natural selection driving evolution at the genetic level - and ask what it means for the generative mechanism in our brains.

Well, where do ideas come from? For social learning to be a sorting process that has varieties to act on, we have to have a variety of ideas. And where do those new ideas come from?

The idea that I’ve been thinking about, that I think is worth contemplating about our own minds is what is the generative mechanism? If we do have any creativity at all and we are innovative in some ways, what’s the nature of that generative mechanism for creating new ideas?

This is a question that’s been asked for decades. What is the nature of the creative process? Where do ideas come from? And let’s go back to genetic evolution and remember that, there, the generative mechanism is random mutation.

Now, what do we think the generative mechanism is for idea evolution? Do we think it’s random mutation of some sort, of ideas? Well, all of us think that it’s better than that. All of us think that somehow we can come up with good ideas in our minds. And whereas natural selection has to act on random variation, social learning must be acting on directed variation. We know what direction we’re going.

But, we can go back to our earlier discussion of social learning, and ask the question, well, if you were designing a new hand axe, or a new spear, or a new bow and a new arrow, would you really know how to make a spear fly better? Would you really know how to make a bow a better bow? Would you really know how to shape an arrowhead so that it penetrated its prey better? And I think most of us realize that we probably don’t know the answers to those questions. And that suggests to us that maybe our own creative process rests on a generative mechanism that isn’t very much better than random itself.

And I want to go further, and suggest that our mechanism for generating ideas maybe couldn’t even be much better than random itself. And this really gives us a different view of ourselves as intelligent organisms. Rather than thinking that we know the answers to everything, could it be the case that the mechanism that our brain uses for coming up with new ideas is a little bit like the mechanism that our genes use for coming up with new genetic variance, which is to randomly mutate ideas that we have, or to randomly mutate genes that we have.

Now, it sounds incredible. It sounds insane. It sounds mad. Because we think of ourselves as so intelligent. But when we really ask ourselves about the nature of any evolutionary process, we have to ask ourselves whether it could be any better than random, because in fact, random might be the best strategy.

Genes could never possibly know how to mutate themselves, because they could never anticipate the direction the world was going. No gene knows that we’re having global warming at the moment. No gene knew 200,000 years ago that humans were going to evolve culture. Well, the best strategy for any exploratory mechanism, when we don’t know the nature of the processes we’re exploring, is to throw out random attempts at understanding that field or that space we’re trying to explore.

And I want to suggest that the creative process inside our brains, which relies on social learning, that creative process itself never could have possibly anticipated where we were going as human beings. It couldn’t have anticipated 200,000 years ago that, you know, a mere 200,000 years later, we’d have space shuttles and iPods and microwave ovens.

What I want to suggest is that any process of evolution that relies on exploring an unknown space, such as genes or such as our neurons exploring the unknown space in our brains, and trying to create connections in our brains, and such as our brain’s trying to come up with new ideas that explore the space of alternatives that will lead us to what we call creativity in our social world, might be very close to random.

We know they’re random in the genetic case. We think they’re random in the case of neurons exploring connections in our brain. And I want to suggest that our own creative process might be pretty close to random itself. And that our brains might be whirring around at a subconscious level, creating ideas over and over and over again, and part of our subconscious mind is testing those ideas. And the ones that leak into our consciousness might feel like they’re well-formed, but they might have sorted through literally a random array of ideas before they got to our consciousness.

Karl Popper famously said the way we differ from other animals is that our hypotheses die in our stead; rather than going out and actually having to try out things, and maybe dying as a result, we can test out ideas in our minds. But what I want to suggest is that the generative process itself might be pretty close to random.

Putting these two things together has lots of implications for where we’re going as societies. As I say, as our societies get bigger, and rely more and more on the Internet, fewer and fewer of us have to be very good at these creative and imaginative processes. And so, humanity might be moving towards becoming more docile, more oriented towards following, copying others, prone to fads, prone to going down blind alleys, because part of our evolutionary history that we could have never anticipated was leading us towards making use of the small number of other innovations that people come up with, rather than having to produce them ourselves.

The interesting thing with Facebook is that, with 500 to 800 million of us connected around the world, it sort of devalues information and devalues knowledge. And this isn’t the comment of some reactionary who doesn’t like Facebook, but it’s rather the comment of someone who realizes that knowledge and new ideas are extraordinarily hard to come by. And as we’re more and more connected to each other, there’s more and more to copy. We realize the value in copying, and so that’s what we do.

And we seek out that information in cheaper and cheaper ways. We go up on Google, we go up on Facebook, see who’s doing what to whom. We go up on Google and find out the answers to things. And what that’s telling us is that knowledge and new ideas are cheap. And it’s playing into a set of predispositions that we have been selected to have anyway, to be copiers and to be followers. But at no time in history has it been easier to do that than now. And Facebook is encouraging that.

And then, as corporations grow … and we can see corporations as sort of microcosms of societies … as corporations grow and acquire the ability to acquire other corporations, a similar thing is happening, is that, rather than corporations wanting to spend the time and the energy to create new ideas, they want to simply acquire other companies, so that they can have their new ideas. And that just tells us again how precious these ideas are, and the lengths to which people will go to acquire those ideas.

A tiny number of ideas can go a long way, as we’ve seen. And the Internet makes that more and more likely. What’s happening is that we might, in fact, be at a time in our history where we’re being domesticated by these great big societal things, such as Facebook and the Internet. We’re being domesticated by them, because fewer and fewer and fewer of us have to be innovators to get by. And so, in the cold calculus of evolution by natural selection, at no greater time in history than ever before, copiers are probably doing better than innovators. Because innovation is extraordinarily hard. My worry is that we could be moving in that direction, towards becoming more and more sort of docile copiers.

But, these ideas, I think, are received with incredulity, because humans like to think of themselves as highly shrewd and intelligent and innovative people. But I think what we have to realize is that it’s even possible that, as I say, the generative mechanisms we have for coming up with new ideas are no better than random.

