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20 JUNE, 2011

Everything is a Remix, Part 3: The Elements of Creativity


What Gutenberg has to do with Thomas Edison and the secret sauce of Apple.

Kirby Ferguson’s excellent Everything is a Remix project is, as I’ve previously written, one of the most important efforts to illuminate the mechanisms, paradoxes and central principles of creative culture in modern history — an ambitious four-part documentary on the history and cultural significance of sampling and collaborative creation, reflecting my own deep held belief that creativity is combinatorial. Today, Kirby releases the highly anticipated third installment in the series, titled The Elements of Creativity.

Enjoy — this is a cultural treasure:

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.” ~ Kirby Ferguson

From derivative work in art to incremental innovation in technology, Kirby tells the lesser-known stories of history’s greatest innovators to illustrate the point that creativity builds on what came before rather than crystallizing from thin air under the touch of a mythical muse.

Thomas Edison did not invent the light bulb — his first patent was “Improvement in Electric Lamps,” but he did conduct trials with 6,000 materials for the filament until he created the first commercially viable bulb. Apple didn’t invent the first desktop computer — it copied Xerox (oh, the irony…), but was the first to combine the computer with the household appliance, sparking the personal computing revolution.

What started it all was the graphical interface merged with the idea of the computer as household appliance. The Mac is a demonstration of the explosive potential of combinations.” ~ Kirby Ferguson

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.” ~ Kirby Ferguson

The fourth and final episode, coming this fall, will tackle the most complex question of all: How our legal, ethical and artistic burdens are hindering our collective ability to embrace technology as a true enabler of creativity. You can support the project here — I happily did.

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20 JUNE, 2011

The Medium is the Massage: Shepard Fairey + Marshall McLuhan


Presaging the digital revolution by a half century, or what Telstar has to do with global wisdom.

I have a longstanding obsession with iconic media theorist Marshall McLuhan, and I love equally iconic graffiti artist Shepard Fairy, so I was instantly in love with The Medium is the Massage — a phenomenal little book by McLuhan and designer Quentin Fiore, synthesizing McLuhan’s meatiest ideas in a powerful combination of words and images, with a stunning new cover by Shepard Fairey. The original book was published in 1967, but the remarkable art direction and distinct style are equal parts timeless and timely — so much so, some say, that Wired appropriated stylistic elements from the book in its acclaimed editorial design.

When information is brushed against information… the results are startling and effective. The perennial quest for involvement, fill-in, takes many forms.

The book is divided into several sections, each exploring a different facet of how “electric media” are changing everyday life, from self to family to education to government.

your family

The family circle has widened. The worldpool of information fathered by electric media — movies, Telstar, flight — far surpasses any possible influence mom and dad can now bring to bear. Character no longer is shaped by only two earnest, fumbling experts. Now all the world’s a sage.

McLuhan explores the big-picture significance of worldwide connectivity, best articulated in his concept of the global village, presages today’s discussions about the death of books by a half-century, and blends information theory and existential philosophy with such poetic grace it’s hard not to surrender to his words with full transcendence.

The stars are so big,

The Earth is so small,

Stay as you are.

Perhaps most notably, reading McLuhan’s observations from 1967 feels eerily like reading the latest intellectual debate on media theory today, bespeaking our culture’s chronic and patterned conditioned response to new technology: resistance, subversion and, eventually, surrender.

These are difficult times because we are witnessing a clash of cataclysmic proportions between two great technologies. We approach the new with the psychological conditioning and sensory responses to the old. This clash naturally occurs in transitional periods. In late medieval art, for in stance, we saw the fear of the new print technology expressed in the theme The Dance of Death. Today, similar fears are expressed in the Theater of the Absurd. Both represent a common failure: the attempt to do a job demanded by the new environment with the tools of the old.

The Medium is the Massage is a pocket-sized cultural treasure, the kind you’d want to share with all your friends and keep by your side at all times as a timeless lens on the evolution of contemporary culture.

via @kirstinbutler

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20 JUNE, 2011

Sentimental Value: Shopping for Human Stories on eBay


What social psychology has to do with Victorian romance and the official White House gift wrapper.

Since 2007, Emily Spivack has been scouring eBay posts to uncover the remarkable secret stories people share about their things. The project, aptly dubbed Sentimental Value, is as much a fascinating exercise at the intersection of digital and analog anthropology as it is a vicarious journey into the lived and unlived lives of others. Today, I sit down with Emily to chat about the impetus for the project, the most curious stories she’s dug up, and the fundamental psychology of sentimentality.


The mandatory question: What inspired Sentimental Value?

I’ve been working on projects about how clothes function in society for a while, so Sentimental Value came out of that interest. I’ve also been into vintage clothes since I was a teenager, obsessed with their one-of-a-kind-ness. I’m fascinated with the little clues left behind about the garment’s former life — a rip in the knee of a pair of jeans, a handwritten name in a shirt, a lingering smell of perfume.

