I have linked to Grant McCracken before when he introduced me to the idea of Low Latent Inhibition and its relation to creativity. Recently he has written a series of posts about identity, which are well worth reading and thinking about. They begin on the 21st of June with some reflections on the TV show "Monk", which features a detective with obsessive compulsive disorder. I must confess I have some ambivalence about McCracken. I find his free market evangelism a bit uneasy, but his position, as he puts it, at Intersection of Anthropology & Economics, leads to some intriguing ideas.
Some months ago I wrote approvingly of Lawrence Lessig's attack on the over protection of intellectual property. Cory Doctorow continues the argument in a talk he gave to staff at Microsoft. Here is a taster:
"Whenever a new technology has disrupted copyright, we've changed copyright. Copyright isn't an ethical proposition, it's a utlititarian one. There's nothing *moral* about paying a composer tuppence for the piano-roll rights, there's nothing *immoral* about not paying Hollywood for the right to videotape a movie off your TV. They're just the best way of balancing out so that people's physical property rights in their VCRs and phonographs are respected and so that creators get enough of a dangling carrot to go on making shows and music and books and paintings."
I have long been an admirer of Ellen Langer ever since I read her book Mindfulness. So I was pleased to find a collection of her articles on-line here. Most of them are written in her deceptively light tone, which conceal some real wisdom. This quote, which explains the concept, is drawn from one of the heavier ones:
"Mindfulness is not an easy concept to define but can be best understood as the process of drawing novel distinctions. It does not matter whether what is noticed is important or trivial, as long as it is new to the viewer. Actively drawing these distinctions keeps us situated in the present. It also makes us more aware of the context and perspective of our actions than if we rely upon distinctions and categories drawn in the past. Under this latter situation, rules and routines are more likely to govern our behavior, irrespective of the current circumstances, and this can be construed as mindless behavior. The process of drawing novel distinctions can lead to a number of diverse consequences, including (1) a greater sensitivity to one's environment, (2) more openness to new information, (3) the creation of new categories for structuring perception, and (4) enhanced awareness of multiple perspectives in problem solving."
This morning I was going to write another excited piece about the strange way that things seem to cluster. What prompted my excitement was a story in Steven Garrity's "How Websites Learn" I linked to in my last entry. Before I go any further I'll give you the story, which is from Stewart Brand's "How Buildings Learn" that he attributes to Gregory Bateson: The story goes:
"New College, Oxford, is of rather late foundations, hence the name. It was founded around the late 14th century. It has, like other colleges, a great dining hall with big oak beams across the top, yes? These might be two feet square, forty-five feet long.
A century ago, so I am told, some busy entomologist, went up into the root of the dining hall with a penknife and poked at the beams and found that they were full of beetles. This was reported to the College Council, who met in some dismay, because where would they get beams of that calibre nowadays?
One of the Junior Fellows stuck his neck out and suggested that there might be on College lands some oak. These colleges are endowed with pieces of land scattered across the country. So they called in the College Forester, who of course had not been near the college itself for some years, and asked him about oaks.
And he pulled his forelock and said, ?Well sirs, we was wonderin? when you?d be askin?.?
Upon further enquiry it was discovered that when the College was founded, a grove of oaks had been planted to replace the beams in the dinning hall when they became beetly, because oak beams always become beetly in the end. This plan had been passed down from one Forester to the next for five hundred years. ?Your don?t cut them oaks. Them?s for the College Hall.?
A nice story. That?s the way to run a culture."
What excited me was that when I was writing "The Short Now" I was trying remember that story, which I thought I had read in one of Charles Handy's books. So finding this story in Garrity's piece reminded me of the odd way that things seem to turn up more less when you need them (The oddness is, of course, that we find it odd). I was just about to start writing something about this when my closet pedantry swept in. So I did a quick google. There among the 123 entries for "New College" "oak beams", that, from a quick glance were mainly repeating the story, was a dampener from a New College alumni newsletter (PDF):
"...The Hall was last tackled on this scale when Sir Gilbert Scott put in the new roof in 1858, though a good deal of restoration was done by Champneys in the early 1900s and more again in the 1920s.
