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GP 30 July 2008: Cookie-Cutter, Carbon Copies

Breakfast at Tiffany’s.  Even today Truman Capote’s Breakfast at Tiffany’s, be it the movie or the novella, can still make us smile, and we can still find an affective innocence in many of the characters, despite all their kinks and warts.  This is Capote when he still had a light touch, before he and the mankind he pictured became irretrievably scarred.

Towards the end of the story, the heroine Holly Golightly casts her cat (only named Cat) out on the street, an erratic celebration of its freedom, and of her own independence from relationships with men, friends, and animals.  “But at the next stop, Holly flings open the door and runs back for the cat, except he is nowhere to be found.  ‘Oh, Jesus God,’ she says, ‘We did belong to each other.’”  She agonizes that it is awful, “Not knowing what’s yours until you’ve thrown it away."

Yankee Ingenuity.  America, and even the world, have believed that creativity, invention, and innovation were at the heart of America’s national character—from colonial times onward.  There was nothing we could not solve with a little “Yankee ingenuity.”  But in the 21st century, it has suddenly dawned on some that we’ve lost it.  We’re not churning out the patents quite as fast.  The Japanese Toyotas and Hondas are better engineered than our cars—and for that matter better than the Germans’ prized Mercedes and BMW. 

Just as we’ve lost it or thrown it away, pundits aplenty wax eloquent about our creativity.  How much we need it?  What stimulates it?  Why we should study and dissect it with vast government grants?  And how the federal government and the Fortune 500 companies must vastly increase their R & D budgets if we are to survive to 2025.  We suddenly value our power to come up with good, practical ideas, well after impotence and inertia have set in.  We think we can bring it back with money, but that will not recapture the magic.

Neuroscience and the Like.  The vast outpourings of the creativity-revival industry are largely hogwash and simply consume an awful lot of our bandwidth.  We admit, however, that we’re a little addicted to what the neurosearchers are turning up on this question.  For instance, “The Eureka Hunt,” New Yorker, July 28, 2008, pp. 40-45 is quite provocative, unveiling the random walk the unconscious takes to produce mountain- size discoveries.  Using EKGs and brain imaging, they’re finding that sudden insights arise in the right side of the brain if the right conditions prevail.  Their investigations will surely become known as aha research or intuition studies.

Nancy Andreasen, a research psychiatrist out at the University of Iowa, has turned to the study of genius and creativity, using brain imaging techniques.  She started out as an English professor, then moved over to work on the troubles of the brain.  Now she has decided to have some fun and find out what’s happening when the brain is working terribly right.

Ronald Burt, a sociologist from the University of Chicago, has his own down-to-earth and highly profitable way of looking at creativity.  He thinks electric things happen when one breaks out of one’s cocoon, the constricted social network that controls most of the communication in our day-to-day life.  Sparkling things come about when we import something from out of left field, preferably from a field of study we don’t know much about, saturated with ideas that have been hatched in Mongolia.

We suspect he’s got something there.  In modern advanced societies that are terrorized by too many digital inputs, we live in a virtual prison that locks out foreign ideas.  Andreasen and Burt and others, taken as a whole, prod us to think what psychological and sociological circumstances are preconditions for us to create a mosque-cathedral as grand as the Mezquita de Córdoba.
Never Made It Out of High School or College.  Lately we’ve been struck at how many people who re-create the universe never make it out of high school or college.  Frank Zappa, the most kinetic musician of the extraordinarily creative 1960s, was bright as sin but just gave up school.  Ironically, his group was called the Mothers of Invention.  Ironically, too, his most popular song was “Valley Girl,” which satirically celebrates lassies who have no mind of their own, free of any claims to creativity. Famously, Bill Gates dropped out of Harvard in order to hatch his Windows.  A robotics leader we know didn’t even bother to start college, and that’s surely why he’s much more inventive than Gates.

To some degree, the poet William Blake foreshadowed this.  He thought children were born into blissful innocence but soon enough society wrapped them in experience and took away their blessed estate.  For the right sort of people, anyway, freedom from societal ways and official learning permits them to put the world together in an original way, such that their brains achieve an architecture that permits unique insights.  Breakthrough innovation often wells up in people who are just a bit askew from society.

