Category Archives: Creativity Watch

Bill, dude, stop cramming for the future

bill gates.jpg

I have presumed to comment on Bill Gates and Microsoft on a couple of occasions. I take this as one of the rights of a share holder. It may look like presumption. It may even walk and talk like presumption. But I prefer to think of it as a way of protecting my investment.

Alarming news recently in the Wall Street Journal. Twice a year, Bill seeks refuge in a modest waterfront cottage for one of his “Think Weeks.” No one may disturb him, not his family, not his fellow managers. For these seven days, Bill contemplates the future of technology.

No, he doesn’t. He reads white papers till he can’t see straight.

He starts the morning in bed poring through papers mostly by Microsoft engineers, executives and product managers and scribbling notes on the covers. Skipping breakfast, he patterns upstairs in his stocking feet to read more papers. Noon and dinnertime bring him back downstairs to read papers over meals at the kitchen table…

On a Think Day in February, Bill has read 56 papers by Day 4. His record is 112 for the week. Sometimes he reads till 2 in the morning. Sometimes he reads around the clock. Often he reads till giddy. (In one poignant moment in the WSJ story, Bill is so exhausted that he begins to vocalize the words he finds in a report on speech synthesis.)

Dude, this is not the way a man of great power and intelligence spends his time. Two words: “executive summary.” Hire very smart people to read and precise these papers. Your job, if I may presume to say so, is to imagine how all the bits and pieces go together. Your job is to imagine the most potent configurations all these possibilities might take.

Most managers, academics, and creatives are in the “pattern recognition” business. They hire us for this, that or the other thing, but the place we create value is in those moments when suddenly we see a pattern that briefly configures all the buzzing confusion out there into something that is perhaps a plausible future. It might be wrong, but in a time of great dynamism, error (thoughtful, well grounded error) is much to be preferred to confusion.

Can we engage in pattern recognition when we are giddy with exhaustion, when we have read the fine detail of a great piece of engineering, when we have devoted ourselves to 60 closely worded pages on “identity theft” on the internet? No! Pattern recognition takes a little perspective, a bigger picture, a little distance, and time to think.

And this happens only when we turn things over to the extraordinary powers of the unconscious mind, a device so powerful it makes the conscious mind look like the original rule bound, bureaucratic, bean counter. When we are stuffing our heads with 112 reports in a week, these deeper powers simply fall quiet. They spend all their time sorting and filing. There is no time for re/re/reconfiguration.

This is the favorite technique of the unconscious mind. I can hear my own obsessing in its search for a pattern. “What about this?” “What about this?” “What about this?” It is configuring and reconfiguring and configuring again. Occasionally, the conscious mind will say, “actually [it likes to patronize the unconscious mind shamelessly], that’s pretty good. We can work with that.” The unconscious mind does not take umbrage. It has gone back to its obsessive search for that more perfect pattern.

Sometimes, this happens happen. There are moments when the unconscious moment knows that it’s got something and then it comes in triumph. (This is the moment it replies to patronizing attitude of the conscious mind with its own “can’t touch this” arrogance. And, yes, my unconscious likes to quote badly dated hip hop song and dance men like MC Hammer. It’s sad, really. I’m sure your unconscious mind is a little hipper.)

There is that Svaha moment when we know we have an idea, but we don’t know what the idea is. We can feel it rising (funny that it always feels like rising, like the mind actually buys the Freudian, and not just Freudian, notion that it arranges vertically) and the rising only takes about, oh, 2 second, but those two seconds are joyful. We have it. It will be marvelous. Hey, presto, it is marvelous. Can’t touch this.

It’s as if Bill is cramming. What is the point of reading till exhausted, till the text swims before his eyes. We can’t cram for the future. All those white papers are nothing if not a tower of babel, each of them its own carefully worded, brilliant executed concept of the new, all of them together a blinding set of competing assumptions and discordant points of view. The “fine print” here will kill you. We have one option: to go with our strength, the deepest powers of pattern recognition at our disposal.