Myths have long accreted about the Hall. No matter how often the story is denied, newspapers and radio journalists still insist on believing that Scott used oak beams from trees that had been planted for the purpose almost five hundred years before. Since most structural oak was cut from trees of about a hundred and fifty years old, it would have been unlikely that anyone would plant it for use in five hundred years."
We need this story to be true, but maybe it isn't. Perhaps, even, it probably isn't. But I suspect like in the often repeated line from John Ford's "The Man who shot Liberty Valance" what we will find is "When the legend becomes a fact, print the legend."
One of the things I love about the Web is the way you can stumble across fellow spirits or at least people who share some of your thinking. This morning via Matt Jones I followed a link to Steven Garrity's blog, Acts of Volition, where I found something I wish I'd written. In his piece "How Websites Learn" Garrity applies some of the lessons from Stewart Brand's classic, "How Buildings Learn" to the design of websites. Well worth a read.
I've long been advocating Brand's book as key text for designers. In a footnote to "As We Might Learn: Vannevar Bush where are you now?" I wrote:
"Another winner from Stewart Brand. "How Building Learn: What happens after they are built", Viking, 1994, ISBN 0 670 83515 3 is ostensibly about architecture, but contains many valuable insights for would be society builders, hypermedia designers and many others whose professional interests would seem to be far from architecture. Highly recommended."
And in the bibliography to "Understanding Hypermedia 2.000":
"Not a word about hypermedia, but this book about architecture is well worth reading by any hypermedia designer who is interested in designing systems that can change and evolve over time. Filled with insights and general principles about adaptive design."
To this I would now add, read Steve Garrity's piece on the Web and then get yourself Stewart Brand's book and read it carefully. There is much to learn.
A few days ago I mentioned a slightly obscure bit of information I had remembered about the Japanese launching balloons carrying firebombs at the end of the Second World War. Imagine my surprise to find an article in Slate three days later about this very subject. As I have said before, it is amazing how things cluster.
In the first piece of writing I ever published on the web, "As We Might Learn: Vannevar Bush where are you now??, I began by saying:
When I wrote it I was still on a long quest to put together the fragments that the memory of Bush had broken into. I first came across his name as the author of "As We Might Think", where he wrote about a hypothetical machine, the Memex, which had a big influence on those of us concerned with, what we then called, hypermedia.
Later I came upon a fragment in book, which mentioned his name in relation to Norbert Weiner, one of the pioneers of cybernetics. In another book I found a reference to one of his students, Frederick Terman, who set up the Science Park at Stanford University - the seed that grew into Silicon Valley. I began to feel that this man was more important than the description of Scientific Adviser to President Roosevelt I had first encountered. Gradually, surfing from fragment to fragment I began to build a picture of a very complex, very influential man, who somehow had disappeared from view. As I wrote in "As We Might Learn":
"This year as we hit the fiftieth anniversary of the two A bombs being dropped on Nagasaki and Hiroshima, Bush's name may pop up as the man who wrote the memo that launched the Manhattan Project. But even then he is likely to remain relatively obscure and the full range of his achievements and influence hidden from view. And this in a man who was top class as an inventor, engineer, entrepreneur, businessman, administrator, academic, mentor, public servant, eminence gris, and visionary. A man whose impact on the US and the development of science, technology and business may have been profound. A man who may indirectly have been responsible for the medium through which you reading this, the Internet itself."
In my last post I mention Vannevar Bush's name in passing and linked to an entry in Wikipedia to give more details. When I checked the link again, I felt it didn't do him justice and thought I ought to write a bit more. Hence this piece.
These days Vannevar Bush is, perhaps, a little better know than when I first became interested in him. There is a good biography of him by Pascal Zachary, "The Endless Frontier". But even so, for a man, whose actions and influence has played such an important part in shaping our world for good and ill he still remains too much in the shadows.
