How to win the future, or what 3D printing has to do with Twitter, Brian Eno and Obama.
Steven Johnson is easily my favorite non-fiction author working today, his writing pure mesmerism and his thinking an epitome of the cross-disciplinary curiosity I so firmly believe is central to creative and intellectual growth. On the heels of his excellent Where Good Ideas Come From comes The Innovator’s Cookbook: Essentials for Inventing What Is Next — a formidable compendium of essays, interviews, and insights on innovation by big thinkers like Richard Florida, John Seely Brown, Peter Drucker and many more, alongside Johnson’s own ever-enchanting writing and new material by tech darlings like Google’s Marissa Mayer and Twitter co-founders Biz Stone and Jack Dorsey, dethroning innovation from its status of buzzword royalty and approaching it instead with a lucid, thoughtful, cross-disciplinary lens refracting across education, art, science, economics, urban design, and more.
Underpinning the anthology is a message about the essential role serendipity plays in innovation — or, as Johnson puts it, “the importance of getting lost.”
It may not be possible to ‘win the future,’ in President Obama’s words, but if we’re going to encourage more innovation, it’s not enough for us to just dig in and work harder. We also need to encourage surprise and serendipity. We need to play each other’s instruments.” ~ Steven Johnson
Why creativity is like LEGO, or what Richard Dawkins has to do with Susan Sontag and Gandhi.
In May, I had the pleasure of speaking at the wonderful Creative Mornings free lecture series masterminded by my studiomate Tina of Swiss Miss fame. I spoke about Networked Knowledge and Combinatorial Creativity, something at the heart of Brain Pickings and of increasing importance as we face our present information reality. The talk is now available online — full (approximate) transcript below, enhanced with images and links to all materials referenced in the talk.
These are pages from the most famous florilegium, completed by Thomas of Ireland in the 14th century. Florilegia were compilations of excerpts from other writings, essentially mashing up selected passages and connecting dots from existing texts to illuminate a specific topic or doctrine or idea. The word comes from the Latin for “flower” and “gather.” The florilegium is commonly considered one of the earliest recorded examples of remix culture.
In talking about these medieval manuscripts, Adam Gopnik writes in The New Yorker:
Our minds were altered less by books than by index slips.”
Which is interesting, recognizing not only the absolute vale of content but also its relational value, the value not just of information itself but also of information architecture, not just of content but also of content curation.
You may have heard this anecdote. Picasso is sitting in the park, sketching. A woman walks by, recognizes him, runs up to him and pleads with him to draw her portrait. He’s in a good mood, so he agrees and starts sketching. A few minutes later, he hands her the portrait. The lady is ecstatic, she gushes about how wonderfully it captures the very essence of her character, what beautiful, beautiful work it is, and asks how much she owes him. “$5,000, madam,” says Picasso. The lady is taken aback, outraged, and asks how that’s even possible given it only took him 5 minutes. Picasso looks up and, without missing a beat, says: “No, madam, it took me my whole life.”
Here’s the same sentiment from iconic designer Paula Scher on the creation of the famous Citi logo:
(You’ll see, by the way, a number of QR codes – these link to the content being mentioned, so you can read the full article or watch the full interview later.)
Both of these stories captures something we all understand on a deep intuitive level, but our creative egos sort of don’t really want to accept: And that is the idea that creativity is combinatorial, that nothing is entirely original, that everything builds on what came before, and that we create by taking existing pieces of inspiration, knowledge, skill and insight that we gather over the course of our lives and recombining them into incredible new creations.
This is what I want to talk about today, networked knowledge, like dot-connecting of the florilegium, and combinatorial creativity, which is the essence of what Picasso and Paula Scher describe. The idea that in order for us to truly create and contribute to the world, we have to be able to connect countless dots, to cross-pollinate ideas from a wealth of disciplines, to combine and recombine these pieces and build new castles.
