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Is Creativity a Social Product ?

Wednesday, June 25th, 2008

Blogfriend Dan of tdaxp clearly thinks so:

Doing Artsy Stuff Isn’t “Creativity”

I’ve talked about creativity before, in the context of the OODA loop, purposeful practice (a form of metacognition that is the opposite of “flow”), and mental illness. Another part of creativity is being recognized as useful by the field of a domain. If you invent a new type of hot water heater, that is being creative. If you’re chess technique allows you to rise in international chess competitions, that’s creativity. If you cure cancer but don’t tell anyone, that’s just wasting your time.

So this article is somewhat off-base:

Why Do Men Share Their Creative Work Online More Than Women? | Scientific Blogging
A recent Northwestern University study has a surprising results – substantially more men are likely to share their creative work online than women even though both genders engage in creative activities at essentially equal rates.

As it confuses artsy-stuff (making music, taking photographs, etc.) with creativity. Certainly artsy-stuff can be a form of practice, therapy, or good old recreation. Perhaps it can lead to creativity one day when you share it with others. But if you sit on it, you’re enjoying yourself, not being creative.

This is more or less along the line of argumentation proposed by Mihály Csíkszentmihályi  and Howard Gardner for “Big C” creativity being “real creativity” because it has a downstream societal impact. However, I’m hesitant to accept that social recognition should be a form of validation of creative merit.  To paraphrase my comment at tdaxp,  what if the people with whom you share your creative efforts are not able to accurately assess the intrinsic merit of what you have made or discovered?

For example, Vincent van Gogh’s paintings now sell for upwards of $ 80 million dollars but in his lifetime, despite a prodigious artistic output ,he often had to get by with financial help from his family. Many artists, scientsts, musicians and inventors found cold receptions from their contemporaries to later gain posthumous vindication – sometimes by chance. This is the old “starving artist” cliche and most artists who starve do so because they are mediocre talents but a number of the greatest artists, scientists, inventors and musicians starved with them – or at least were confounded in their hopes for recognition and acclaim.

In all likelihood, the more insightful and groundbreaking the creative act, the less likely the society of the time will be able to fully appreciate or understand it. At least for a time.

Knowledge Expertise as a Springboard instead of a Cage

Saturday, January 5th, 2008

Steve DeAngelis had an excellent and timely post on the cognitive diversity involved in the creative process of innovation, working off an article in The New York Times, Innovative Minds Don’t Think Alike:

The Curse of Knowledge

“There is a lot of denial when it comes to the curse of knowledge. Nobody likes to admit that they are incapable of thinking out of the box. Entrepreneurs pride themselves on being able to envision the “next big thing.” Designers and inventors are always looking for better ways to do things. The good ones have learned tricks that help them break down the walls of knowledge. According to Rae-Dupree psychologists have conducted experiments that demonstrate that a person’s first instinct is to think about old things rather than new things. That’s not really surprising since we can only think about what we know.

‘Elizabeth Newton, a psychologist, conducted an experiment on the curse of knowledge while working on her doctorate at Stanford in 1990. She gave one set of people, called ‘tappers,’ a list of commonly known songs from which to choose. Their task was to rap their knuckles on a tabletop to the rhythm of the chosen tune as they thought about it in their heads. A second set of people, called ‘listeners,’ were asked to name the songs. Before the experiment began, the tappers were asked how often they believed that the listeners would name the songs correctly. On average, tappers expected listeners to get it right about half the time. In the end, however, listeners guessed only 3 of 120 songs tapped out, or 2.5 percent. The tappers were astounded. The song was so clear in their minds; how could the listeners not ‘hear’ it in their taps?’

….Rae-Dupree notes that there are ways to “exorcise the curse.” I have written about one of those ways before. Frans Johansson calls it “The Medici Effect” in his book of the same name. He argues in favor of creating a space in which people from diverse fields of expertise can get together to exchange ideas. The Medici’s, of course, were a wealthy and powerful Italian family who played an important role in the Renaissance. The family’s wealth permitted it to support artists, philosophers, theologians, and scientists, whose combined intellect helped burst the historical pall known as the Dark Ages. Getting people with different knowledge bases together means that none of them can remain within the walls of their own knowledge domain for long. As a result, good ideas normally emerge”

Read the rest here.

Acquiring disciplinary expertise typically takes approximately a minimum of 7-10 years for the student to master enough depth of knowledge and requisite skill-sets to become an expert practitioner. In many fields, notably pure mathematics, theoretical physics and musical composition, this period of early mastery is often the most fruitful in terms of significant contributions of new discoveries or the kinds of innovations that Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and Howard Gardner consider to be “Big C” creativity. Einstein’s papers on Relativity or Newton’s early exposition of the Laws of Motion being the great historical examples of paradigm-shifting innovators. If a practitioner remains entirely in that field for their career, cultivating an ever greater and rarefied depth of knowledge ( and thus having fewer true peers and more disciples) further contributions are likely to be of the “tweaking” and “critiquing” variety. Useful but not nearly as satisfying as the grand “breakthrough” moment.

