Where do new ideas come from? Today’s blog smoke free!

This ancient question takes on new urgency as the competitive advantage of the “knowledge economy” depends more and more on 50 million “cultural creatives.” It takes on still more urgency when we notice how few new ideas are now issuing from the humanities and social sciences.

This question took on personal urgency when I chose today to quit smoking. (I started smoking when I came to Montreal because this city is, as someone recently put it, Canada’s “smoking section.”)

For smoking had become where my new ideas came from.

Who knows why? I think ideas like the commotion that smoking creates, the commotion of activity, sensation, physiology. This commotion somehow interferes with the screen between the conscious and unconcious mind and, like Canadians from the North or Mexicans from the South, ideas steal across the border and just keep going. They begin to earn their keep, and make a place for themselves. Before you know it, they are a blog entry, an article or a book. (This idea brought to you by Imperial tobacco! I still have a lot of nicotine in my blood stream.)

But there is a second effect going on here. I was surprised to discover, when hitching hiking across Canada in my youth, that ideas like the sound of the big tires on giant rigs. The same effect happens when I am on an airplace at 30,000 feet. Something about that roaring sound from the engines. Ideas come rushing in. The same thing happens when I am in a seminar room or a board room.

I think smoking, trucks, planes, seminars and board rooms work like vega-matics. They divide the world into many little sounds or ideas. Now we have something to work with, lots of elements all in a jumble. The jumble incites our inclination for pattern recogntion. We start to assemble: Oh, that goes with that, goes with that, goes with that. Hey presto, an idea. (It was this effect that I was trying to talk about in the entry below called “Taking Madison Avenue by storm.”)

Where do new ideas come from? They come, in part at least, from any activity, place or event that gives us controlled commotion. Create lots of disorder, mix in a few rules for order, and we have an aid to invention. Networks form. New constellations light up. Things figure and reconfigure. Now we have something.

This is of course classically what we say cities do. They bring together the lots of differences and the differences begin to interact and patterns form. It is also, if cities do not stand in for this, what we say markets do. They do not merely assemble differences, but insist on their convertibility and responsiveness. It is, indeed, the effect of all cultural dynamism, as Virginia Postrel has noted. See The Future and Its Enemies at www.dynamist.com.

Cities, markets, seminars, and of course smoking somehow break down the borders and supply the play things of our creativity. But not the academy. How many times have we sat in class rooms and seminars only to hear the class resort to the recitation of all the things that must be true. How grim this. In particular, the field of anthropology and many of Foucault’s children have created a great act of consensus in which, irony or ironies, differences do not figure, in which profusion cannot happen, in which creativity has ceased.

Surely, this cannot last. Surely, this intellectual regime will be crushed beneath the weight of its own tedium. Given the choice between the safety of orthodoxy and the liberatory joys of difference, surely one of these days the academy will do the right thing. In the meantime, I’m not smoking and neither are they.

Amazon.com: Books: The Rise of the Creative Class: And How It’s Transforming Work, Leisure, Community and Everyday Life

Amazon.com: Books: The Cultural Creatives : How 50 Million People Are Changing the World

3 thoughts on “Where do new ideas come from? Today’s blog smoke free!

  1. Jim Carfrae

    I agree, the pounding of water on the back of my neck in an early morning groggy state ! However, we are rarely looking for ideas, we are looking for ideas in a particular area or with a particular problem in mind. The question then becomes “what building blocks need to go into the commotion?” Generally I try and cram as much direct and near information into my brain, force my conscious brain into commotion and then stay very attuned to my sub-conscious screaming.

  2. Grant

    Thanks, Jim.

    Interesting. Very interesting. I do think this is why “brain storming” works so well. Its get everything in play so that the selecting and combining can take place. And you’re right, showers have the same quality as trucks and planes. Lots of “lose noise” in which to find patterns.

  3. Marie

    I was recently told that smoking is not a choice of life-style but a choice of death, and this seems somewhat contradictory to creativity, i.e. the generation of ideas which, if anything, is an eminently lively activity.

    What you describe as fora for new ideas, the breaking down of boundaries in board rooms, seminars, trucks and planes, or even Jim’s shower, seem to me to be particular modern in character and ‘controlled commotion’ specific to what has been described perhaps as ‘modernity’ (though I profoundly dislike the word and don’t really grasp its remit). Admittedly, cities and markets, or even smoking and showering, are not new, but viewing them as a crucial source for ideas seems to me like we are simply making the best with what we have. In other words, your piece made me wonder whether ‘controlled commotion’ could be historically and culturally specific. We do live in a context of information overload where some form of control over the bombardment of sensory and knowledge bites to which we are subjected (and which we actively seek out) is necessary. So, rather than saying we are swamped, we find in the serendipitous gathering of information bites a source of inspiration. But what we actually do most of the time, and perhaps more and more, is a fair amount of selection, of discarding, of deliberate forgetting of information, etc. Sadly, there does not appear to be much anthropology on ‘the art of forgetting’, bar the eponymous book.
    Perhaps the particular skill we have developed as humans in modern times (and which would then characterize the (new?) generation of new ideas) is no longer the assimilation of knowledge and/or generation of ideas by putting together previously un-related things in a new context but the choices we make of what to forget and discard. The game may be to see what’s left and be amazed, not so much by its novelty as by the fact that it emerged from such a random brain storm. Selecting what, where, when and crucially how to forget may be more to the point, though somewhat self-defeating.

    Because indeed, if controlled commotion has a cultural and historical specificity, it begs the question of how other people in other times and other places got their ideas… and surely this must be an interesting idea for anthropology. Surely, creativity is not specific to modern cities or corporate board rooms. Perhaps a context of information overload is only relative to how much overall ‘knowledge’ there is. Presumably, living as an intellectual in Renaissance Europe would have been a bit like modern-day information overload. The difference today being that there are far more intellectuals (including would-bes) and that knowledge has been democratized. But, yes, this does imply an impact on the quality of said ‘knowledge’ and the debates surrounding its generation: not all smokers are full of ideas and, surely you Grant, will find a new way of getting yours.
    And, after all, what is a new idea? It is far more likely that we shall have many ideas that are new to us as individuals, rather than absolutely unique and original on a world-scale. It doesn’t make them any less exciting. Indeed, we won’t know how ‘new’ they are unless we bother to write them down and sit and compare with the many other people who have written on whatever subject it may be. So, yes, academia can be tedious: it’s never nearly as much fun to read about what great ideas others have had than it is to come up with the thought process oneself. But academia has probably provided some people with an intellectual backbone that enables them to expound as they do. Choose any subject you’re unfamiliar with and see how many ‘new’ ideas you come up with; I just tried it with creativity and the generation of ideas… and it’s great, but I have no illusions as to the originality of my thoughts!

    The shame of it all (and this is probably as true for me today as it is for others elsewhere or as it was in the past) is that very few people actually sit down and write down their ideas. It’s one thing to have them, but quite another to be able to bolster them. And perhaps this is the beauty of this type of exchange: no need to bother thinking things through too thoroughly if the object is to stimulate or even only titillate.

Comments are closed.