Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘innovation’

07 JUNE, 2011

The Sorcerers & Their Apprentices: The Untold Story of MIT Media Lab

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What jazz-playing robots have to do with intelligent cars, the future of reading and augmented intuition.

Since its inception by Nicholas Negroponte in 1985, the MIT Media Lab has become a potent petri dish of innovation, churning out some of the smartest, most exciting, most optimistic technology-driven promises for a better tomorrow. From humanoid robots to e-ink to smart city cars, the lab continually pushes the bleeding-edge of what MoMA’s Paola Antonelli calls “humanized technology” — objects, devices and systems that enrich and empower our lives. Now, the fascinating story of the MIT Media Lab is finally told in full in The Sorcerers and Their Apprentices: How the Digital Magicians of the MIT Media Lab Are Creating the Innovative Technologies That Will Transform Our Lives — a fantastic new book by Frank Moss, who spearheaded the lab’s vision and operations between 2006 and April of this year, when he was replaced by Joi Ito.

Moss, whose formal background is in aerospace engineering and who became an early tech entrepreneur before taking over the lab, pulls the curtain on what Google’s Eric Schmidt calls “the creative chaos” behind the remarkable inner workings of this hub of human genius.

The book really is about people and their passion, how they go about inventing. So often today people write books and talk about innovation as if it were a business process. True creativity and invention, which are the seed of innovation, come from people and they come from the stories of people. They come from their backgrounds, their passions, what moves them, the things that worry them, the things that are their dreams.” ~ Frank Moss

For a taste of the kind of astonishing, jaw-dropping, all-inspiring brilliance that emanates from the lab and its projects, look no further than the incredible Sixth Sense wearable gestural interface project by Patti Maes and Pranav Mistry, demoed at TED in 2009:

The Wall Street Journal has an excellent review and Amazon has a fascinating (but ironically un-embeddable) video tour of the lab as Moss talks about the book.

More than anything, The Sorcerers and Their Apprentices is a fresh breath of optimism amidst a culture of techno-dystopia 30 years in the making, offering a surprisingly believable blueprint for the kind of innovation that maybe, just maybe, can abate our worst nightmares and materialize our greatest dreams for the future.

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24 MAY, 2011

The Interface is the Message: Aaron Koblin on Visual Storytelling at TED

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What 10,000 sheep have to do with Johnny Cash, Marshall McLuhan and the evolution of storytelling.

I was thrilled to see my friend Aaron Koblin, presently of Google Creative Labs, take the TED stage earlier this year. I’m an enormous data viz geek, I’m deeply interested in the evolution of storytelling, and have been a longtime supporter of Aaron’s work. This talk is an excellent primer to both the discipline itself and Aaron’s stellar projects within it, but also an insight-packed treasure chest even for those already immersed in the world of data visualization. Perhaps most interestingly, Aaron revises iconic media theorist Marshall McLuhan‘s revered catchphrase, “The medium is the message,” to a thought-proviking, culture-appropriate modernization: “The interface is the message.”

An interface can be a powerful narrative device, and as we collect more and more personally and socially relevant data, we have an opportunity and maybe even an obligation to maintain the humanity and tell some amazing stories as we explore and collaborate together.” ~ Aaron Koblin

Aaron mentions a number of projects previously featured on Brain Pickings: The Sheep Market, A Bicycle Built for 2,000 and The Johnny Cash Project, if you’d like to take a closer look.

For more on the kind of magic Aaron is making, you won’t go wrong with Data Flow 2: Visualizing Information in Graphic Design — easily the most comprehensive compendium on data visualization candy around.

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23 MAY, 2011

Little Bets: A New Theory of Creativity and Innovation

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What Chris Rock has to do with Steve Jobs, Stanford and the secret of cross-disciplinary creativity.

Innovation theory is great, but the dangerous disconnect there is that no matter how compelling the ideas, theses and arguments, we often fail to make the leap between how this theory both applies to our everyday real-life experience and is a reflection of the everyday experience of real-life innovators. This disconnect is exactly what Peter Sims’ addresses in his excellent new book, Little Bets: How Breakthrough Ideas Emerge from Small Discoveries — a fascinating, eloquent and rigorously rooted in reality exploration of the creative process in innovaton. At its heart lies the concept of the “little bet” — a small, low-risk action taken to discover, develop and test an idea, a potent antidote to some of innovation and creativity’s greatest obstacles: perfectionism, risk-aversion, endless rumination.

The seed of this book was planted while I was attending Stanford Business School. One of the most common things I would hear people say was that they would do something new — take an unconventional career path or start a company — but that they needed a great idea first. I had worked before then as a venture capital investor, and in that work, I had learned that most successful entrepreneurs don’t begin with brilliant ideas — they discover them.” ~ Peter Sims

From how Chris Rock crafts new comedy routines with small audiences to hone his delivery to how Amazon’s Jeff Bezos extracts insights about opportunities from smaller markets, Sims enlists an incredible range of creative, strategic and business innovators to illustrate how “little bets” work — architect Frank Gehry, Twitter founders Evan Williams and Jack Dorsey, musician John Legend, Apple CEO Steve Jobs, companies like Pixar, Google, General Motors and many, many more — swiftly swaying from psychology to business strategy to neuroscience to theory of mind and just about everything in between.

Lucky people increase their odds of chance encounters or experiences by interacting with a large number of people.

And since we’ve already established how much I love book trailers, it’s worth noting Little Bets gets bonus points for this one:

More than anything, Little Bets is a living testament — the opposite of a fluff-lined “manifesto” — to the power of life experience in innovation, of insights and principles and creative codes developed through years of being intellectually and creatively active, curious, and awake in the world, rather than staring at the PowerPoint slide on the screen of an MBA lecture hall. And what makes the “little bets” approach most noteworthy is that it applies to anything from artistic endeavors to policy to social entrepreneurship to real-time media and beyond.

One of the things that constantly surprised me was how many similar approaches and methods spanned across the vastly different fields. Story developers at Pixar, Army General H.R. McMaster, a counterinsurgency expert, and Frank Gehry use the same basic methods and of course make lots of little bets. They even use similar language and vocabulary – like “using constraints’ or ‘reframing problems’– but they all learned their approaches through their experiences, not in school. General McMaster may have said it best when he said that the parallels between these very different experts were ‘eerie.'” ~ Peter Sims

Part Spark, part Making Ideas Happen, part something else entirely, Little Bets is one of the most compelling journeys into the roots of creativity to come by in a long time. Amazon has a fantastic, revealing Q&A with Sims that will give you a taste of this gourmet meal from the kitchen of true innovation.

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