Fearful Symmetry.  Blake coined another immortal phrase, “fearful symmetry,” which, when he spake it, wonderfully described the very process of creation.  But, in our own time, “fearful symmetry” has an altogether different meaning.  In a civilization built on mass production and mass marketing, it would refer to the terrible sameness that afflicts us. We are locked in symmetry.  Our cars, our streets, our products are so much alike that, as we said in “America the Beautiful,” the sterile impulse that drives such duplication has stripped our country of its natural beauty.  We have a government that does everything in triplicate.

Malvina Reynolds best summed the whole thing up in 1962.  Songwriter and folk singer, she penned “Little Boxes,” satirizing the shabby cheap developments built south of San Francisco after World War II.  “There's a green one and a pink one and a blue one and a yellow one / And they’re all made out of ticky tacky and they all look just the same.”  More than once, we are told, hardworking stiffs, after a night on the town saucing it up with their Peninsula buddies, returned to these glorified shacks and went to sleep in the wrong houses.  Because all the houses looked the same.
Alas, there are a host of boxlike developments and houses about the country that are not much better.  A Wal-Mart, or a McDonald’s, or a GM showroom doesn’t look that much different from one town to the next.  You can fly from Los Angeles to Atlanta and forget which city you are in.  More and more towns have turned into anywhere U.S.A.

A Thought for the Innovation Society.  For the John Kao’s and others who think that we have to push innovation to the front of the line and the top of our agenda.  For all the drug companies whose pipelines don’t have new blockbuster drugs in them.   For a dying auto industry whose products look an awful lot alike the world over.  Probably we won’t get much in the way of serious big-time innovation unless we can introduce big chunks of fearless asymmetry into our lives.  To paraphrase Goethe, there is nothing so unhappy as a train of happy days.  Minds drugged by sameness cannot create one-of-a-kinds.

Mass production and a mass mentality have permitted us to grow at a stupendous rate.  But both are barriers to innovation and are unsustainable in a high cost society that no longer sits atop abundant resources.  To be original, we need more one-of-a-kinds around us.

P.S.  We will be posting much more about creativity and innovation on the Global Province.  One aspect that bears much more discussion is the fact that there is a lot of invention directed at very puny ends.  Successes they may be, but we really don’t need either an iPod or iPhone.  Writ large, they are excrescences.  Our whole infrastructure has to be rebuilt, but the problem is the people who engineer our superstructures want to build what we have had in the past.  The infrastructure has to be re-invented and fashioned quite differently.  For instance, our electric grid is a mess—not properly allowing for a multitude of power sources and for the movement of power over long distances.  Getting that right would be invention on a grand scale.

P.P.S.  The wonderful Canadian literary critic Northrop Frye entitled his critique of Blake “Fearful Symmetry.”  Before him many had thought Blake delusional, his poetry a patchwork of ramblings.  Frye made sense of them and laid down a path that influential English-language critics have followed ever since.  It’s all right to ramble

P.P.P.S.  The Japanese and their critics have lamented, forever, the lack of creativity and entrepreneurial energy in Japanese society.  The government has tried to change the climate.  We would note that the society venerates some of its greatest creators, calling them National Treasures.   We would suggest that Japan has an entirely different kind of creativity problem.  Woman in the Dunes speaks of a nation that is girded by psychological chains.  Tokyo’s chaotic street numbering system is just one sign that Japan’s rigid conformity is just a mask that conceals a great deal of irregularity underneath.  It is a society that has been deft at importing all sorts of foreign ideas and putting its own peculiar spin on them.

P.P.P.P.S.  Years ago Howard Austin, a bright son of a gun from West Virginia, who hung out on the fringes of MIT, rounded us up for a discussion of expert behavior.  As he said, all our expert systems adroitly mimic dumb behavior.   He was interviewing a whole bevy of bright, thought-changing  people so that he could find out how, with software and such, he could eventually do a halfway decent job of modeling what the best experts do.  We think that sounds right.  If we are to put creativity and innovation in the driver’s seat of our society, we’d best get deeply into the heads of outrageously creative people.

P.P.P.P.P.S.  For the past few years, twenty-somethings have put down a friend or classmate, by saying he or she is “random,” disconnected, maybe geeky.  Since we need far more random notes to break out of our straitjackets, we would hope that this could become a term of praise.  In fact, the unconscious, where so much happens out of sight, seems, to the ordinary onlooker, to assert itself in random ways.  ‘Random’ phenomena are increasingly useful in human affairs: random sequences, for instance, provide the basis of computer security.  Fortunately a few teenagers consider their randomness a badge of courage and a confirmation of their irreverence.

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