And a really fascinating idea itself is to consider that even the great people in history whom we associate with great ideas might be no more than we expect by chance. I’ll explain that. Einstein was once asked about his intelligence and he said, “I’m no more intelligent than the next guy. I’m just more curious.” Now, we can grant Einstein that little indulgence, because we think he was a pretty clever guy.

What does curiosity mean?

But let’s take him at his word and say, what does curiosity mean? Well, maybe curiosity means trying out all sorts of ideas in your mind. Maybe curiosity is a passion for trying out ideas. Maybe Einstein’s ideas were just as random as everybody else’s, but he kept persisting at them.

And if we say that everybody has some tiny probability of being the next Einstein, and we look at a billion people, there will be somebody who just by chance is the next Einstein. And so, we might even wonder if the people in our history and in our lives that we say are the great innovators really are more innovative, or are just lucky.

Now, the evolutionary argument is that our populations have always supported a small number of truly innovative people, and they’re somehow different from the rest of us. But it might even be the case that that small number of innovators just got lucky. And this is something that I think very few people will accept. They’ll receive it with incredulity. But I like to think of it as what I call social learning and, maybe, the possibility that we are infinitely stupid.”

Mark Pagel, Professor of Evolutionary Biology, Reading University, England and The Santa Fe Institute, Infinite Stupidity, Edge, Dec 16, 2011 (Illustration by John S. Dykes)

See also:

☞ Mark Pagel: How language transformed humanity



Biologist Mark Pagel shares an intriguing theory about why humans evolved our complex system of language. He suggests that language is a piece of “social technology” that allowed early human tribes to access a powerful new tool: cooperation. Mark Pagel: How language transformed humanity, TED.com, July 2011

The Kaleidoscopic Discovery Engine. ‘All scientific discoveries are in principle ‘multiples’’
Neal Gabler on The Elusive Big Idea - ‘We are living in a post ideas world where bold ideas are almost passé’

Nov
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Why Man Creates by Saul Bass (1968)

"Whaddaya doin?” ‘I’m painting the ceiling! Whadda you doin?” “I’m painting the floor!” — the exchange between Michaelangelo and da Vinci

Why Man Creates is a 1968 animated short documentary film which discusses the nature of creativity. It was written by Saul Bass and Mayo Simon, and directed by Saul and Elaine Bass.

The movie won the Academy Award for Documentary Short Subject. An abbreviated version of it ran on the first-ever broadcast of CBS’ 60 Minutes, on September 24, 1968.

Why Man Creates focuses on the creative process and the different approaches taken to that process. It is divided into eight sections: The Edifice, Fooling Around, The Process, Judgment, A Parable, Digression, The Search, and The Mark.

In 2002, this film was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant”.

Summary

The Edifice begins with early humans hunting. They attempt to conquer their prey with stones, but fail, so they begin to use spears and bait. They kill their prey, and it turns into a cave painting, upon which a building begins to be built. Throughout the rest of the section, the camera tracks upward as the edifice grows ever taller.

Early cavemen begin to discover various things such as the lever, the wheel, ladders, agriculture and fire. It then cuts to clips of early societies and civilizations. It depicts the appearance of the first religions and the advent of organized labor. It then cuts to the Great Pyramids at Giza and depicts the creation of writing.

Soon an army begins to move across the screen chanting “BRONZE,” but they are overrun by an army chanting “IRON”. The screen then depicts early cities and civilizations.

This is followed by a black screen with one man in traditional Greek clothing who states, “All was in chaos ‘til Euclid arose and made order.” Next, various Greek achievements in mathematics are depicted as they build Greek columns around which Greeks discuss items, including, “What is the good life and how do you lead it?” “Who shall rule the state?” “The Philosopher King.” “The Aristocrat.” “The People.” “You mean ALL the people?” “What is the nature of the Good? What is the nature of Justice?” “What is Happiness?”

The culture of ancient Greece fades into the armies of Rome. The organized armies surround the great Roman architecture as they chant “Hail Caesar!” A man at a podium states, “Roman Law is now in session!”, and when he bangs his gavel, the architecture collapses. Dark soldiers begin to pop up from the rubble and eventually cover the whole screen with darkness symbolizing the Dark Ages.

The Dark Ages consist of inaudible whisperings and mumblings. At one point, a light clicks on and an Arab mathematician says, “Allah be praised! I’ve discovered the zero.” at which point his colleague responds, “What?” and he says “Nothing, nothing.” Next come cloistered monks who sing, “What is the shape of the Earth? Flat. What happens when you get to the edge? You fall off. Does the earth move? Never.”

Finally the scene brightens and shows a stained glass window. Various scientists open stained glass doors and say things such as, “The Earth moves!” “The Earth is round!” “The blood circulates!” “There are worlds smaller than ours!” “There are worlds larger than ours!” Each time one opens a door, a large, hairy arm slams the door shut. Finally, the stained glass breaks in the wake of the new Enlightenment.

Next, Michelangelo and da Vinci are depicted. The steam engine is invented, and gears and belts begin to cover everything. The light bulb and steam locomotive are created. Darwin is referred to as two men hit each other with their canes arguing whether man is an animal. The telegraph is invented and psychology created. Next, a small creature hops across the screen saying, “I’m a bug, I’m a germ, I’m a bug, I’m a germ… [indrawn breath] Louis Pasteur! I’m not a bug, I’m not a germ…” Great musicians such as Beethoven are depicted. Alfred Nobel invents dynamite.

Next, the cartooning shows the great speeches and documents on government and society from the American Revolution onward with quotes such as “All men are created equal…”, “Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness”, “And the Government, by the people,…”, etc. and ends with “One World.”

Finally, the building stops and the Wright Brothers' plane lands on top of it. It is quickly covered in more advanced planes, in cars, in televisions, and finally in early computers. At the top is a radioactive atom which envelops a man in smoke. The Edifice ends with that man yelling, “HELP!”

Fooling Around displays a random series of perspectives and the creative ideas which come from them.