Kind of LEGOs. The more of these building blocks we have, and the more diverse their shapes and colors, the more interesting our castles will become. Because if we only have one color and one shape, it greatly limits how much we can create, even within our one area of expertise.
Einstein famously attributed some of his greatest physics breakthroughs to his violin breaks, which he believed connected different parts of his brain in new ways.
And iconic novelist Vladimir Nabokov was a secret lepidopterist — he collected and studied butterflies religiously. And he believed this scholarly obsession is what helped him develop his deep passion for detail and precision, which is what made his writing so crisp and vivid.
This concept of combinatorial creativity and the cross-pollination of disciplines, of course, isn’t new. In the past century alone, it’s been iterated and reiterated, over and over and over again, in just about every cultural discipline.
In 1952, iconic designer Alvin Lustig wrote in an essay:
I have found that all positions men take in their beliefs are profoundly influenced by thousands of small, often imperceptible experiences that slowly accumulate to form a sum total of choices and decisions.”
In 1964, neuropsychologist Roger Sperry drew an analogy between neurons and ideas:
Ideas cause ideas and help evolve new ideas. They interact with each other and with other mental forces in the same brain, in neighboring brains, and thanks to global communication, in far distant, foreign brains.”
In 1970, French molecular biologist Jacques Monod proposed what he called the “abstract kingdom” — a conceptual place analogous to the biosphere, populated by ideas that propagate much like organisms do in the natural world.
Ideas have retained some of the properties of organisms. Like them, they tend to perpetuate their structure and to breed; they too can fuse, recombine, segregate their content.” ~ Jacques Monod
Monod said ideas have “spreading power” and propagate “infectivity” — we see this today with the language of “viral” ideas.
In 1976, Richard Dawkins, in his iconic book The Selfish Gene, which by the way I highly recommend, coined the word “meme” for a similar concept:
Examples of memes are tunes, ideas, catch-phrases, clothes fashions, ways of making pots or of building arches. Just as genes propagate themselves in the gene pool by leaping from body to body via sperms or eggs, so memes propagate themselves in the meme pool by leaping from brain to brain via a process which, in the broad sense, can be called imitation.”
And I like this last part. Because it makes me think about the cliche we’ve all heard a million times, “Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.” But in the context of this domino effect of ideas, it seems imitation might well be the sincerest form of ideation.
The great driver of scientific and technological innovation [in the last 600 years has been] the increase in our ability to reach out and exchange ideas with other people, and to borrow other people’s hunches and combine them with our hunches and turn them into something new.”
I like to think of it this way: We take information, from it synthesize insight, which in turn germinates ideas.
And then we take these ideas, ours and those of others, we toss them into our mental reservoir…
…where they sit and sort of just float around until one day they float into just the right alignment to click into a new idea.
Now, implicit to this idea of combinatorial creativity is the admission is that nothing is truly original, at least not in the sense of being built from scratch, and that can be hard. There’s a lot of resistance in the creative ego to that idea. But there is plenty of evidence for this ecosystem of influences and inspirations.
In art, Nina Paley photographed archaeological artifacts from the Metropolitan Museum of Art and animated them to illustrate her point: All creativity builds upon something that existed before and every work of art is essentially a derivative work.
In animation — in his visual essay entitled Versions, Oliver Laric explores the reappropriation of images by looking at how Disney recycles animation.
In design — there’s a Flickr set called Similarities that exposes examples of graphic design that borrows heavily from older work.
Just recently, this brilliant Joy of Cycling poster for the Transport of London made the rounds. It’s based, of course, on illustrations from Alex Comfort’s iconic 1972 manual, The Joy of Sex.
And of course, the mother of all remix culture studies, Kirby Ferguson’s excellent 4 part series, Everything Is A Remix, in which he explores influences across just about every genre and art medium. Here’s a short excerpt from Part 2, that drives the point home with one of the world’s most celebrated examples of creativity in entertainment.
There’s so much buzz and excitement about the open-source movement today, and many of these principles are hailed as revolutionary, as a sign of the times. But at their core lies something ancient. I believe creativity itself is the original open-source code.