Victorian travel dress a newly wedded bride intended to wear to meet her husband until he was killed in a horse and buggy accident

I started looking for vintage clothes on eBay and noticed that I’d occasionally find interesting stories people would share about the garments they were selling. I started collecting them, using the site like most people, only instead of hunting down things, hunting down the stories about those things — the provenance of the article of clothing, a story about wearing it, or the reason the seller is giving it up.

I was drawn to the idea of eBay as a place that’s indirectly become a repository for sharing stories and memories. I loved how eBay could offer an unexpected window into strangers’ lives. So, with Sentimental Value, I’ve been working to cull the best stories from what’s been posted.


What are some of the more interesting sentimental treasures you’ve excavated over the course of the project?

It’s hard to pick — there are all sorts of elements that make for a good story — the story itself, the way it’s told, the actual object, the photos… Over the past few years, though, I have seen some specific themes and patterns emerge amongst what I’ve posted.

For example, there are tons of stories about relationships, like this guy who was selling sneakers with air pockets slashed by an ex-girlfriend. There are people who share transformational life experiences, like this woman, who was selling a gown she was once levitated in. At times, I learn something completely new, like the fact that these earrings had been owned by the official gift wrapper for the White House during the Eisenhower, Kennedy, and Johnson administrations. Or there tend to be loads of wedding-related stories, like this one about a drunken bridesmaid mishap.

Sequined gown worn by a woman who believed to have levitated in it.

I appreciate learning about the historical provenance of an item, especially when you get to see a photo of the garment actually worn by the owner, like this dress, which had been worn by Ann Schofield in 1903 when she was presented to the King and Queen of England. Occasionally there’s a celebrity tie-in, like these sunglasses that were touched by Michael Jackson. Or some stories I’m just drawn to purely for the way the story is told, like this handmade Vash the Stampede costume.


There’s a certain notion that digital platforms are completely devoid of the sentimentality we tend to associate with analog objects and keepsakes. Yet Sentimental Value seems to be an experiment in the opposite. What insight has the project given you into the ever more hotly contested question of whether or not technology is making us shallow and dehumanized?

With Sentimental Value, I found affirmation that the attachment I feel towards certain pieces of clothing (that had been, for instance, handed down to me, purchased on a trip, worn on a certain occasion) were echoed in the stories people were openly sharing on eBay.

Earrings worn by the official White House gift wrapper for presidents Eisenhower, Kennedy and Johnson

I love that this online platform, based on transactions and consumption, has indirectly become a trove of stories, albeit ephemeral ones. I really appreciate eBay as an anonymous marketplace where hundreds of millions of people all over the world are buying and selling goods alongside the rich storytelling by-product that has evolved from it. People are craving an online space to share memories. As a result, they’re finding ways to make digital platforms, like eBay, less sterile or shallow, incorporating personal elements into what might have once been relegated to an offline context.


We tend to think of sentimentality as highly personal, confined to the individual. And yet platforms like eBay, and certainly networks like Facebook and Twitter, are making it highly social. Do you think there’s any ‘sentimental value’ lost in broadcasting these intimate stories to the world? Is there any found?

The reasons we hold onto things (or get rid of them) are usually quite personal. As we continue to feel more comfortable putting more of our lives online, we wind up sharing those stories publicly with less hesitancy.

K-Swiss sneakers worn by Suge Knight, a.k.a. Big Suge, founder of iconic rap label Death Row Records

I think there is significant value to airing those feelings in a public forum. It provides an outlet to more easily document our attachment to the objects in our lives , something that’s often lost generation-to-generation. It allows us to process why we hold such an attachment to certain objects. It turns the sensation into less of a solitary experience and instead, into one that can be more community-driven and interactive.

This may be idealistic, but I like to think that perhaps, with this increasing sense of fondness expressed online and in open spaces, people will become less interested in fast, disposable fashion, feel less inclined to buy the newest, coolest, fanciest ‘thing’ and instead hold onto the object that’s already been imbued with a different kind of value.


What’s next for Sentimental Value?

For about a year, I’ve been buying quite a few of the items with more unique provenances that I’ve posted on Sentimental Value with the intention to put together an exhibition or gallery show. One of my favorites pieces that I now own is a 1920s gown with blood splatter from a mob-related murder. I’ve also collected a rayon blazer owned by a woman who sold her clothes to join a nudist camp, a pair of K-Swiss sneakers that belonged to Death Row Records’ Suge Knight, and a Victorian travel dress that a newly wedded bride intended to wear to meet her husband until he was killed in a horse and buggy accident. The garments will be shown alongside their stories.

Rayon blazer owned by a woman who sold all her clothes to join a nudist camp

I’m also working on creating a Sentimental Value book. I’m excited about working in that format as I’ll have the opportunity to organize the stories by common themes, draw connections that are more difficult to make in its current online format, and add perspective by distancing the anecdotes from the proximity of the platform from which they’ve been culled.