My advice: Dude, get out of the cottage. Stop reading, start walking. We know how Hollywood would do this. You are walking on a rainy, wind swept beach (creativity’s objective correlative). One of Beethoven’s late quartets supplies the music under (to show the rigor, beauty and power of the thought within). You are accompanied by a happy golden retriever who really wants to fetch that stick Bill is carrying. But his urgings go ignored. For Bill is sightless with contemplation. The gaze has turned within. Things figure, configure, and reconfigure. Patterns form and release. Form and release. Then… “You know, that could be something.”

There is something eerie about this image because, cue the idealists, what is happening in this head is not merely a contemplation but a construction of the future. When you are Bill Gates, what you decide, finally, is the future has, of course, a pretty good chance of becoming the future.

Just so. As a share holder, I am obliged to say that reading yourself weary does not bode well. Less is more. Figures (literary ones, that is) are better than facts. Patterns better than papers. The future belongs more surely to those who give it a chance to form.


Guth, Robert A. 2005. In Secret Hideaway, Bill Gates Ponders Microsoft’s Future. Wall Street Journal. March 28, 2005.

Pam and Grant go to the opera


Is blogging the right place to review an opera? Probably not, but here goes.

Pam, my wife, came out of the Met’s Samson and Delilah and announced that it confused inspirations from Schindler’s List, Cirque du Soleil, and the Lion King.

I couldn’t do better than this, but I ended up making declarations of my own. Chiefly: you either treat Samson and Delilah as a tragedy or you commit a crime against the species.

Tragedies force us to accept the truth of two contradictory things. (I don’t think this is Aristotle’s definition, but it works for me.) In this case, Samson means to be a hero to his people and he loves Delilah to her core. Delilah? Ditto!

But the Met’s production takes pains to show us that there is no ambivalence in the protagonists. Delilah is merely a world-class manipulator and Samson, a guy who can’t keep his pants on.

Dommage, ca! These characters are not tragic. They’re just sad. And if they are sad, what does that say about the rest of us, pantless and manipulating as we so often are?

I hadn’t seen this before but tragedy is actually a pretty dignifying enterprise. I used to think it was intended to force us to reckon with the sheer intractability of the world. But in fact it is closer to a “get out of moral jail free” card. Tragic treatments say that we would surely do the right thing, if there weren’t another, contradictory, right thing in the way.

The Met’s production does not splay the tragedy card. Instead, it lavishes 2 hours, immense operatic talent, and all the visual potentials of the Met on a demonstration of how flawed and undignified the species is.

So it’s “two thumbs down.” Pam says the opera is conceptually and aesthetically muddled. I say it makes the species look bad. Hey, we could have just stayed home and watched the 6 o’clock news.

where do new ideas come from


I’ve noticed something about life in Connecticut. Things don’t break down here. Everything is in tiptop condition. Every so often you will see a house that looks uncared for, or a garden shed that’s leaning perilously. But usually everything is tickety boo. (That’s how we talk in Connecticut.)

In Connecticut, entropy isn’t allowed. The forces of disorder and randomness must apply to city hall for a permit before entering the state, and they must keep this permit in plain view AT ALL TIMES. Deterioration, when this does occur, is put right, immediately.

There are two kinds of vehicles: the BMWs and Mercedes of the people who live here and the panel trucks and pickups of those who work here. The expensive cars are always perfect. No chipped paint, no cracked wind shields, no dragging bumpers. The trucks, on the other hand, are often pretty badly beaten up.

This is ironic because these trucks carry the anti-entropy shock troops. These are the guys, mostly, who put things right. These vans, these are the vessels that bear anti-entropy into the state every morning and install it somewhere, on a house or in a shed, say, that the state may revel in yet another day of well fired, well sealed, well enameled perfection. As night draws near, these trucks withdraw noisily from the state in a gesture of by-law enforced deference. No, we don’t know where they go. Really, it’s just important that they leave. (New Jersey, could it be?)

Now, I’m a libertarian and this means that I may not write a blistering attack on the tedium of life in the suburbs. And in point of fact, I think this favorite pastime of the intellectuals is a waste of time. Everyone is entitled to live as they want, assuming that they do not infringe on the rights of others in the process. If they want to live with Martha Stewart rectitude, banging! Someone’s got to keep the faith.

