The importance of forgetting to creativity and innovation

Science fiction author Spider Robinson won the 1983 Hugo Award for Best Short Story with Melancholy Elephants. It’s a prescient take on an essential tension between creativity and commerce. Still worth reading. More worth contemplating.

Robinson explores where the boundaries of creativity might lie and what those boundaries might imply. There are tradeoffs to be made between the needs of artists and the interests of art as a whole. Those tradeoffs have artistic and economic consequences and striking the balance is by no means as self-evident as they might appear. Here’s the nub of his argument in his own words:

“I think it comes down to a kind of innate failure of mathematical intuition, common to most humans.   We tend to confuse any sufficiently high number with infinity.”  

For millions of years we looked at the ocean and said, ‘That is infinite.   It will accept our garbage and waste forever.’   We looked at the sky and said, ‘That is infinite: it will hold an infinite amount of smoke.’   We like the idea of infinity.   A problem with infinity in it is easily solved.   How long can you pollute a planet infinitely large?   Easy: forever.   Stop thinking.  

”Then one day there are so many of us that the planet no longer seems infinitely large.  

The ultimate bottleneck is this: that we have only five senses with which to apprehend art, and that is a finite number.

“Artists have been deluding themselves for centuries with the notion that they create.   In fact they do nothing of the sort.   They discover.   Inherent in the nature of reality are a number of combinations of musical tones that will be perceived as pleasing by a human central nervous system.   For millennia we have been discovering them, implicit in the universe–and telling ourselves that we ‘created’ them.   To create implies infinite possibility, to discover implies finite possibility.   As a species I think we will react poorly to having our noses rubbed in the fact that we are discoverers and not creators.”  

Go read the whole thing. It won’t take you long, But it will leave you thinking.

Problem-finding on the Path from Invention to Adoption

The intersection of two key dimensions of how we think offers an interesting insight into the path from new idea to successful innovation. Alan Kay discusses them in a talk he gave last year at Demo 2014 called “The Future Doesn’t Have to Be Incremental.” It’s an excellent use of your time, if you’re prepared to think about what Alan is saying. Alan can be a deep and a dense thinker; he’s the kind of teacher where it might take days or weeks before the argument he is making hits you with its full force. This is our problem as the student; not Alan’s as teacher. Consider yourself warned as well as encouraged. The payoff is worth the effort.

If you want to skip to the part of the video I want to examine today, go to the 18-minute mark. The first dimension he addresses is how we respond to new ideas or tools when they appear. Most of us (95% per Alan) respond to a new idea or tool in an instrumental way; we evaluate the idea in terms of how it might advance our current agenda. Our default response is WIIFM—what’s in it for me? One in twenty of us, however, asks a more generative question—should I revise my agenda based on this new idea? This difference in attitude is essential to invention.

Another way to characterize this is whether someone reacts to a new idea in a closed or an open way. A closed response to a new idea treats the idea in terms of how it advances an existing agenda or goal, while an open response maps to Kay’s notion of reacting to a new idea in terms of how it might modify, reshape, or obsolete a current agenda. While WIIFM may be the question in either case, the shift in stance is important.

The second dimension Alan explores is that of extraversion/introversion. I find it more helpful to think of this dimension as your compass; is it social or personal? Do you look to the group for your primary source of direction or do you look inwardly. Again, more than 80% of us take our cues from the group. We are, after all, social animals.

Taken together, we get the following diagram, which I’ve scaled to reflect the general 80/20 proportions at work:


These dimensions aren’t completely orthogonal, but they do set up an interesting set of questions about invention and innovation. Work gets done by the grand majority of people who are tuned into the social matrix and see new ideas in terms of how they can advance existing agendas. At the opposite end of the diagonal, new ideas are generated by the few percent who don’t pay much attention to the social matrix and are on the prowl for truly new ideas.

The challenge is that you need both groups to collaborate to generate big innovations. This collaboration is hard because the mindsets are so different from one another. The greater burden, I suspect, lies with the inventors (broadly writ). They are the ones who must walk their thinking back from what might be to what can be done now and set a path forward that avoids the temptations to settle for the incremental.

This is a leadership task. And not simply a visionary exercise in painting the future in an attractive and compelling way. It depends on some ability to anticipate key forks in the path and to recognize the risks of alluring junctions that lead to the incremental rather than the transformative. Essentially the leadership task here is one of problem-finding and problem-framing; it is about directing the problem-solving capacities of the organization toward a future that is not simply a straight line projection of the present.

Saving Lives with Systems Thinking – Atul Gawande and the 2014 Reith Lectures

A three-year old drowning victim is alive and thriving today because someone in Switzerland cares about systems. Atul Gawande, surgeon, polymath, and author of The Checklist Manifesto, recounts the tale as the second of four BBC 2014 Reith Lectures on the future of medicine. The podcast of “The Century of the System” is well worth 40 minutes of your time. 