So what enables this derivative creativity and cross-pollination of ideas is a rich pool of mental resources to derive from. And I believe the two main mechanisms of how we fill that pool are curiosity…and choice. Curiosity is one of the most fundamental human drivers. Just look at little kids – this hunger to know the world is deep in our species’ DNA.
Jim Coudal, one of my big creative and curatorial heroes, once said:
Our number one value isn’t in any of the skills we have. It’s that we’re essentially curious.”
But curiosity without direction can be a taxing and ultimately unproductive endeavor. Choice is how we tame and channel and direct our curiosity, where we choose to allocate our time and energy, and ultimately, what we choose to pay attention to.
Your decisions about allocating your personal time, energy, and talent ultimately shape your life’s strategy.”
Here’s Susan Sontag, one of my absolute favorite authors and minds:
Do stuff. Be clenched, curious. Not waiting for inspiration’s shove or society’s kiss on your forehead. Pay attention. It’s all about paying attention. Attention is vitality. It connects you with others. It makes you eager. Stay eager.”
Much of Buddhist philosophy centers around this same idea, this balance between what’s being phrased as “intention” and “attention” – our intentional curiosity about knowledge and growth, and our choice of where to focus our awareness, what to pay attention to.
So that, I think, is the role of information curators: They are our curiosity sherpas, who lead us to things we didn’t know we were interested in until we, well, until we are. Until we pay attention to them — because someone whose taste and opinion we trust points us to them, and we integrate them with our existing pool of resources, and they become a part of our networked knowledge and another LEGO piece in our combinatorial creativity.
So if information discovery plays such a central role in how we fuel our creativity and thus in our creative output, then information discovery is a form of creative labor in and of itself. And yet our current code of ethics for respecting and crediting this kind of labor is completely inadequate. We have clearly defined systems for what’s right or wrong in terms of crediting creative products across text, image, video, and different media, from image rights to literary citations. But we don’t have the same ethical principles for sources of discovery. And yet, in a culture of exponentially increasing overload, it’s through these nodes in the information ecosystem, these human sensemakers, human synapses if you will, that this very text or image or video finds its way into our mental pool of resources.
So when we choose to take that recognition away, to not acknowledge content curation or information discovery or whatever we call this, we’re essentially robbing someone of their creative labor, and perpetrating another form of piracy. Whether we call it link love or the via crediting, giving credit online is incredibly simple, it’s much easier than doing a proper literary citation or clearing image rights, and yet there’s precious little of it online. And for publishers and curators, it’s not about “getting traffic” or “monetization” or any of those dreadful SEO terms. It’s about something much more deeply human, the same thing that I believe underpins every human aspiration and action, and it’s as true of suicide bombers as it is of the greatest artists and poets: And that is the desire to matter in the world, to be seen, to know that our existence makes a difference, that our creative and intellectual labor is of value to the world.
It’s quite telling, I think, that the amount of work that went into florilegia in the Middle Ages made them the most lavish and expensive books to produce at the time. And I have to wonder, when did we lose this sort of creative meritocracy in how we treat dot-connecting content curation and today’s culture? When did we stop valuing the enormous amount of effort and time and thought that goes into culling and connecting ideas that shape humanity’s creative and intellectual direction?
Here’s Kevin Kelly, futurist and Wired founder and brilliant, brilliant man, pondering the future of the book:
Over the next century, scholars and fans, aided by computational algorithms, will knit together the books of the world into a single networked literature. A reader will be able to generate a social graph of an idea, or a timeline of a concept, or a networked map of influence for any notion in the library. We’ll come to understand that no work, no idea, stands alone, but that all good, true and beautiful things are networks, ecosystems of intertwingled parts, related entities and similar works.”
So it’s my hope that we’ll find a way to respect these human synapses of networked knowledge and enablers of combinatorial creativity, and to codify that respect, and indoctrinate it and integrate it with our cultural framework, with how we think about creativity and intellectual property and human labor.