But this doesn’t mean that certain ways of living don’t have costs, and my sermon today, brothers and sisters of the congregation, treats the costs of being anti-entropic. There is, I think, something very, very, very wrong with not letting things break down. This is not an aesthetic matter, though there is often something beautiful about decay. It’s not a moral matter, thought there is something especially interesting about societies that use (and sometimes find themselves suspended between) more than one moral compass.

No, this is a matter of creativity. And here’s my theory. I believe that when houses, cars, clothing and gardens break down, something cultural happens. The fine fissures on the object let meaning leak out. No need to call the Nuclear Commission. There is no danger here. The only effect of meanings leakage is that the object in question gives up a little of its cultural definition. And when this happens it consents to our imaginative manipulation in ways it will not do when brand spanking new.

When things break down, cultural codes give up. Cultural ‘types” lose their power over ‘tokens.” And a certain, crazy cultural reengineering becomes possible. We can now work from the diminished token up to types not anticipated by or specified in the cultural code. In short, convention loses a little of its power over the world and we are free to change this world, or at least the specs from which it comes.

I don’t go so far as the “critical” social scientists or the Po Mo camp. I don’t believe these movements of entropy actually allow for the remaking of the world as a world. But I do think that little departures and diminishments allow for the remaking of the world as an idea. (Nothing happens till we pay the costs of introduction and give the world a chance to vote. This is the problem with, the tragic condition of, “critical” social scientists. They forget or refuse the voting part. Revolutions are supposed to carry themselves by the unaided momentum of ineluctable argument.)

Sorry, yes, I was talking about Connecticut. It’s perfect, or close to it. And this makes it a “no fly” zone for new ideas. They come down Long Island sound, these ideas do, headed for the irresistible bouleversement of New York City. They can see my little town, and fatigued from trans-atlantic travel, they might be persuaded to stop here. But no. There is nothing for them to perch upon. Everything is what it is and not another thing. There are no imperfections that would give a new idea purchase, even briefly, on our shore.

I am sure I’ll be fine, but if you don’t hear from me for awhile, it’ll be because I stowed away on one of those panel trucks. Next blogcast, New Jersey!

Idea generation: the M&Ms way


Where do new ideas come from?  The Sterling Rice session yesterday got me thinking.

I got my first training in the corporate approach from Denise Fonseca, now Director, Global Business and Consumer Insights at the Coca-Cola Company.   She was running a brain storming session in New York City.   I don’t remember the topic.   I do remember the training.   I especially remember the M&Ms.

Denise had assembled people with various kinds of expertise.   Most were from the academic and or professional world.  And we know what these people are like.   They do not play well with others.   They object, cavil, quibble, carp and niggle.   And that’s just at the dessert table.

Denise gave us fair warning.  She said something like: 

There is one rule in this room: No nos.  You may not contradict, dispute, or disagree with the things you hear here.   I am going to enforce this rule with my M&Ms.   When I hear you contradict, dispute or disagree, I am going to pelt you with one or several M&Ms depending on the severity your offense.

I listened with interest.   And I tried to do my best.   But years of academic training got the better of me.   I caviled, quibbled and I’m pretty sure I niggled at least once.  The first M&M struck me in the label.   The second bounced off the notes in front of me.   The last one is still embedded just below my ear.  The doctors say it’s better to leave it there.

The "No nos" rule comes as a surprise to a lot of people.   It seems like a recipe for chaos.   Isn’t caviling the very method of quality control?   Actually, it isn’t, always.   Too often it is the way academics jam the airwaves against competing ideas.   But the issue here is not quality control, it is idea generation.   When it is not the procrustean examination of ideas that is called for, but a sheer profusion of possibilities, no nos are the path to riches.

But how are we to separate the good from the bad ideas?   The good news here is that bad ideas go away all by themselves.   No one picks them up.   No one remains their champion.   Groups flock, and they always move in the direction of the good ideas. 

One of the conditions of profusion is a "non proprietary" approach on the part of the participants.  The moment an idea escapes your lips, it belongs to the group, and, if it’s a good one, to the corporation.  You have to learn to say goodbye.  You will get credit in general for your performance and might get a high 5 from a fellow participant when you have distinguished yourself, but otherwise ideas end up belonging to everyone.