Ed.: You can follow the project on Facebook for a delicious feed of found sentimentality.

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20 JUNE, 2011

A Peek Inside the Notebooks of Great Creators, from Architecture to Advertising to Street Art


What Brazil’s favelas have to do with field science and Milton Glaser’s creative process.

The nature and origin of creativity is the subject of many a theory. But, rather than theorizing about it, wouldn’t it be great if we could just lift the lid of a great creative mind and see just how the machinery works? Well, we sort of can — by way of great creators’ private notebooks and sketchbooks, which offer a trip to as close to the creative process as we can get. After last week’s rare look at Michelangelo’s, here are five cross-disciplinary favorites, spanning everything from street art to field science.


Steven Heller is easily today’s most prominent and prolific design critic. In 2010, he partnered with the SVA’s Lita Talarico on an ambitious project: Graphic: Inside the Sketchbooks of the World’s Great Graphic Designers, which offers a rare glimpse of how today’s most acclaimed designers think and create. The project features 110 designers, including icons like I ♥ New York logo creator Milton Glaser, Design Observer co-founder Michael Bierut, typography maverick Oded Ezer, the amazing Marian Bantjes, negative space master Noma Bar, 2010 Guggenheim Fellow Amy Franceschini, and my personal favorite, Stefan Sagmeister.

Noma Bar

Stefan Sagmeister

Milton Glaser

Sara Fanelli

Tim Lane

Paul Cox

Images courtesy of Monacelli Press via Flavorwire

Flip through the goodness here.


In Street Sketchbook: Journeys, Tristan Manco takes a rare peek inside the sketchbooks of 26 of the world’s hottest new graffiti artists. From Brazil’s iconic favelas to Tokyo’s backalleys, it reveals both globe-trotting adventures and rich internal landscapes in 227 large-format pages and lush double-spreads of pure creative genius.

Full review, with more images, here.


I firmly believe science is a creative discipline, so no look at the creative mind is complete without a look at the scientific mind. Field Notes on Science and Nature offers exactly that thought beautiful reproductions of pages from the journals of the world’s greatest field scientists. Twelve essays by professional naturalists from such diverse disciplines as anthropology, botany, ecology, entomology, and paleontology contextualize the doodles, drawings and marginalia with equal parts infectious curiosity and affectionate enthusiasm.

'Meriwether Lewis's journal notes of the Eulachon fish (Thaleichthys pacificus), made on February 24, 1806, while Lewis was near Fort Clatsop, Oregon.'

Image courtesy of the American Philosophical Society

'A typical notebook page detailing the thoughts and events of a day doing fieldwork at Olorgesailie, Kenya, with a personal note near the end of the page about the joy of being alone with rocks.'

Anna K. Behrensmeyer, Paleontologist, in the essay 'Linking Researchers Across Generations'

'Page from a field notebook made in New Guinea on the food webs of aquatic animals known as phytotelmata that live in plant containers, such as tree hollows and bromeliad tanks.'

Roger Kitching, Ecologist, in 'A Reflection of the Truth'

'Ink and watercolor drawing of a red sea fan (Swiftia sp.)'

Jenny Keller, in the essay 'Why Sketch?'

Kirstin Butler’s full review here.


In 2009, creative academics and researchers Glenn Griffin and Deborah Morrison set out to investigate the minds of the advertising industry’s greatest creative thinkers in a series of experiments, analyzing the “process drawings” of these top creative professionals — artwork that answered the deceptively simple question, What does your creative process look like? The results, illustrated with a Sharpie on what Griffin and Morrison call a “process canvas,” were published in The Creative Process Illustrated: How Advertising’s Big Ideas Are Born — a fascinating glimpse of the routes leading creatives take to finding and catching ideas.

Original review here.


Drawn In: A Peek into the Inspiring Sketchbooks of 44 Fine Artists, Illustrators, Graphic Designers, and Cartoonists is the second gem of a book artist Julia Rothman — a voyeuristic visual journey into how artists doodle, brainstorm and flesh ideas out. The lavish volume offers a rare glimpse inside the minds and hearts of favorite artists like visual poet Sophie Blackall, happiness-designer Tad Carpenter, nature illustrator Jill Bliss and many more, showcasing stunning full-color images alongside profiles of the artists, who discuss their sketchbooks and how they use them.

The recent full review, complete with more images and an exclusive Q&A with Rothman about the project, here.

Donating = Loving

Bringing you (ad-free) Brain Pickings takes hundreds of hours each month. If you find any joy and stimulation here, please consider becoming a Supporting Member with a recurring monthly donation of your choosing, between a cup of tea and a good dinner:

You can also become a one-time patron with a single donation in any amount:

Brain Pickings has a free weekly newsletter. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s best articles. Here’s what to expect. Like? Sign up.