Networked Knowledge and Combinatorial Creativity
Why creativity is like LEGO, or what Richard Dawkins has to do with Susan Sontag and Gandhi.
By Maria Popova
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.
In 2010 Steven Johnson writes in his excellent Where Good Ideas Come From:
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.”
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.
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.
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.
Harvard’s Clay Christensen writes:
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.
Published August 1, 2011