Gawande’s central point is that the power of design, coordination, and collaboration trumps heroics. This is so terribly hard to pull off because it runs against the stories of heroics that so capture our imagination and our egos. How we get to good designs in a world that honors heroes is the challenge. 

Thirteen years

Still holding down this outpost on the web. My life and the world seem to have gotten more complex over that interval. When I started this, Facebook, Twitter, etc. did not exist. A few pioneers like Dave Winer seemed to have it well in hand and I felt as though I was late to the game. Guess that was a bit naive. 

This has been a source of continuing learning and a entree to a richer network than I would have ever imagined. More than reason enough to keep the experiment running.

David Reed on What The Internet Is, and Should Continue To Be – #ccourses

240px Internet map 4096




David Reed is one of the creators of the underlying protocols and design that is the Internet. Here is a lengthy reflection from David on why those design decisions worked so well and why we ought to be very cautious about messing with them. It’s long and a bit dense. Read it anyway. The better you understand what David is saying here, the better you will be able to navigate and leverage the world he helped create. This is the world we live in; understand it.

The Internet must be fit to be the best medium of discourse and intercourse [not just one of many media, and not just limited to democratic discourse among humans]. It must be fit to be the best medium for commercial intercourse as well, though that might be subsumed as a proper subset of discourse and intercourse.

Which implies interoperability and non-balkanization of the medium, of course. But it also implies flexibility and evolvability – which *must* be permissionless and as capable as possible of adapting to as-yet-unforeseen uses and incorporating as-yet-unforeseen technologies.

I’ve used the notion of a major language of inter-cultural interaction, like English, Chinese, or Arabic, as an explicit predecessor and model for the Internet’s elements – it’s protocols and subject matter, it’s mechanism of self-extension, and it’s role as a “universal solvent”.

We create English or Chinese or Arabic merely by using it well. We build laws in those frameworks, protocols of all sorts in those frameworks, etc.

But those frameworks are inadequate to include all subjects and practices of discourse and intercourse in our modern digital world. So we invented the Internet – a set of protocols that are extraordinarily simple and extraordinarily independent of medium, while extensible and infinitely complex. They are mature, but they have run into a limit: they cannot be a framework for all forms of (digital information). One cannot encode a photograph for transmission in English, yet one can in the framework we have built beginning with the Internet’s IP datagrams, addressing scheme, and agreed-upon mechanics.

The Internet and its protocols are sufficient to support an evolving and ultimately ramifying set of protocols and intercourse forms – ones that have *real* impact beyond jurisdiction or “standards body”.

The key is that the Internet is created by its users, because its users are free to create it. There is no “governor” who has the power to say “no” – you cannot technically communicate that way or about that. 

And the other key is that we (the ones who began it, and the ones who now add to it every day, making it better) have proven that we don’t need a system that draws boundaries, says no, and proscribes evolution in order to have a system that flourishes. 

It just works.

This is a shock to those who seem to think that one needs to hand all the keys to a powerful company like the old AT&T or to a powerful central “coordinating body” like the ITU, in order for it not to fall apart.

The Internet has proven that the “Tower of Babel” is not inevitable (and it never was), because communications is an increasing returns system – you can’t opt out and hope to improve your lot. Also because “assembly” (that is, group-forming) is an increasing returns system. Whether economically or culturally, the joint creation of systems of discourse and intercourse *by the users* of those systems creates coherence while also supporting innovation.

The problem (if we have any) is those who are either blind to that, or willfully reject what has been shown now for at least 30 years – that the Internet works.

Also there is too much (mis)use of the Fallacy of Composition that has allowed the Internet to be represented as merely what happens when you have packets rather than circuits, or merely what happens when you choose to adopt certain formats and bit layouts. That’s what the “OSI model” is often taken to mean: a specific design document that sits sterile on a shelf, ignoring the dynamic and actual phenomenon of the Internet. A thing is not what it is, at the moment, made of. A river is not the water molecules that currently sit in the river. This is why the neither owners of the fibers and switches nor the IETF can make the Internet safe or secure – that idea is just another Fallacy of Composition. [footnote: many instances of the “end-to-end argument” are arguments based on a Fallacy of Composition]. 

The Internet is not the wires. It’s not the wires and the fibers. It’s never been the same thing as “Broadband”, though there has been an active effort to confuse the two. It’s not the packets. It’s not the W3C standards document or the IETF’s meetings. It’s NONE of these things – because those things are merely epiphenomena that enable the Internet itself. 

The Internet is an abstract noun, not a physical thing. It is not a frequency band or a “service” that should be regulated by one of the service-specific offices of the FCC. It is not a “product” that is “provided” by a provider.

