Damning Creation: abandoning the albatross of “specialness”.

Martina Skender at Six Revisions offered up  her thoughts and a bit of  history on creativity in her blog yesterday.

I honestly had no preconceptions regarding the act of  “How to Create Creativity” going into the article. The reason one reads another’s work at all is to find viewpoints that enrich your own by adding to your knowledge base or helping you to view the subject in a different light. And while I think she has many good starting points, perhaps further consideration would be in order. Because, halfway into the second paragraph, I felt compelled to reply.  And so, after finishing the post and re-reading to make sure I understood her intent, I replied (with slight modifications here for clarity):

Aaaannnd, I couldn’t disagree more. Not only with almost everything you said. But I also disagree with everything you have misunderstood about what the writers you were quoting said.

“Creativity is a mental and social process involving the discovery of new ideas or concepts.”

Perhaps a divine being can create something from nothing, but we mere humans are resigned to using what is on hand. In other words: we can never create new ideas, concepts or materials. We can only modify the ones we have.

Looking back through art history, one can see the linkages between “new” ideas and concepts in art and the social, scientific or material productivity of a culture. Dada was a reaction to social unease. Surrealism a reaction to the ideas of Freud and Jung, Warhol a reaction to both the “heroic” tone of Modernism and the ideas posited by one of the founders of Dadaism, Marcel Duchamp.

Aristotle has been quoted: “Western philosophy (thinking) is just a series of footnotes to Plato.” Of course that was not Aristotle, but a condensation of a statement by Alfred North Whitehead. But the seed of the idea holds a germ of truth: Nothing new is created. It is merely reconfigured.

There is a scientific maxim which explains it more simply: “Energy can neither be created or destroyed.” The same holds true for literally every idea, concept, “intellectual property”, science or philosophy.

Anyone can produce a new piece of art or poem or scientific discovery. But the object is only “novel” not new. Because the processes, methodology, techniques and results will be based on thousands of years of refinement and questioning before the “new” thing was even considered.

As for Lateral Thinking: The concept of Lateral Thinking in no way embraces the concept of “going around” an idea. I think one might label your description of the process as End Run Thinking or Pincer Movement Thinking.

Lateral, as the name should imply, means taking something from here and utilizing it in a novel way over there. Moving the concept, idea, material, sideways, in order to use it in a similar fashion within a new framework or in a new context.

For example, the inventor of that now ubiquitous material Velcro, was a Swiss mountaineer named George de Mestral. George had a flash of insight one day as he was pulling cockle-burs off his clothes after coming in from a walk.

He didn’t invent cockle-burs, nor did he invent the idea of them pulling at clothing fibers. No, that technique is used extensively, even today, in the fibers industry using out-sized burrs called teasle. We use this relatively primitive method because we can’t, as yet, create a hook that is both sensitive enough to pull natural fibers without breaking them, yet is strong enough to withstand industrial wear.

Herr de Mestral was lucky enough to live in an era where plastics were being actively promoted over natural fibers. And lucky enough to work with someone who chanced upon the use of an infrared lamp to curl the small plastic hooks en masse, by melting them just slightly. If  he hadn’t then he would have faded into history as the crazy man he was thought to be in his day. Now, we laud is “creativity” every day in using his product.

But he didn’t create anything. He merely used lateral thinking to join divergent ideas and disciplines into something novel. His technician/developer used lateral thinking to stream line the process of production.

Another “amateur” who lateralized her skill set to the benefit of science was Marjorie Rice of San Diego, California, a housewife and mother of five.

You see, before 1968, there was an established idea that there were only five types of convex pentagon shapes that could tile a plane. These had all been discovered by K. Reinhardt in 1918.

But in a 1968 article in The American Mathematical Monthly physicist R.B. Kershner presented three new types. He also announced without including a proof, that there were “no other convex pentagons left to be discovered”. No one challenged his assertion and the results appeared in the July 1975 issue of Scientific American in Martin Gardner’s column Mathematical Games. Soon after, Richard James III, a reader and tiling aficionado, sent to Gardner a new type of convex pentagon tiler, which Gardner published in a later issue. Now we had nine.

This news caught the attention of Marjorie Rice who also read Scientific American. She had no formal mathematical training except for a general course she took in high school. And I seem to recall that she was a quilter. But she said that she “had a feeling” that the pronouncement that were no more patterns was, somehow, wrong. So she decided to see for herself.

So she pulled out her shears and some paper and began exploring. In the end she discovered four new types of tilings in the next two years.  Thus making a total of thirteen known types.

She used Lateral Thinking. Taking a skill she already understood (quilting which uses tiled patterns) and applying within a different framework to discover something new. That embodies the essence of Lateral Thinking: discovery based on given parameters.

Lao Tsu once said: “To see things in the seed, that is genius.” He did not suggest that the things were not already there, just that we have not, as yet, apprehended them.

The problem I have with the promotion of “creativity”, “creating” or “creative thinking” is that nobody can explain how it happens except by way of example. It takes on an air of something “magic”. And since most people have the common sense to know that “magic” is the stuff of fairy tales, it both marginalizes the creative and sets the act of creating outside everyday understanding. It also allows the creative to spend their time navel gazing and contemplating their unique “specialness” rather than (as we say in the superhero biz) “using their powers for good”.

However, if I explain that anyone, any one, can take skills or ideas they have already learned and apply them in a slightly different manner inside a given context or within certain parameters; most people can grasp that as within the realm of possibility. They can paint, sculpt or draw, or make scientific discoveries or build a windmill from a trash dump to provide energy for their impoverished village. (http://williamkamkwamba.typepad.com/)

Human creativity is vastly overrated. And whether you choose to believe it or not, the whole aura of creative “specialness” is ultimately detrimental to all artists (including designers) everywhere. It is the albatross we are doomed to carry as penance for the sin of hubris; for assuming that we can, as the gods, create.


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