The Process displays a man who is making artwork from a series of geometrical figures. Each time he attempts to keep them in place, they move and rearrange themselves. He tries many different approaches to the problem. Finally he accepts a working configuration and calls his wife to look at it. She says, “All it needs is an American flag.”

Judgment is a series of reactions, presumably to the creation from The Process. It displays their criticisms of it, such as “It represents the decline of Western culture…”, and only a very few support it.

A Parable begins at a ping-pong ball factory. Each ball is made in exactly the same way, and machines test them to get rid of anomalies. As the balls are being tested for their bounce levels, one bounces much higher than the rest. It is placed in a chute which leads to a garbage can outside the factory. It proceeds to bounce across town to a park, where it begins to bounce. Quickly, a cluster of ping-pong balls gather around it. It keeps bouncing higher and higher, until it doesn’t come back. It concludes with the comment:
“There are some who say he’s coming back and we have only to wait …
There are some who say he burst up there because ball was not meant to fly …
And there are some who maintain he landed safely in a place where balls bounce high …”

Digression is a very short section in which one snail says to another, “Have you ever thought that radical ideas threaten institutions, then become institutions, and in turn reject radical ideas which threaten institutions?” to which the other snail replies “No.” and the first says dejectedly, “Gee, for a minute I thought I had something.”

The Search shows scientists who have been working for years on projects such as solving world hunger, developing a cure for Cancer, or questioning the origin of the universe. Then it showed a scientist who had worked on a project for 20 years, and it simply didn’t work out. He was asked what he would do with himself, and he replied that he didn’t know. (Note: each of the scientists shown was working on something which still has not been solved to date, even though each one expected solid results in only a few years. This forwards the concept shown in this session far better than the creators could have known in 1968.)

The Mark asks the question, Why does man create? and determines that man creates to simply state, “I Am.” The film ends by displaying “I Am” written in paint on the side of a building.” — (Wiki)

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Neal Gabler on The Elusive Big Idea - ‘We are living in a post ideas world where bold ideas are almost passé’

Ideas just aren’t what they used to be. Once upon a time, they could ignite fires of debate, stimulate other thoughts, incite revolutions and fundamentally change the ways we look at and think about the world.

They could penetrate the general culture and make celebrities out of thinkers — notably Albert Einstein, but also Reinhold Niebuhr, Daniel Bell, Betty Friedan, Carl Sagan and Stephen Jay Gould, to name a few. The ideas themselves could even be made famous: for instance, for “the end of ideology,” “the medium is the message,” “the feminine mystique,” “the Big Bang theory,” “the end of history.” A big idea could capture the cover of Time — “Is God Dead?” — and intellectuals like Norman Mailer, William F. Buckley Jr. and Gore Vidal would even occasionally be invited to the couches of late-night talk shows. How long ago that was. (…)

If our ideas seem smaller nowadays, it’s not because we are dumber than our forebears but because we just don’t care as much about ideas as they did. In effect, we are living in an increasingly post-idea world — a world in which big, thought-provoking ideas that can’t instantly be monetized are of so little intrinsic value that fewer people are generating them and fewer outlets are disseminating them, the Internet notwithstanding. Bold ideas are almost passé.

It is no secret, especially here in America, that we live in a post-Enlightenment age in which rationality, science, evidence, logical argument and debate have lost the battle in many sectors, and perhaps even in society generally, to superstition, faith, opinion and orthodoxy. While we continue to make giant technological advances, we may be the first generation to have turned back the epochal clock — to have gone backward intellectually from advanced modes of thinking into old modes of belief. But post-Enlightenment and post-idea, while related, are not exactly the same.

Post-Enlightenment refers to a style of thinking that no longer deploys the techniques of rational thought. Post-idea refers to thinking that is no longer done, regardless of the style. (…)

There is the retreat in universities from the real world, and an encouragement of and reward for the narrowest specialization rather than for daring — for tending potted plants rather than planting forests.

There is the eclipse of the public intellectual in the general media by the pundit who substitutes outrageousness for thoughtfulness, and the concomitant decline of the essay in general-interest magazines. And there is the rise of an increasingly visual culture, especially among the young — a form in which ideas are more difficult to express. (…)

We live in the much vaunted Age of Information. Courtesy of the Internet, we seem to have immediate access to anything that anyone could ever want to know. We are certainly the most informed generation in history, at least quantitatively. There are trillions upon trillions of bytes out there in the ether — so much to gather and to think about.

And that’s just the point. In the past, we collected information not simply to know things. That was only the beginning. We also collected information to convert it into something larger than facts and ultimately more useful — into ideas that made sense of the information. We sought not just to apprehend the world but to truly comprehend it, which is the primary function of ideas. Great ideas explain the world and one another to us.

Marx pointed out the relationship between the means of production and our social and political systems. Freud taught us to explore our minds as a way of understanding our emotions and behaviors. Einstein rewrote physics. More recently, McLuhan theorized about the nature of modern communication and its effect on modern life. These ideas enabled us to get our minds around our existence and attempt to answer the big, daunting questions of our lives.

But if information was once grist for ideas, over the last decade it has become competition for them. We are like the farmer who has too much wheat to make flour. We are inundated with so much information that we wouldn’t have time to process it even if we wanted to, and most of us don’t want to.

The collection itself is exhausting: what each of our friends is doing at that particular moment and then the next moment and the next one; who Jennifer Aniston is dating right now; which video is going viral on YouTube this hour; what Princess Letizia or Kate Middleton is wearing that day. In effect, we are living within the nimbus of an informational Gresham’s law in which trivial information pushes out significant information, but it is also an ideational Gresham’s law in which information, trivial or not, pushes out ideas.

We prefer knowing to thinking because knowing has more immediate value. It keeps us in the loop, keeps us connected to our friends and our cohort. Ideas are too airy, too impractical, too much work for too little reward. Few talk ideas. Everyone talks information, usually personal information. Where are you going? What are you doing? Whom are you seeing? These are today’s big questions.