But the Internet is itself, and it includes and is defined by those who have used it, those who are using it and those who will use it.

[dpr: What the Internet Is, and Should Continue to Be

Why I Teach – Learning to Think Like the Web – #ccourses

I’ve been struggling to keep up with the torrent that is Connected Courses, a microcosm of my daily existence. I’ve been at this long enough now that I’m no longer surprised or upset to find myself out of sync. I prefer to treat falling out of sync as an opportunity for serendipity. Several weeks back, the question on the table was “Why I Teach”. As I’ve been mulling that over, the more recent conversation re-surfaced this post from Jon Udell:

Seven ways to think like the web | Jon Udell

Back in October, at the Traction Software users’ conference, I led a discussion on the theme of observable work in which we brainstormed a list of some principles that people apply when they work well together online. It’s the same list that emerges when I talk about computational thinking, or Fourth R principles, or thinking like the web. Here’s an edited version of the list we put up on the easel that day:

  1. Be the authoritative source for your own data 
  2. Pass by reference not by value 
  3. Know the difference between structured and unstructured data 
  4. Create and adopt disciplined naming conventions 
  5. Push your data to the widest appropriate scope 
  6. Participate in pub/sub networks as both a publisher and a subscriber 
  7. Reuse components and services

I was at this conference and gave the keynote talk on observable work that Jon references and participated in the working session that generated this list. Which circles back to the fundamental reason that I teach. I teach to learn. To figure out my thinking by putting it out where it can be seen and critiqued. In the world of the Net that also means putting thinking out where it can connect. 

Online learning, connected courses, and knowledge work itself are still very much in the days analogous to the earliest days of movie making where the first movies were made by placing the camera in the audience of a stage play. We are all lab rats in this environment and will all learn by doing. We are all making it up as we go. One advantage that we may be able to exploit in connected learning as distinguished from connected working is that it is safer to acknowledge that we don’t know what we are talking about. It is always easier to learn if you can accept and lay claim to not knowing.

Knowledge is a sobering thing

I sometimes wonder whether the thing that scares people about knowledge and science is how it can make you feel small and insignificant. This image is a visualization of the newest knowledge about where we on Earth fit in the universe. They’re calling it “Laniakea.”

It’s a very long way from when we thought that the Sun revolved around the Earth. For me, it engenders a sense of awe; what reaction does it trigger for you?

The video walks through the data analysis process that went into establishing our extended universal address. It’s a good example of Big Data and analytics at work. 

If you’re interested there are several good articles discussing this work:

Our Place in the Universe: Welcome to Laniakea

This is the most detailed map yet of our place in the universe

Connected Courses Course – An Experiment in Collaboration – #CCourses

I’m carving out time to participate in what I see as a worthy experiment in collaboration. It’s been organized by some of the most interesting people working on online learning and seems to be attracting an equally interesting collection of people interesting in participating.

Here’s what they have to say:

We invite you to participate in a free open online learning experience designed to get you ready to teach open, connected courses no matter what kind of institution you’re working in. We’ll explore how openness and collaboration can improve your practice and help you develop new, open approaches.

You can mix and match — take one unit or take them all, and go at your own pace. You’ll be joined by other participants from around the world who are looking to:

  • get hands-on with the tools of openness;
  • create open educational resources, curriculum and teaching activities and get feedback from a community of your peers; and
  • connect with and learn alongside other faculty, educators and technologists.

Sign up and receive updates from the organizers. Everyone is welcome, and no experience is required. We will all learn together in this free and fun opportunity to start planning your own connected course. The instructors, award-winning university professors from around the globe, are the innovative educators behind successful connected courses such as FemTechNetds106phonar, and the National Writing Project CLMOOC.

An orientation starts Sept. 2 and the first unit starts Sept. 15, 2014 and you can sign up and find more details about the topics we’ll be exploring at

[Connected Courses Sign Up]

This is being billed as “a collaborative community of faculty in higher education developing networked, open courses that embody the principles of connected learning and the values of the open web.” I think it is something richer than that.

Paying attention is the least that you should do if you are interested in issues of collaboration, learning, and new organizational forms. Jumping into the pool with the rest of the crowd is a better idea.

Using Moore’s Law in Reverse: Alan Kay on Invention vs. Innovation

I’m an unapologetic fanboy of Alan Kay. This can be problematic given that the average person has no idea who Alan is even though they benefit from his work on a daily basis.

Earlier this year, Alan presented at the Demo 2014 conference, offering his reflections and insights on the relationship between invention and innovation. It’s about 45 minutes in total and well worth the investment of time and attention.

Although Alan doesn’t say so explicitly, he suggests that we have become so enamored of innovation that we are systematically neglecting invention. If you spend time reflecting on Alan’s observations you get real insight into the difference between strategic and tactical thinking.