So this is why I feel Vannevar Bush deserves more than a passing mention. As Pascal Zachary wrote in a piece in Wired:
"Vannevar Bush is a great name for playing six degrees of separation. Turn back the clock on any aspect of information technology - from the birth of Silicon Valley and the marriage of science and the military to the advent of the World Wide Web - and you find his footprints. As historian Michael Sherry says, "To understand the world of Bill Gates and Bill Clinton, start with understanding Vannevar Bush."
I was following a quite different trail in pursuit of Vannevar Bush, when I stumbled across this article by Jef Raskin. Written six years ago it describes the record-breaking flight of the "Laima". The first un-manned flight across the Atlantic. As Raskin perceptively points out:
"The men who had built the craft were interested in meteorological research, but if they succeeded, they would also unwittingly show that Reagan?s Star Wars (now updated as the Clinton/Bush anti-missile defense against "rogue" nations) was useless. Just as the Germans easily found a way around what the French thought was an impenetrable thicket of defensive bunkers on the ground prior to World War II, the Maginot line, this small plane would barely be noticed, much less brought down, by anything the defense department has in its armamentarium."
And to show you how I got here, he ends:
" Years ago, the far-seeing Vannevar Bush had pointed out that our seaports were vulnerable to a sneak attack by means of small boats, indistinguishable from pleasure craft, carrying atomic weapons. Now, every point in the world is vulnerable. Laima has demonstrated the foolishness of trying build a Maginot line in the sky."
As I read Raskin's piece I was reminded of a curiosity I found some time ago about how at the end of the Second World War the Japanese launched a series of balloons carrying firebombs. These were carried by the slipstream across the Pacific to land on the West Coast of the USA and Canada. Like "Laima" these balloons would pass undetected by radar.
Now as I have argued before, the threats posed by terrorism, may well be overstated and a distraction from some of the more pressing problems we face - like for example my last posting on short-termism and energy illiteracy. But, what is also clear is that if we are to deal with threats from terrorism and "rogue states" we should be avoiding hi-tech distractions like the National Missile Defence programme (more popularly known as Star Wars), which look likely to go ahead whoever wins the US Presidential elections, and focus more on dealing intelligently with the creative low-tech threats, which may pose the real problem.
It's curious how things seem to cluster together. I found a good essay by Brian Eno in the Long Foundation's library talking about the way we seem to have become increaingly short-term in our thinking. Then shortly afterwards I found an interview with Paul Roberts in Mother Jones where he talks about energy illiteracy. These two extracts, the first from Brian Eno, the second from Paul Roberts, would seem to make the point.
"Now is never just a moment. The Long Now is the recognition that the precise moment you're in grows out of the past and is a seed for the future. The longer your sense of Now, the more past and future it includes. It's ironic that, at a time when humankind is at a peak of its technical powers, able to create huge global changes that will echo down the centuries, most of our social systems seem geared to increasingly short nows. Huge industries feel pressure to plan for the bottom line and the next shareholders' meeting. Politicians feel forced to perform for the next election or opinion poll. The media attract bigger audiences by spurring instant and heated reactions to human interest stories while overlooking longer-term issues the real human interest."
"We won't really run out of oil, because before oil runs out, it will become too expensive to use. Another way to ask that is: When will we hit peak production? The estimates range anywhere from 30 years, to 35 years, to it's already happened. I think that we're going to hit peak production in probably about 25 years. But that's worldwide, and really the one you want to think about is when do we hit production peak outside of OPEC? Because when that happens -- when we can't get any more oil out of the ground outside of OPEC -- then we have to turn to OPEC. And that's a tough thing for America and other countries to have to do, because they don't trust OPEC. The non-OPEC peak will be in about 10 years. Although OPEC countries will still have a lot of oil, they may still be as unsympathetic and as an unfriendly to Western countries as they are today."
Some years ago when the Web was still young, I came across the writing of the Canadian theologian David Lochhead. While I am not a religious man - in fact I tend to fall into the anti camp - Lochhead's writing impressed me with its humanity and insights into computer technology.
The other night after shouting at Microsoft's Word for insisting on inserting a huge space - nearly half a page - between two sections of text and to continuing doing so despite all my best efforts to over-ride it, I began to reflect about what I liked about digital technology and what I hated.