It is certainly no accident that the post-idea world has sprung up alongside the social networking world. Even though there are sites and blogs dedicated to ideas, Twitter, Facebook, Myspace, Flickr, etc., the most popular sites on the Web, are basically information exchanges, designed to feed the insatiable information hunger, though this is hardly the kind of information that generates ideas. It is largely useless except insofar as it makes the possessor of the information feel, well, informed. Of course, one could argue that these sites are no different than conversation was for previous generations, and that conversation seldom generated big ideas either, and one would be right. (…)

An artist friend of mine recently lamented that he felt the art world was adrift because there were no longer great critics like Harold Rosenberg and Clement Greenberg to provide theories of art that could fructify the art and energize it. Another friend made a similar argument about politics. While the parties debate how much to cut the budget, he wondered where were the John Rawls and Robert Nozick who could elevate our politics.

One could certainly make the same argument about economics, where John Maynard Keynes remains the center of debate nearly 80 years after propounding his theory of government pump priming. This isn’t to say that the successors of Rosenberg, Rawls and Keynes don’t exist, only that if they do, they are not likely to get traction in a culture that has so little use for ideas, especially big, exciting, dangerous ones, and that’s true whether the ideas come from academics or others who are not part of elite organizations and who challenge the conventional wisdom. All thinkers are victims of information glut, and the ideas of today’s thinkers are also victims of that glut.

But it is especially true of big thinkers in the social sciences like the cognitive psychologist Steven Pinker, who has theorized on everything from the source of language to the role of genetics in human nature, or the biologist Richard Dawkins, who has had big and controversial ideas on everything from selfishness to God, or the psychologist Jonathan Haidt, who has been analyzing different moral systems and drawing fascinating conclusions about the relationship of morality to political beliefs. But because they are scientists and empiricists rather than generalists in the humanities, the place from which ideas were customarily popularized, they suffer a double whammy: not only the whammy against ideas generally but the whammy against science, which is typically regarded in the media as mystifying at best, incomprehensible at worst. A generation ago, these men would have made their way into popular magazines and onto television screens. Now they are crowded out by informational effluvium.

No doubt there will be those who say that the big ideas have migrated to the marketplace, but there is a vast difference between profit-making inventions and intellectually challenging thoughts. Entrepreneurs have plenty of ideas, and some, like Steven P. Jobs of Apple, have come up with some brilliant ideas in the “inventional” sense of the word.

Still, while these ideas may change the way we live, they rarely transform the way we think. They are material, not ideational. It is thinkers who are in short supply, and the situation probably isn’t going to change anytime soon.

We have become information narcissists, so uninterested in anything outside ourselves and our friendship circles or in any tidbit we cannot share with those friends that if a Marx or a Nietzsche were suddenly to appear, blasting his ideas, no one would pay the slightest attention, certainly not the general media, which have learned to service our narcissism.

What the future portends is more and more information — Everests of it. There won’t be anything we won’t know. But there will be no one thinking about it.

Think about that.”

Neal Gabler, a professor, journalist, author, film critic and political commentator, The Elusive Big Idea, The New York Times, August 14, 2011.

See also:

☞ The Kaleidoscopic Discovery Engine. ‘All scientific discoveries are in principle ‘multiples’’
Mark Pagel, Infinite Stupidity. Social evolution may have sculpted us not to be innovators and creators as much as to be copiers, Edge, Lapidarium, Dec 16, 2011
The Paradox of Contemporary Cultural History. We are clinging as never before to the familiar in matters of style and culture

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Vagabonding - the act of leaving behind the orderly world to travel independently for an extended period of time

   
                                                                                Rolf Potts, Vagabonding

"Vagabonding involves taking an extended time-out from your normal life - six weeks, four months, two years - to travel the world on your own terms.

But beyond travel, vagabonding is an outlook on life. Vagabonding is about using the prosperity and possibility of the information age to increase your personal options instead of your personal possessions. Vagabonding is about looking for adventure in normal life, and normal life within adventure. Vagabonding is an attitude - a friendly interest in people, places, and things that makes a person an explorer in the truest, most vivid sense of the word. (…)

It’s just an uncommon way of looking at life - a value adjustment from which action naturally follows. And, as much as anything, vagabonding is about time - our only real commodity - and how we choose to use it. (…)

Vagabonding starts now. Even if the practical reality of travel is still months or years away, vagabonding begins the moment you stop making excuses, start saving money, and begin to look at maps with the narcotic tingle of possibility. From here, the reality of vagabonding comes into sharper focus as you adjust your worldview and begin to embrace the exhilarating uncertainty that true travel promises.”

Rolf Potts, travel writer, Vagabonding, Villard Books, 2002

From this hour I ordain myself loos’d of limits and imaginary lines,
Going where I list, my own master total and absolute,
Listening to others, considering well what they say,
Pausing, searching, receiving, contemplating,
Gently, but with undeniable will divesting myself of the holds that would hold me.

Walt Whitman, Song of the Open Road

Journeys are the midwives of thought. Few places are more conducive to internal conversations than a moving plane, ship or train. There is an almost quaint correlation between what is in front of our eyes and the thoughts we are able to have in our heads: large thoughts at times requiring large views, new thoughts new places. Introspective reflections which are liable to stall are helped along by the flow of the landscape. The mind may be reluctant to think properly when thinking is all it is supposed to do.

At the end of hours of train-dreaming, we may feel we have been returned to ourselves - that is, brought back into contact with emotions and ideas of importance to us. It is not necessarily at home that we best encounter our true selves. (…)

Instead of bringing back 1600 plants, we might return from our journeys with a collection of small unfêted but life-enhancing thoughts.”

Alain de Botton, The Art of Travel, Pantheon, 2002

Rolf Potts: Time = wealth



His zeitgeist defining book is not just how to travel the world on a shoestring, but, more importantly, the mindset you need to take with you.

