Creativity and a tennis ball

I had another chance yesterday to think about creativity.  (See previous entry on how creativity works at advertising agencies).  All these observations made at 7,500 feet.  (You may wish to factor in the possibility of oxygen debt.)

Mark Miller, Omar Wasow and I were out for a stroll.  It was lunch time at a future-gazing conference put on by the Sterling Rice Group and held at the haunted Stanley Hotel in Estes Park, Colorado (see last two entries).

We were making our way down the long lawn of the hotel.  Our plan was to walk into town, some part of which was visible well ahead of us.  Omar had gone for a run in the  morning, so he claimed to know the way. 

Half way down the lawn we came upon an ancient tennis ball (a Penn 3) and immediately a game of "kick it back and forth"” ensued.  None of us was very good at the game and it was necessary sometimes to stop walking and in one or two places, actually to stop talking.  But we kept kicking the ball.  And eventually, in a forced march, it accompanied us down the lawn, across the highway, beside the lake. 

We talked about blogging mostly, whether, how and with what logic this universe would distribute, and several other things.  I thought I glimpsed a rhetorical form here, and I began to think that this was our unofficial process for creativity.

One person would take up the conversation lead.  He would begin building an argument, looking for the assertions that would singly and collectively make a case.  And always you could tell the conversation was as much between the speaker and himself as it was between the speaker and the rest of us.  Did this work?  Can I say this?  Is this the best way to have said it?  What could I say next?  What is the best next step?  How is the larger argument taking shape?  Do the one and the other conform to the things I think I know about the topic and the world?  Even if these things are not clear or, possibly wrong, am I still in the view corridor, the vector, that I believe to be fundamentally the correct one.  And occasionally, we would see someone stumble upon an illumination that was not at all what he meant to say, but we could see that he was now truly "on to something"” and follow up as he began to work the theme, bringing some things with him, leaving other things behind. 

The other two parties to the conversation had an interesting role.  Sometimes we were muse to the speaker, sometimes we would stand in to do (mixed metaphor alert!) a small solo in support, sometimes we would be filing an objection and notice to return to this objection when the conversational turn returned to us.  We were alternatively, supportive, collaborative, competitive, skeptical and one or twice combative. 

Progress was measured (and who got to get and to hold the conversational lead) by a single calculation.  Are we "on to something?"”  Are we getting closer to a plausible picture of the future or not?  As long as we could answer this question in the affirmative, we would persevere.  The moment we could not, we would bail and start again.  In this way, little propositional portraits of the future kept taking shape.

There is a singleness of purpose and the conversation is almost entirely selfless.  If someone steps in to complete a phrase you are struggling with, that’s fine.  No, it’s perfect.  If you get have way out on an argument gambit and you realize that it is, in the matter of the Icarian jazz solo, coming apart, there is no shame in just laughing. 

This, and your sudden cessation of talk, signals that you have "flamed out"” and that you are turning over the lead to anyone else who wants it.  Often it is picked up by someone who has been "playing along beside you" in their head.  They know exactly where you were going and they can get there.  And they do.  Now it is not clear who "owns” the argument, the founder or its savoir.  And it is this "shared mind,"” "group idea,"” "single, noisy thought"” logic that works so profoundly to make these conversations productive and completely "open source.”"

What makes this a difficult form of discourse is that it works on a world (blogging, the net, new patterns of sociality, celebrity, authority, diffusion, networks, networking, etc.)  that is known incompletely and that is very much in process.  We are obliged to work in the "half light"” of a dynamic world, to try things out "in quotation marks”" (because we might be utterly wrong), and to leap perilously from assumption to assumption, proposition to proposition, as if they were so many slippery stones in a stream.  Stay too long and you are sure to loose purchase and end up in the drink. 

Some of these things can be thought about only in a group, with the conversational lead passing suddenly back and forth between the talkers that the group can make its way to fully formed idea.  If you tried to do it alone, you would surely end up in the drink.  It’s not that you need more people to get the job done.  You need them for speed and sometimes for ballast, to make the intellectual enterprise aerodynamic and in the extreme case self righting.

Back to the tennis ball.  I don’t know which one of us found it and first kicked it.  But the moment it emerged from the rough grass of the hotel lawn, it was "in play.”  The world had changed in a very little but very distinct way.  And the other two players accepted the new presupposition of our interaction and "fell into” the game.  No one much cared when they did well or badly.  The official idea was to move the ball forward at something like at a pedestrian pace.  The unofficial idea was ‘to see what happened’” and to be party to this little act of chaos.  I remember being struck that there was no hesitation to engage in the game or to continue playing it, despite the fact that we did it badly..  And I think this must be one of the characteristics of creativity, especially group creativity, and most especially of group creativity dedicated to thinking about dynamic phenomena.  It is dynamism about dynamism.  It is, in a phrase, spontaneous, selfless, tentative, reflexive, propositional, experimental, constantly forming, and utterly open source.

Biographical notes: Omar Wascow is the founder of  The New York Times called him "Silicon Alley’’s Philosopher Prince.” " I think this is about right.  Mark Miller is a chef and restaurateur.  Life Magazine called him "one of the most influential chefs of the decade."”