Besides the invitation to return to idea generation, the reward is this: there are few things more exciting than thinking in a group.   It is as if a group mind emerges.   You are now thinking with everyone with everyone’s ideas.   The momentum is remarkable and the moment is discovery is thrilling.   You can almost feel a rising drama.   The group knows its "on to something."   It will issue from someone’s mouth (and of course you hope it’s yours) but it will in fact issue from everyone’s mind.   Bango!   Suddenly, all the disparate pieces, all the hunches, the false leads, the failed experiments clarify and you are there, staring at Newfoundland (see last post) out the right-hand window of the flying machine. 

It takes patience, and the willingness to endure vast amounts of dissonance.  Yesterday, I knew I had something but I couldn’t think how to say it.  I could only say, badly, "here, this is something we could talk about here."  I was describing an idea space, a place to explore. My group just didn’t pick it up.  This is the way the group votes.   This is the way bad ideas are made to go away.   So, I thought, "well, ok, it’s a bad idea." But it stuck with me, as things will when you can just "feel" that there is something there.  (And how this works is a mystery.  How can you know you have an idea when you can’t say what it is?  Some distant signal apparently is coming from the unconscious mind.  "Dig here!")

Anyhow, I raised it in another session.   By this time, my confidence was dwindling and I offered abject apologies and the possibility that ‘this might be nothing.’  But the facilitator of the session, a gifted person called Priscilla Pritchard, said, "well, wait a second, let’s work on it.  How can we open this up?"  And before very long, the group mind did open it up and extract quite a nice little idea.  In the meantime, the group is flying blind, working it’s way through all the "yeses" to the distant shore. 

All of this depends on No Nos.  Let everything in, share without regard to rights of personal ownership, share without hope of individual credit, and use the power of the group.  It is just amazing how often this gets you to Newfoundland.

I have been in lots of these groups now and not so long ago I saw a wonderful demonstration of how this process can go wrong.   I saw a person so monstrously unsuited to idea generation that I had a kind of Goffmanesque epiphany.  If you want to see the hidden rules of idea generation, observe someone who does it really badly.  It turns out that the problem is not just nos.  There are many ways to screw things up.

I give you the several rules I extracted from this person’s example.  If you want to frustrate the idea generation process, be careful to:

Offer a facial expression that suggests boredom or disdain

Offer a body posture that suggests reluctance or disengagement

Never to look at anyone else in the group

When you speak, do so in a slightly peevish tone

When you are speaking and someone affirms affirmation, (sometimes the group offers the urgings of a congregation at a Baptist service: "Thats right.  Say it!"), never accept their acceptance

Never acknowledge anyone else’s contributions

Refer often and with affection to your own contributions

And, yes, say "but," "I don’t think so," "Oh come on," "Oh, please," and, of course, "no" as often as possible.

If you want to wither the proceedings, this should do it.  On the other hand, if you want to open things up, don’t forget your bag of M&Ms.  These are a good way to say "no" when you can’t say "no." 


several posts from this blog:

creativity vs. culture here

name them and shame them

why innovators innovate here

Our new porousness and "latent inhibition" diminishment here

This old house (where new ideas come from) here

creativity and complexity theory here

Where do new ideas come from (today’s post smoke free!) here

Google versus Microsoft


Why is Microsoft giving all that money back? Shareholders are about to receive a gift in the order of $32 billion—roughly half of Microsoft’s cash holdings. I am a modest shareholder in Microsoft. I would rather they invested this money in research and development, to create, in other words, still more value in which I can share.

Now, there are probably lots of really good reasons, scrutable only by the likes of the kids I used to teach at the Harvard Business School. But I wonder if the pay out might also be a symptom of trouble at Microsoft.

At a conference this year, a well placed source spoke to me privately, and a little bitterly, about “monetizing” at Microsoft. S/he said, that at Microsoft, they interrogate new ideas hard. Will they pay? How much will they pay? How soon will they pay? Or should we just kill it now? Put it out of our misery. That kind of thing.