We live at a time when we have a rare opportunity to make up the rules, because they haven’t been invented yet. To set the standards and the norms and the honorable way of doing things. And this, I believe, is our responsibility as publishers and curators and consumers of information. Again, it comes down to choice: The normative models we choose today will shape how much our culture will value this form of creative labor tomorrow.
I love these words from Gandhi:
Our thoughts become our words, our words become our actions, our actions become our character, our character becomes our destiny.”
How we choose to pay attention, and relate to information and each other shapes who we become, shapes our creative destiny and, in turn, shapes our experience of the world. And, in my mind, there’s nothing more important than that.
What 12 million human emotions have to do with civilian air traffic and the order of the universe.
I’ve spent the past week being consistently blown away at the EyeO Festival of data visualization and computational arts, organized by my friend Jer Thorp, New York Times data artist in residence, and Dave Schroeder of Flashbelt fame. While showcasing their mind-blowing, eye-blasting work, the festival’s all-star speakers have been recommending their favorite books on the subject matter, so I’ve compiled the top recommendations for your illuminating pleasure. Enjoy.
Processing, the open-source programming language and integrated development environment invented by Casey Reas and Ben Fry in 2001, is easily the most fundamental framework underpinning the majority of today’s advanced data visualization projects. Processing: A Programming Handbook for Visual Designers and Artists, which Casey Reas called “the first substantial handbook on art in computer science,” is an elegant introduction to the Processing language, bridging the gap between programming and visual art. It’s an invaluable self-learning tool for the novice coder and a standby reference guide for the Processing practitioner.
Since 2005, (a longtimeBrainPickingsfavorite) have been algorithmically scrobbling the social web to capture occurrences of the phrases “I feel” and “I am feeling” harvesting human sentiment around them by recording the full context in which the phrase occurs. The result was a database of millions of human feelings, logged in the We Feel Fine project and growing by about 20,000 per day. Because the blogosphere is lined with metadata, it was possible to extract rich information about the posts and their authors, from age and gender to geolocation and local weather conditions, adding a new layer of meaning to the feelings. The project’s API, with nearly 7 years’ worth of data, is the most comprehensive record of human emotion ever documented.
In 2009, Sep and Jonathan published highlights from the project in We Feel Fine: An Almanac of Human Emotion — a remarkable visual exploration of the 12 million human emotions collected since the project’s dawn. Infographic magic and data visualization wizardry make this massive repository of found sentiment incredibly personal yet incredibly relatable. From despair to exhilaration, from the public to the intimate, it captures the passions and dreams of which human existence is woven through candid vignettes, intelligent infographics and scientific observations.
In Sync: How Order Emerges From Chaos In the Universe, Nature, and Daily Life, Cornell mathematician Steven H. Strogatz explores the intersection of math, physics, quantum science and biology to unravel the mystery of how spontaneous order occurs at every level of existence, from the cell nucleus to the cosmos. The same principles that Christiaan Huygens observed in 1665 as two pendulum clocks to swung in unison and pedestrians experienced in near-hoor at the 2000 opening of the Millennium footbridge in London are the same principles that fascinate and drive many of today’s data visualization artists as they seek to discover and make visible the patterns and orders underpinning our world.
Information Visualization, Second Edition: Perception for Design explores the art and science of why we see objects the way we do through an exercise in visual literacy that makes the science of visualization accessible and illuminating to a non-specialist reader, without dumbing any of it down. From the cognitive science of perception to a review of empirical research on interface design, the book covers a remarkable spectrum of theory and practice fueling data visualization as a design discipline and a visual language.
Kunstformen der Natur (Art Forms in Nature), originally featured in his omnibus on biology-inspired art, is a remarkable book of lithographic and autotype prints by German artist and biologist Ernst Haeckel, originally published in sets of ten between 1899 and 1904 and as a complete volume in 1904. It features of 100 prints of various organisms, many first described by Haeckel himself. (You may recall Proteus, the fascinating short documentary about Haeckel’s work and legacy, featured here earlier this year.) The shapes, color theory and aesthetic of Haeckel’s work are the inspiration behind much of today’s generative art.