Rolf Potts, a travel writer, his travel advice book Vagabonding, which has been translated into several foreign languages, is in its tenth printing. In 2010, he traveled around the world in six weeks with no luggage or bags of any kind, Time = wealth, Do Lectures

See also:

Stefan Sagmeister, The power of time off, TED.com, July 2009
Rolf Potts on Vagabonding, Authors@Google (video) , Aug 2007
Pico Iyer, Why We Travel, World Hum, 27 Apr 2009
MOVE (video) - 3 guys, 44 days, 11 countries, 18 flights, 38 thousand miles, all to turn 3 ambitious linear concepts based on movement, learning and food, 2011

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Keri Smith on ‘How To Be An Explorer of the World’


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"Artists and scientists analyze the world in surprisingly similar ways."

Science – “The intellectual and practical activity encompassing the systematic study of structure and behavior of the physical and natural world through observation and experiment.”

— Oxford American Dictionary, cited in ibidem, p. 199.


p. 1

"[The residual purpose of art is] purposeless play. This play, however, is an affirmation of life - not an attempt to bring order out of chaos nor to suggest improvements in creation, but simply a way of waking up to the very life we’re living, which is so excellent once one gets one’s mind and one’s desires out of its way and lets it act of its own accord.”

John Cage, cited in ibidem, p. 104


p.116


p. 75

“Sometimes a tree can tell you more than can be read in a book.”

Carl Jung cited in ibidem, p. 138.

Keri Smith, author, illustrator, guerilla artist, How To Be An Explorer of the World: Portable Life Museum, Penguin Books, 2008.

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The Creative Power of Thinking Outside Yourself

New research suggests we generate more creative ideas for other people than for ourselves.

                                             

The ‘box’ that the expression refers to is the implicit one formed in your mind by the dots. To get the solution you have to ignore this implicit box: you have to, as it were, think outside it. (If you’re stuck in the box, google the ‘nine dots’ puzzle for the solution.) (…)

66% of people got the answer right when told it was a nameless ‘prisoner’ who was stuck in the tower. But when told to imagine they were stuck in the tower themselves, only 48% got it right. (The answer to the problem is: the rope is divided in half width-ways rath. (…)

When the ideas were analysed, participants who were thinking up ideas for socially distant others were most creative. The other two conditions lagged behind.

The reason this happens is to do with the way the mind represents problems like this. When we think about a ‘nameless other’ or the prisoner in the high tower, our minds tend to think more abstractly. In an abstract frame it becomes easier to make creative leaps because we aren’t stuck thinking about concrete details.

So perhaps the old and tired expression “thinking outside the box” should be replaced with the new, evidence-based expression “thinking outside yourself”.”

The Creative Power of Thinking Outside Yourself, PsyBlog, 23 May 2011.

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Science and art come together in the Undivided Mind | Imaginary Foundation


                                                      (Click image to see 3D visualization)

The Undivided Mind installation is a project of The Imaginary Foundation.

"This installation endeavors to fuse the aesthetic beauty of art and science in order to create a synthesis of mind, one which is as much rational as it is fantastic. Think of this undivided mind as a prototype of human possibility-an evolutionary signal of convergence, harmony, and accelerated progress. The rest is up to us."

This is a virtual simulacrum of the installation that materialized in San Francisco in November of 2010.

The Imaginary Foundation is a think tank from Switzerland that does experimental research on new ways of thinking and the power of the imagination. Avoiding direct publicity, the team has sought clothing as an unlikely vehicle for bringing their ideas beyond the academic realm and into popular culture.

A philosophy of research began to form: imagination as fundamental to all learning; artistic making as a model of integrating vision, materials, structure, and imagery.

The Undivided Mind

The Pattern That Connects


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(tnx Jason Silva)

Man creates reality


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The Imaginary Foundation

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The power of lonely. What we do better without other people around

                    

"One ongoing Harvard study indicates that people form more lasting and accurate memories if they believe they’re experiencing something alone. Another indicates that a certain amount of solitude can make a person more capable of empathy towards others. (…)

Solitude has long been linked with creativity, spirituality, and intellectual might. The leaders of the world’s great religions — Jesus, Buddha, Mohammed, Moses — all had crucial revelations during periods of solitude. The poet James Russell Lowell identified solitude as “needful to the imagination;” in the 1988 book “Solitude: A Return to the Self,” the British psychiatrist Anthony Storr invoked Beethoven, Kafka, and Newton as examples of solitary genius. (…)

Sharing an experience with someone is inherently distracting, because it compels us to expend energy on imagining what the other person is going through and how they’re reacting to it.

“People tend to engage quite automatically with thinking about the minds of other people,” Burum said in an interview. “We’re multitasking when we’re with other people in a way that we’re not when we just have an experience by ourselves.” (…)

When we let our focus shift away from the people and things around us, we are better able to engage in what’s called meta-cognition, or the process of thinking critically and reflectively about our own thoughts. (…)

Spending a certain amount of time alone, the study suggests, can make us less closed off from others and more capable of empathy — in other words, better social animals.”

— Leon Neyfakh, The power of lonely, The Boston Globe, March 6, 2011

See also: William Deresiewicz on solitude, Lapidarium

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The Kaleidoscopic Discovery Engine. ‘All scientific discoveries are in principle ‘multiples’’

                     

We owe our success to our uniquely developed ability to learn from others. This capacity enables humans to gradually accumulate information across generations and develop well-adapted tools, beliefs, and practices that are too complex for any single individual to invent during their lifetime.”

— Robert Boyd, Peter J. Richerson, Joseph Henrich, The cultural niche: Why social learning is essential for human adaptation (pdf), Feb, 2011

"As humans we always take for granted an enormous store of cultural knowledge, which we absorb both implicitly and explicitly. We are adapted to be cultural creatures. This is why the authors posit the “cultural niche” rather than “cognitive niche” hypothesis in terms of the transmission of sets of ideas. The cognitive niche hypothesis emphasizes the individual competencies of humans. We have relatively advanced general intelligence aptitudes, and we are master imitators. Therefore, once an innovation occurs, instead of reinventing the wheel, humans replicate. (…) A sequential and synergistic set of imitations can then lead to a ratchet effect of cultural evolution, as beneficial memes sweep through populations. (…) Collective cultural memory plays a critical role in passing down “best practices.””