I suspect that the reason for this decline in major creativity has to do with two realities of expertise:

First, the analytical-reductionist emphasis on vertical thinking; cognitively, for an acknowledged expert, there is a great deal more time spent on mere data retrieval, interpretation within accepted frames and scanning patterns for consistency than there is original problem solving, questioning premises, speculating, imaginative brainstorming, analyzing anomalies and thinking analogically. The latter are too often the tools of the novice, the student, the child, the layman trying to grasp in the process of learning what  they do not yet fully understand. Too often these powerful ( though tiring and time consuming) cognitive skills are set aside in favor of operating on “autopilot” once the student has achieved mastery. Unless consciously practiced, the hard thinking tends to stop when one is constantly confronted by the routine.

Secondly, disciplinary fields, like all forms of collective human endeavor generate their own cultures with accepted norms, rituals, in-group terminology, orthodoxies, implicit and explicit rule-sets, authoritative hierarchies, politics, and peer presssures. As one gains seniority it becomes harder and harder to rock the boat because challenging one’s peers brings professional risk, social ostracism and conflict while validating the community’s beliefs yields rewards, advancement and praise. A phenomenon of human nature that has been observed by thinkers as disparate as Thorstein Veblen, Thomas Kuhn and Howard Bloom. Vested interests are irrational in their own defense. It is here that knowledge can be come a “curse” and expertise a form of incompetency or blindness to the larger picture ( “educated incapacity” in Herman Kahn’s terminology).

The answer to this problem requires actively determining how we will think about our knowledge. Steve pointed to cultivating “the Medici Effect” of multidisciplinary interaction in his post, a highly effective practice for organizations who want a work force rich in “intellectual catalysts”. To this, I would add another important set of variables: freedom and time. Seemingly non-productive activities, when we are “fooling around” appear to permit an indirect processing of information that leads to a burst of insight about the problem we have failed to consciously solve ( the “idea came to me in the shower” effect). Time needs to be set aside to explore possibilities with acceptance that not all on them are going to pan out ( Frans Johnansson covers these points at length in The Medici Effect). Permitting employees autonomy strikes at the power and culture of American middle-level management, which is why inculcating such practices often founder, even when introduced support of organizational leaders ( “leadership” and “management” are entirely different outlooks) due to the passive or active resistance of those whose position or status in the organization depends upon exercising control.

On the individual level, novelty is an important stimulus toward horizontal thinking. New concepts and experiences stoke our curiousity and “wake” our brains out of the usual, habitual, patterns in which we operate. Attention levels increase as we begin to operate at the beginning of the learning curve and start to recognize parallels and connections between old and new knowledge. We can also make deliberate choices to think “outside the box’ by voluntarily changing our position, perspective and scale, reversing our premises, engaging in counterfactual thought experiments and other lateral thinking exercises. In this way, we are more likely to be behaving metacognitively, aware of both our own thinking and more alert to the nature of the information that we are receiving.

We have something of a paradoxical situation. An untrained mind, looking at a field with “new eyes” is the one most likely to notice that which has eluded the expert of great experience but is least able to make use of, or even assess critically, the importance of their insights. A trained, disciplinary, mind has the capacity to extrapolate/interpolate, practically apply new insights or think consiliently with great effect but is the mind least likely to have any insights that could conflict with the major tenets of their disciplinary worldview.

Having the best of both worlds means avoiding either-or choices in cognition in favor of both. Analytical-reductionism and Synthesis-consilience have to be regarded by serious thinkers as tools of equal value. Imagination and vision should be as important to the genetic microbiologist or physical chemist as it is to the artist but they should be regarded as a complement to the scientific method and logical, critical, analysis, not as a substitute. Looking for alternative choices to a course of action should be valued as highly as correctly identifying the likeliest outcome of the action. We can embrace intellectual curiousity and shun “paralysis by analysis”.

Crossposted at Chicago Boyz.

Tuesday, October 16th, 2007


In Part I. , we looked at John Kao’s call for a more innovative America and Howard Gardner’s analysis of the mindsets that would be required for creative, innovative endeavors. In Part II. we continue with the analysis of Frans Johansson in The Medici Effect .

Blogfriend Steve DeAngelis of ERMB has referenced The Medici Effect many times in the past two years; in his initial post on Johansson’s work, Steve gave a superb summary of the Medici Effect concept:

“In his very interesting book The Medici Effect: Breakthrough Insights at the Intersection of Ideas, Concepts, and Cultures, Frans Johansson talks about the value of creating a space in which people from diverse fields of expertise can get together to exchange ideas. The Medici’s, of course, were a wealthy and powerful Italian family who played an important role in the Renaissance. The family’s wealth permitted it to support artists, philosophers, theologians, and scientists, whose combined intellect helped burst the historical pall known as the Dark Ages”

Johansson’s thesis is that breakthrough innovation is generated most frequently at “the intersection” where two or more different domains meet rather than by predictable, linear, improvements within one field (” directional innovation”). Intersectional opportunities are increasing, Johansson argues due to increased migration, trends toward scientific consilience and ready access to the improved computational tools of the information revolution.