The copyright on the book has now expired and all the images are in the public domain, available for free on Wikimedia Commons.
Beautiful Visualization: Looking at Data through the Eyes of Experts examines what makes successful visualization through insights, perspectives and project case studies by 24 experts — artists, designers, design writers, scientists, statisticians, programmers and more. Above all, it explores the intricacies of visual storytelling through projects that tackle everything from civilian air traffic to the social graphs of Amazon book purchases, blending the practical with the poetic.
Contributors include Nick Bilton, Jessica Hagy, Aaron Koblin, Moritz Stefaner, Jer Thorp, Fernanda Viegas, Martin Wattenberg, and Michael Young.
The work of photojournalist Peter Menzel (of Hungry Planet and What I Eat fame) broadens the definition of “data visualization” though the lens of the humanities, offering compelling visual anthropology captures the striking span of humanity’s socioeconomic and cultural spectrum. His Material World: A Global Family Portrait is an engrossing visual portrait of the world’s possessions across 30 countries, captured by 16 of the world’s leading photographers. In each country, Menzel found a statistically average family and photographed them outside their home, with all of their belongings. The result is an incredible cross-cultural quilt of possessions, from the utilitarian to the sentimental, revealing the faceted and varied ways in which we use “stuff” to make sense of the world and our place in it.
China: The Wu Family
The nine members of this extended family live in a 3-bedroom, 600-sq-foot dwelling in rural Yunnan Province. They have no telephone and get news through two radios and the family's most prized possession, a television. In the future, they hope to get one with a 30-inch screen as well as a VCR, a refrigerator, and drugs to combat diseases in the carp they raise in their ponds. Not included in the photo are their 100 mandarin trees, vegetable patch, and three pigs.
Image copyright Peter Menzel via PBS | www.menzelphoto.com
United States: The Skeen Family
Rick and Pattie Skeen's 1,600-sq-foot house lies on a cul-de-sac in Pearland, Texas, a suburb of Houston. Rick, 36, now splices cables for a phone company. Pattie, 34, teaches at a Christian academy. Photographers hoisted the family up in a cherry picker to fit in all their possessions, but still had to leave out a refrigerator-freezer, camcorder, woodworking tools, computer, glass butterfly collection, trampoline, fishing equipment, and the rifles Rick uses for deer hunting, among other things. Despite their possessions, nothing is as important to the Skeens as their Bible -- an interesting contrast between spiritual and material values.
Image copyright Peter Menzel via PBS | www.menzelphoto.com
Japan: The Ukita Family
43-year-old Sayo Ukita had children relatively late in life, like many Japanese women. Her youngest daughter is now in kindergarten, not yet burdened by the pressures of exams and Saturday 'cram school' that face her nine-year-old sister. Sayo is supremely well-organized, which helps her manage the busy schedules of her children and maintain order in their 1,421-sq-foot Tokyo home stuffed with clothes, appliances, and an abundance of toys for both her daughters and dog. Despite having all the conveniences of modern life, the family's most cherished possessions are a ring and heirloom pottery. Their wish for the future: a larger house with more storage space.
Image copyright Peter Menzel via PBS | www.menzelphoto.com
Mali: The Natomo Family
It's common for men in this West African country to have two wives, as 39-year-old Soumana Natomo does, which increases their progeny and in turn their chance to be supported in old age. Soumana now has eight children, and his wives, Pama Kondo (28) and Fatouma Niangani Toure (26), will likely have more. How many of these children will survive, though, is uncertain: Mali's infant mortality rate ranks among the ten highest in the world. Possessions not included in this photo: Another mortar and pestle for pounding grain, two wooden mattress platforms, 30 mango trees, and old radio batteries that the children use as toys.
Image copyright Peter Menzel via PBS | www.menzelphoto.com
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