— Razib Khan, We stand on the shoulders of cultural giants, Discover Magazine, June 21st, 2011

 “Everything of importance has been said before by somebody who did not discover it.”

Alfred North Whitehead, English mathematician and philosopher (1861-1947)

"The famous Canadian physician William Osler once wrote, "In science the credit goes to the man who convinced the world, not to the man to whom the idea first occurs." When we examine discoveries in science and mathematics, in hindsight we often find that if one scientist did not make a particular discovery, some other individual would have done so within a few months or years of the discovery. Most scientists, as Newton said, stood on the shoulders of giants to see the world just a bit further along the horizon. Often, more than one individual creates essentially the same device or discovers the same scientific law at about the same time, but for various reasons, including sheer luck, history sometimes remembers only the more famous discoverer.

In 1858 the German mathematician August Möbius simultaneously and independently discovered the Möbius strip along with a contemporary scholar, the German mathematician Johann Benedict Listing. Isaac Newton and Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz independently developed calculus at roughly the same time. British naturalists Charles Darwin and Alfred Wallace both developed the theory of evolution independently and simultaneously. Similarly, Hungarian mathematician János Bolyai and Russian mathematician Nikolai Lobachevsky seemed to have developed hyperbolic geometry independently and at the same time.

The history of materials science is replete with simultaneous discoveries. For example, in 1886, the electrolytic process for refining aluminum, using the mineral cryolite, was discovered simultaneously and independently by American Charles Martin Hall and Frenchman Paul Héroult. Their inexpensive method for isolating pure aluminum from compounds had an enormous effect on industry. The time was “ripe” for such discoveries, given humanity’s accumulated knowledge at the time the discoveries were made. On the other hand, mystics have suggested that a deeper meaning exists to such coincidences. Austrian biologist Paul Kammerer wrote, “We thus arrive at the image of a world-mosaic or cosmic kaleidoscope, which, in spite of constant shufflings and rearrangements, also takes care of bringing like and like together.” He compared events in our world to the tops of ocean waves that seem isolated and unrelated. According to his controversial theory, we notice the tops of the waves, but beneath the surface there may be some kind of synchronistic mechanism that mysteriously connects events in our world and causes them to cluster.

We are reluctant to believe that great discoveries are part of a discovery kaleidoscope and mirrored in numerous individuals at once. However, as further examples, there were several independent discoveries of sunspots in 1611, even though Galileo gets most of the credit today. Halley’s Comet, named after English astronomer Edmond Halley, was not first discovered by Halley because it had actually seen by countless observers even before the time of Jesus. However, Halley’s useful calculations enabled earlier references to the comet’s appearance to be found in the historical record. Alexander Graham Bell and Elisha Gray filed their own patents on telephone technologies on the same day. As sociologist of science Robert Merton remarked, “The genius is not a unique source of insight; he is merely an efficient source of insight.”

Robert Merton suggested that "all scientific discoveries are in principle ‘multiples’." In other words, when a scientific discovery is made, it is made by more than one person. Sometimes a discovery is named after the person who develops the discovery rather than the original discoverer.

The world is full of difficulties in assigning credit for discoveries. Some of us have personally seen this in the realm of patent law, in business ideas, and in our daily lives. Fully appreciating the concept of the kaleidoscope discovery engine adds to our cognitive toolkits because the kaleidoscope succinctly captures the nature of innovation and the future of ideas. If schools taught more about kaleidoscopic discovery, even in the context of everyday experience, then innovators might enjoy the fruits of their labor and still become “great” without a debilitating concern to be first or to crush rivals. The great anatomist William Hunter frequently quarreled with his brother about who was first in making a discovery. But even Hunter admitted, “If a man has not such a degree of enthusiasm and love of the art, as will make him impatient of unreasonable opposition, and of encroachment upon his discoveries and his reputation, he will hardly become considerable in anatomy, or in any other branch of natural knowledge.”

When Mark Twain was asked to explain why so many inventions were invented independently, he said "When it’s steamboat time, you steam."

Clifford Pickover (American author, editor, a research staff member at IBM’s T. J. Watson Research Center, in Yorktown Heights, New York), answering the question What scientific concept would improve everybody’s cognitive toolkit?, Edge: The World Question Center 2011. Picture source.

"I often reflect on the transience of even great ideas and inventions. If Beethoven hadn’t written his symphonies, they wouldn’t exist. Great art, music, and literature are like that, but science and technology uncover what nature has intrinsically made possible. It’s as if our inventions have been lying under rocks and the first person to turn over the rock gets the credit. The second person who comes along…well, it’s too late. Does anyone think that if Shockley, Bardeen, and Brattain hadn’t invented the transistor in 1947 it wouldn’t exist today?

Perhaps the measure of any invention or discovery is the amount of time that passes before someone else ends up doing much the same thing. Paul Baran, who died in March, had as much to do with the founding of the Internet as anyone. Yet Donald Davies in the United Kingdom and Len Kleinrock at the University of California, Los Angeles, were working independently on Baran’s key idea, packet switching. Even Einstein’s general theory of relativity was a law of nature waiting to be discovered, and we undoubtedly would know it today. Perhaps the state of knowledge now would be no different, in spite of the fact that this was surely one of the most transformative ideas in the history of science.”

— Robert W. Lucky, Are Social Technologies Really Invented?, IEEE Spectrum, May 2011

Everything is a remix: The mechanisms, paradoxes, and principles of creative culture

"The act of creation is surrounded by a fog of myths. Myths that creativity comes via inspiration. That original creations break the mold, that they’re the products of geniuses, and appear as quickly as electricity can heat a filament. But creativity isn’t magic: it happens by applying ordinary tools of thought to existing materials.