This reminded me of a piece Lochhead wrote in 1988, three years before the Web was born, which I must have first read in about 1995. In "The Magical Computer" Lochhead talks about the relationship of computers to power and of power to magic. If like me you are not a Christian, you may have to strip out some of the overtly Biblical language to get the message. But if you do you may find it reads more powerfully today than it did when I read it nine years ago.
Here's some of what he had to say:
"Power, technology and magic. The three words belong together. Technology and magic have a long historical relationship. We might call it a sibling rivalry. Magic is technology's older sister. Both magic and technology can be described as means of controlling and manipulating power. Technology, as we commonly know it, was concerned with the creation of machines and other devices, to protect people from a hostile environment. Technology existed to help human beings dominate their environment. Magic, on the other hand, worked with myth and ritual to accomplish the same ends: protection and domination. Both technology and magic aimed at putting power over the environment in the hand of its user."
And then on the dangers of the computer's offer of power:
"There are two temptations of power that the computer offers us. The one temptation -- the temptation of the manager, the politician, the bureaucrat -- is the temptation of control. We attempt to use the computer to limit the possibilities of the people who we seek to bring under control. The other temptation is that we become beguiled by the possibilities that the computer offers us. We begin to see the computer as a new messiah, as the new magic that frees us from our dependence on grace."
And continues with the computer's potential as a possibility machine:
"Those temptations constitute the dark side of computer technology. That dark side is real. But it is not the last word about computers. If computers do allow us to create new possibilities, if computers are at the heart of a new stage in human culture, then those possibilities include the possibilities that the lame will walk, the hungry will be fed, that the victims of violence will be free from fear. The gospel, if I hear it correctly, calls us to create possibilities. The computer is a possibility machine. It is appropriate, then, that the computer be as much at home in the church as it is in other institutions of society. Power needs to be treated with care. Power can dominate. Power can oppress. Power can destroy. Yet the power that creates new possibilities is a power that serves, a power that liberates, a power that heals. Let us use this new magic in the service of the future to which we know we are called by God."
George Nelson wrote beautifully on architecture, design and creativity. Sadly, his books are now out of print. But you can get a flavour of his writing from Stanley Abercrombie's excellent biography. Looking at it yesterday I found a quote I seemed to have missed before:
"What the creative act really means is the unfolding of the human psyche in the sudden realization that one has taken a lot of disconnected pieces and found, not done, a way of putting them together."
I have recently been working with a bunch of students helping them with their dissertation work. They are a very bright, lively, creative group who have done some very interesting stuff. But working with them reminded me of something that has puzzled me for years. They didn't seem to know how to ask powerful questions. They asked plenty of questions about the task they had been given, including the potentially powerful question of why they had to do a dissertation at all. But the idea that questions were a way of exploring the world and opening new possibilities was something they hadn't come across in their previous education. Questioning seemed to be confined to confirming the world.
My question is how can this be?
Anyone who has been around very young children knows that they are filled with questions, sometimes very penetrating ones. Indeed I know my experience has been that being with young children and trying to answer their questions has shown me how little I know.
So where does that curiosity and the ability to ask the questions that expose the limits of our knowledge go?
I suspect that we train our children out of that ability. Our reluctance as adults to admit there are things we don't know or hadn't considered means that difficult questions are met with ridicule or irritations. The fact that much of the way we operate in the world is on the basis of tacit understanding we can't articulate is glossed and our response to questions touching on that is met by "Because I say so" or "That's how it is".
Then through their schooling children are bombarded by questions, which they know their teachers know the answers to. The model of asking questions becomes one of a game of matching questions to known answers. For every question there is a correct answer.
So we reach the situation where asking genuine questions becomes dangerous. A question can become a sign of ignorance of something that you should know. As a result, questions that should be asked remain unasked.
Uncertain of my sense that asking questions was a neglected art I turned to Google. The query, "The Art of asking questions" returned over eighteen hundred results, covering many different fields. This suggested that our ability to ask good questions is seen a problem that various gurus claim to be able to resolve.