In The Medici Effect, Johansson tackles both cognitive tools as well as social environment that facilitate innovative thinking and productivity. Like Edward DeBono’s lateral thinking exercises, Johansson encourages conscious and methodical attempts to find novel, intersectional, combinations of concepts; he points to cultivating an autotelic mindset; reversing one’s premises to smash through “associative barriers”; using multiperspectivalism ( agreeing here with Howard Gardner); and defusing the social factors that inhibit organizations from effectively brainstorming. These are all solid suggestions, though most have been made elsewhere as well.

More attention is paid in The Medici Effect to the social environment that is interactive with the innovator in helping to create a climate conducive to synthesis and the generation of insight. moreover, Johansson identifies the creation of a dynamic and stimulating “community”as a critical factor for sustaining an innovation:

“Garfield offer’s two reason for Magic’s [ a sword & sorcery card game that was a cult hit] success: a prolonged and exciting learning phase and an expanding community of players. Examined closely, you will see that he is talking about the intersection of games and collectibles”

Gaming is itself, a very powerful tool for teaching adaptive thinking skills and for driving the assembly of a “ value network” that can be turned toward productive purposes. Indeed, Johannson spends a great deal of time discussing the potential of these networks to function as a two-edged sword in regard to innovation. Moreover, the social and financial organization clustered around the innovator can be determinative in the success of the innovation in a way that is wholly counterintuitive, according to Johansson. Excess support brings restrictions in the form of vested interests from old value networks, stigmatizing failures that are a necessary part of the learning curve and blunting internal motivation with the distracting prospect of extrinsic reward. There is cognitive strength in ” staying hungry” and needing to stretch resources with value-added thought ( see Don Vandergriff’s Raising the Bar).

What Is To Be Done?:

Looking elsewhere, like The Smithsonian Magazine’s37 under 36 Young Innovators” we see many mining Johansson’s intersections or using Gardner’s Synthesizing and Creative Minds but these bright folks are social outliers. What we need is re-engineering of institutional cultures and structures, particularly that of our educational system to balance the development of analytical prowess with generative, creative, synthesisizing, capacities. John Hagel recently had a post at Edge Perspectives with a number of sage suggestions for driving innovation:

“Diversity. As Scott Page and others have persuasively suggested, new insight and learning tends to increase with cognitive diversity. This principle highlights the importance of designing institutional arrangements that extend well beyond a single institution, with particular attention to the opportunity to connect to diverse pools of expertise and experience. Diversity can often be enhanced by connecting into spikes – geographic concentrations of talent – and by targeting “brokers” within social networks, creating a multiplier effect in terms of the number of participants that are potentially accessible.

Relationships. It is not enough to have cognitive diversity. By itself, cognitive diversity often breeds misunderstanding and mistrust, seriously limiting the opportunity for people and institutions to learn from each other. Long-term trust based relationships, on the other hand, make it easier to engage in productive friction – the clash of diverse perspectives in ways that produces deep new insight and learning. The challenge is that these kinds of relationships often take a long time to develop and are hard to scale. Innovative institutional arrangements can help to accelerate and scale the formation of these kinds of relationships.

Modularity. When activities are tightly specified and hard-wired together, the opportunities for experimentation and tinkering are very limited. Segmenting people and activities into discrete modules with well-defined interfaces can help to create much more space and opportunity for distributed innovation and learning.”

Read the rest here.

In practical terms, what does this mean for schools, corporations, universities and governments ? In my view, “hard-wired” hierarchy with rigid requirements, stiff penalties and centralized decision-making is going to have to be relegated to niches in the future rather than being the dominant form of organization that it is today. Hierarchy, with it’s mania for control and accountability, remains useful for transactional delivery systems upon which reputations depend, logistical flows upon which production processes depend and security procedures upon which safety may depend. That being said, hierarchy will have to yield to more lateral, more collegial, more networked, more ecologically oriented models of connectivity where the generation of new ideas represents the lifeblood of an organization.

Hierarchy is Newtonian; Free Scale and Modular Networks are Darwinian. An innovation nation is, by definition, adaptive.


Sir Ken Robinson ” Do Schools Kill Creativity?”

Thursday, September 13th, 2007


Despite some reservations about Howard Gardner’s normative weighing of various “multiple intelligences” and uneven conceptual development in his earlier works, I’ll give Five Minds For The Future a preliminary endorsement. The chapters on the disciplinary, synthesizing and creative minds are worth the purchase price alone.

There are some very sound observations on these cognitive outlooks on Gardner’s part – readers here will see vertical and horizontal thinking well represented, though Gardner eschews the use of those terms ( he does cite De Bono’s lateral thinking exercises). Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi is a strong influence on the creativity chapter though, as an aside, I do not always buy into Csíkszentmihályi’s social/collective/domain/peer ratification of creativity as a standard as Gardner does.

Saturday, August 18th, 2007


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