And the soil from which we grow our creations is something we scorn and misunderstand, even though it gives us so much… and that’s copying. Put simply, copying is how we learn. We can’t introduce anything new until we’re fluent in the language of our domain, and we do that through emulation. (…)

Nobody starts out original. We need copying to build a foundation of knowledge and understanding. And after that… things can get interesting.

After we’ve grounded ourselves in the fundamentals through copying, it’s then possible to create something new through transformation. Taking an idea and creating variations. This is time-consuming tinkering but it can eventually produce a breakthrough.

James Watt created a major improvement to the steam engine because he was assigned to repair a Thomas Newcomen steam engine. He then spent twelve years developing his version.

Christopher Latham Sholes’ modeled his typewriter keyboard on a piano. This design slowly evolved over five years into the QWERTY layout we still use today.

And Thomas Edison didn’t invent the light bulb — his first patent was “Improvement in Electric Lamps“ — but he did produce the first commercially viable bulb… after trying 6,000 different materials for the filament.

These are all major advances, but they’re not original ideas so much as tipping points in a continuous line of invention by many different people.

But the most dramatic results can happen when ideas are combined. By connecting ideas together creative leaps can be made, producing some of history’s biggest breakthroughs.

These are the basic elements of creativity: copy, transform, and combine. (…)
   

History seems to tell us things wouldn’t be so different. Whenever there’s a major breakthrough, there’s usually others on the same path. Maybe a bit behind, maybe not behind at all. (…)

We call this multiple discovery — the same innovation emerging from different places. Science and invention is riddled with it, but it can also happen in the arts. (…)

We’re all building with the same materials. And sometimes by coincidence we get similar results, but sometimes innovations just seem inevitable.”

Kirby Ferguson, Everything is a remix: The mechanisms, paradoxes, and principles of creative culture, 2011

The Genius of the Tinkerer

                        
                   Circa 1450, Johannes Gutenberg (1400 - 1468) inventor of printing examines
                   a page from his first printing press. (Photo by Rischgitz/Getty Images)

"The NeoNurture incubator is a fitting metaphor for the way that good ideas usually come into the world. They are, inevitably, constrained by the parts and skills that surround them. We have a natural tendency to romanticize breakthrough innovations, imagining momentous ideas transcending their surroundings, a gifted mind somehow seeing over the detritus of old ideas and ossified tradition.

But ideas are works of bricolage. They are, almost inevitably, networks of other ideas. We take the ideas we’ve inherited or stumbled across, and we jigger them together into some new shape. We like to think of our ideas as a $40,000 incubator, shipped direct from the factory, but in reality they’ve been cobbled together with spare parts that happened to be sitting in the garage. (…)

Nature’s innovations, too, rely on spare parts.

Evolution advances by taking available resources and cobbling them together to create new uses. The evolutionary theorist Francois Jacob captured this in his concept of evolution as a “tinkerer,” not an engineer; our bodies are also works of bricolage, old parts strung together to form something radically new. “The tires-to-sandals principle works at all scales and times,” Mr. Gould wrote, “permitting odd and unpredictable initiatives at any moment—to make nature as inventive as the cleverest person who ever pondered the potential of a junkyard in Nairobi.”

You can see this process at work in the primordial innovation of life itself. Before life emerged on Earth, the planet was dominated by a handful of basic molecules: ammonia, methane, water, carbon dioxide, a smattering of amino acids and other simple organic compounds. Each of these molecules was capable of a finite series of transformations and exchanges with other molecules in the primordial soup: methane and oxygen recombining to form formaldehyde and water, for instance.

Think of all those initial molecules, and then imagine all the potential new combinations that they could form spontaneously, simply by colliding with each other (or perhaps prodded along by the extra energy of a propitious lightning strike). If you could play God and trigger all those combinations, you would end up with most of the building blocks of life: the proteins that form the boundaries of cells; sugar molecules crucial to the nucleic acids of our DNA. But you would not be able to trigger chemical reactions that would build a mosquito, or a sunflower, or a human brain. Formaldehyde is a first-order combination: You can create it directly from the molecules in the primordial soup. Creating a sunflower, however, relies on a whole series of subsequent innovations: chloroplasts to capture the sun’s energy, vascular tissues to circulate resources through the plant, DNA molecules to pass on instructions to the next generation.

The scientist Stuart Kauffman has a suggestive name for the set of all those first-order combinations: "the adjacent possible." The phrase captures both the limits and the creative potential of change and innovation. In the case of prebiotic chemistry, the adjacent possible defines all those molecular reactions that were directly achievable in the primordial soup. Sunflowers and mosquitoes and brains exist outside that circle of possibility. The adjacent possible is a kind of shadow future, hovering on the edges of the present state of things, a map of all the ways in which the present can reinvent itself.

The strange and beautiful truth about the adjacent possible is that its boundaries grow as you explore them. Each new combination opens up the possibility of other new combinations. Think of it as a house that magically expands with each door you open. You begin in a room with four doors, each leading to a new room that you haven’t visited yet. Once you open one of those doors and stroll into that room, three new doors appear, each leading to a brand-new room that you couldn’t have reached from your original starting point. Keep opening new doors and eventually you’ll have built a palace. (…)

The march of cultural innovation follows the same combinatorial pattern: Johannes Gutenberg, for instance, took the older technology of the screw press, designed originally for making wine, and reconfigured it with metal type to invent the printing press.

More recently, a graduate student named Brent Constantz, working on a Ph.D. that explored the techniques that coral polyps use to build amazingly durable reefs, realized that those same techniques could be harnessed to heal human bones. Several IPOs later, the cements that Mr. Constantz created are employed in most orthopedic operating rooms throughout the U.S. and Europe.

Mr. Constantz’s cements point to something particularly inspiring in Mr. Kauffman’s notion of the adjacent possible: the continuum between natural and man-made systems. Four billion years ago, if you were a carbon atom, there were a few hundred molecular configurations you could stumble into. Today that same carbon atom can help build a sperm whale or a giant redwood or an H1N1 virus, along with every single object on the planet made of plastic.