Wading through the results I came across an abstract of a lecture by Professor James Wilkinson "Learning to Fish: Students, Teachers, and Lifelong Learning", which resonated strongly. Particularly when he says:
"The art of asking questions, of being curious and mentally alive, informs research and, indeed, all creative activities. It is also susceptible to being taught. Education for lifelong learning needs to take as a primary goal education in asking questions."
In a piece on managing creativity I wrote some years ago I said:
The 'why?' is a questioning of how things are. The 'why not?' is a questioning of how things might be. Both carry the idea of the world as a dynamic field of possibilities rather than something fixed or static.
Cultivating curiosity, by encouraging the hunger for new experiences and new ideas and by provoking deep questions and different frames of reference is at the heart of successfully managing the creative process."
The two questions this leaves me with is how can we reverse the process where we train our children out of asking the kind of questions that reveal the world to be more mysterious and more full of new possibilities than we usually acknowledge? And where are the spaces we could begin this process?
I've just been reading a lecture by Philip Pullman. If you care about the education of our children I suggest you read it. It is filled with much I agree with in his critique of current practice. There is a particularly good description of what it feels like to write creatively and the difference from what children are being now asked to do:
"Writing a story feels to me like fishing in a boat at night. The sea is much bigger than you are, and the light of your little lamp doesn't show you very much of it. You hope it'll attract some curious fish, but perhaps you'll sit here all night long and not get a bite."
And he goes on to elaborate the metaphor, describing some of the perils and rewards of creative work. All this in contrast to what children are now being asked to do by the people who devised the system, which, as he says, misses the point:
"They miss it because they don't know how anyone writes a story. They think that the way to write a story is to spend fifteen minutes planning, and, by the way, fill in the planning format to show that you've planned it properly; and then spend forty-five minutes writing the story according to your plan; and then you've done it."
But despite the fact that much of what he had to say resonated with me very strongly, after my first reading I felt a sense of unease. On my second reading that unease hardened. The problem is that I think he is missing the point.
Early on in the lecture he suggests that something went wrong in education in England about twenty-five years ago. My sense is that for as long as we have had mass education there has been something wrong. Not wrong for everybody, not wrong for all our children and young people, but wrong for a very large number, if not a majority.
Philip Putnam put his finger on it in the last of his five recommendations of how we could improve our educational system:
Over the years I must have seen several hundred people, who have passed through the educational system, without feeling much or any of what they were asked to do at school was worthwhile or made them feel worthwhile. This was not because they were stupid or lacked ability. It was because they did not connect with school. It was something they had to do and they were glad when it ended.
Now I must emphasise that I also know many people who did find their experience of school worthwhile and who enjoyed the whole experience. But my sense is that they are a minority, a significant minority, but a minority never-the-less. The majority put up with school with varying degrees of tolerance.
Now I happen to think that helping our children find things that they find worthwhile doing and developing self-respect from developing mastery of things they find worthwhile doing is one of the most important things we could do as a society. The question is how could we achieve this?
Many years ago, when I was heavily involved in educational research, I came across a quote from some educational researchers, which made a deep impression on me and subsequent experience has supported. Sadly I have lost both the source and the quote, but the sense remains. What these two forgotten (by me) researchers were saying was that everything we have learned from research into learning suggest that people are different and that a successful educational system would acknowledge and cater for those differences.
If we were serious about providing worthwhile learning for our children, that would be the place to start, rather than look back at Golden Age that never existed.
"The art inspired by God's laughter does not by nature serve ideological certitudes, it contradicts them," Kundera notes in The Art of the Novel. "Like Penelope, it undoes each night the tapestry that the theologians, philosophers, and learned men have woven the day before."
"Artistic fiction defends hard-won human freedom and redeems human imagination and daring; in a world waging a war of attrition against contingency, ambivalence and mystery, the novel is a perpetual training in the difficult but badly needed art of living under conditions of uncertainty, in the company of polyvalence and among a variety of life forms."
And concludes his essay with the sombre warning:
"When we worry about the future of books and book readership, let us take a closer look at society and its trends. To make books fit for the society we inhabit, let us try to prevent it from becoming unfit for books."