The premise that innovation prospers when ideas can serendipitously connect and recombine with other ideas may seem logical enough, but the strange fact is that a great deal of the past two centuries of legal and folk wisdom about innovation has pursued the exact opposite argument, building walls between ideas. Ironically, those walls have been erected with the explicit aim of encouraging innovation. They go by many names: intellectual property, trade secrets, proprietary technology, top-secret R&D labs. But they share a founding assumption: that in the long run, innovation will increase if you put restrictions on the spread of new ideas, because those restrictions will allow the creators to collect large financial rewards from their inventions. And those rewards will then attract other innovators to follow in their path.

The problem with these closed environments is that they make it more difficult to explore the adjacent possible, because they reduce the overall network of minds that can potentially engage with a problem, and they reduce the unplanned collisions between ideas originating in different fields. This is why a growing number of large organizations—businesses, nonprofits, schools, government agencies—have begun experimenting with more open models of idea exchange. (…)

There is a famous moment in the story of the near-catastrophic Apollo 13 mission—wonderfully captured in the Ron Howard film—in which the mission control engineers realize they need to create an improvised carbon dioxide filter, or the astronauts will poison the lunar module atmosphere with their own exhalations before they return to Earth. The astronauts have plenty of carbon “scrubbers” onboard, but these filters were designed for the original, damaged spacecraft and don’t fit the ventilation system of the lunar module they are using as a lifeboat to return home. Mission control quickly assembles a “tiger team” of engineers to hack their way through the problem.

In the movie, Deke Slayton, head of flight crew operations, tosses a jumbled pile of gear on a conference table: hoses, canisters, stowage bags, duct tape and other assorted gadgets. He holds up the carbon scrubbers. “We gotta find a way to make this fit into a hole for this,” he says, and then points to the spare parts on the table, “using nothing but that.”

The space gear on the table defines the adjacent possible for the problem of building a working carbon scrubber on a lunar module. (The device they eventually concocted, dubbed the “mailbox,” performed beautifully.) The canisters and nozzles are like the ammonia and methane molecules of the early Earth, or those Toyota parts heating an incubator: They are the building blocks that create—and limit—the space of possibility for a specific problem. The trick to having good ideas is not to sit around in glorious isolation and try to think big thoughts. The trick is to get more parts on the table.”

Steven Johnson, American popular science author, The Genius of the Tinkerer, WSJ, Sept 25, 2010

The Secret of Innovation: The Best Ideas Are Small

"In his New Yorker review of Walter Isaacson’s biography, Malcolm Gladwell praised what he saw as the real genius of Apple’s late CEO [Steve Jobs]. He was a tweaker. He took things that existed, such as the computer mouse and the smartphone and the tablet, and he made them more perfect. To call him the “Edison of Our Time” is to acknowledge something shared by many of history’s most famous inventors: They were deft thieves who made existing technologies more perfect and popular with incremental improvements.This is how it’s always been. Gladwell reaches back to the Industrial Revolution and pulls out a lesson about how an innovation that allowed a few more spindles on a British cotton mule turned out to be the most productive invention of the century:

James Watt invented the modern steam engine, doubling the efficiency of the engines that had come before. But when the tweakers took over the efficiency of the steam engine swiftly quadrupled. Samuel Crompton was responsible for what Meisenzahl and Mokyr call “arguably the most productive invention” of the industrial revolution [the spinning mule]. But the key moment, in the history of the mule, came a few years later, when there was a strike of cotton workers. The mill owners were looking for a way to replace the workers with unskilled labor, and needed an automatic mule, which did not need to be controlled by the spinner.

It was the tweaker’s tweaker, Richard Roberts, who saved the day, producing a prototype, in 1825, and then an even better solution in 1830. Before long, the number of spindles on a typical mule jumped from four hundred to a thousand. The visionary starts with a clean sheet of paper, and re-imagines the world. The tweaker inherits things as they are, and has to push and pull them toward some more nearly perfect solution. That is not a lesser task.

Today, one can say that the best ideas are small and mean it literally. (…) It is also safe to say that they will be microscopic. We will cure a cancer with a radiation treatment that is ever-so-slightly better than the previous year’s radiation treatment. We will improve the speed at which data travels in space every-so-slightly faster than the previous generation of broadband. [Neal] Gabler is waiting for another Big Bang Theory. But the odds are that the next innovations will be a series of small bangs, miniscule sparks illuminating pockets of dark space and expanding the known universe incrementally. (…)

Look at your computer. Take out your phone. Every successful modern e-gadget is the innovation offspring of many fathers and mothers that would not have been born if its parents didn’t steal from, and improve, each other’s work slowly over time. (…)

The best ideas are incremental.

Earth-shattering innovations don’t look like the end of history. They look like a few more spindles on the cotton mule.”

— Derek Thompson, The Secret of Innovation: The Best Ideas Are Small, The Atlantic, Nov 8, 2011.

See also:

Malcolm Gladwell, Creation Myth, Xerox PARC, Apple, and the truth about innovation, The New Yorker, May 16, 2011
☞ Robert Boyd, Peter J. Richerson, Joseph Henrich, The cultural niche: Why social learning is essential for human adaptation (pdf), Feb, 2011
Steal Like an Artist: Austin Kleon on Combinatorial Creativity (video)
Mark Pagel, Infinite Stupidity. Social evolution may have sculpted us not to be innovators and creators as much as to be copiers, Edge, Lapidarium, Dec 16, 2011

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Leonardo da Vinci, Geometrical solids animation, Video credit: Victoria and Albert Museum

“This animation shows how Leonardo composed illustrations of a dodecahedron: a solid composed of twelve pentagons – in other words, twelve identical, five-sided faces. He split it into segments in order to calculate its volume, sliced off its corners and built pyramids on the resulting faces.”

(Source: amiquote)