We now have volumes on how creativity and innovation happen from the likes of Robert Sutton, Rosabeth Moss Kantner, Clayton Christensen, Eric Von Hippel, Andrew Hardagon, and Henry Chesbrough. No one on this list recommends playing the school yard bully. Ideas like to keep their lunch money. They don’t like being pushed around. Eventually, they will avoid you on the playground. And that where are you then? Friendless and idea free. Hmm, could this be the Microsoft we know?

Google has another idea, apparently. Employees get a day a week in which to pursue their own innovations. They call this the “20% rule.” You work on what you want once a week.

This is a nice variation on the “skunkworks” notion, the one that says innovation sometimes happens most surely when you take a team of people and stick them in a corner by themselves. Skunk works liberate people from the “death by committee” conservatism of the corporation. The trouble with skunkworks is that the corporation loses the services of the skunkworker. Both in the short term and the long. How are you going to get someone back in the corporate box once they have tasted the real intellectual freedoms and engagement of real creativity?

The 20% rule says you can keep people inside even as you let them outside. Now, when stuck in interminable committee work, they resort to dreaming about their project instead of buzz work bingo. More than that, you give them the chance to go places the corporation can’t imagine. Still more than that, you take them seriously as idea producers, whatever else they do for you. Most of all, you pay them in intrinsic satisfaction, which, as we all know, is a much higher grade of value than a fat pay check and a fast car (especially once you have the fat pay check and the fast car).

I have an idea. Microsoft should keep that $32 billion and use it to buy everyone in the corporation a day a week of real creativity. This shareholder would be well satisfied.


Linn, Allison. 2004. Microsoft to pay out $32 billion. AZCentral. November 10, 2004. here

Row, Heath. 2004. Google, Innovation and the Web, the SxSW presentation by Marissa Mayer, Director of Consumer Web Products at Google. here

Eccentricity: Montreal style


Oh Montreal.

I got into a cab at the airport only to be taken hostage by my driver.

He proceeded to drive me into town, slowly and the long way, in order to have more time to tell me his pet theory about the origins of language. He showed me a spiral bound note book with his laborious notes. Proof, he claimed, that all languages are indeed fragments of the original language that existed before the tower of the Babel.

He was really very pleasant, and entirely rational, but I have to say the whole thing was a little bit scary. Especially when he started telling me about the scientists who had assembled to listen to his theory and encourage him to publish.

I’ll just get out here, thank you very much. Yes, I know its a traffic island in the middle of nowhere. Better marooned than taken captive. That’s my own personal theory of self defense. As I matter of fact, perhaps, you’d like to hear my theory. It is extremely interesting, as I think you’ll find…


The image above is from the site for Ultimate Taxi here.

Steve Jobs on where innovation comes from


“It’s kind of extraordinary that it wasn’t a music company that cracked the problem of piracy,” [Jobs] said, referring to Apple.

[Jobs] noted that music industry executives still refer to themselves as record industry executives when “[they] don’t even make records anymore.”

Does this mean that those with a particularly vested interest cannot solve the problem of discontinuous innovation? We just can’t bring yourself to dismantle our position of advantage even when it is no longer a position of advantage. We still have more to risk from departure than gain from innovation.

But the problem of “vested interest” is also a cultural, conceptual problem. Once we occupy a position of advantage, it is very hard to think new thoughts. This is why IBM had to use a skunk works to invent the PC. This is why intellectual advantage belongs often to the outlyers.

The inlyers “can’t hardly think” new thoughts. They are fully formed by their position of advantage. As Jobs points out, they still call themselves record executives! This preposterous language is so utterly “built right in” it is removed from sight. This is the problem of empire.

Risk adverse comes from both directions: the economic and the imaginative.


Markoff, John. 2004. Newest iPod From Apple Holds Photos and Music. New York Times. October 27, 2004.

PopTech I

Some things I learned last night at the PopTech cock tail party:

1) The early adopters of new energy efficient technologies for the home should be well heeled, well educated, builders and renovators, living say in the US Northeast. But these people are not adopting, and this, according to a venture capitalist I talked to, is because the new technologies are relatively high maintenance and high concept. The owner has to know how to run them and maintain them. This mastery of the new technology demands that they ascend a learning curve, for which they have neither the time nor the presence of mind. They are already running as fast as they can. So this new technology will enter the home only when it is as simple to run as a fridge or a toaster.

2) I talked to a guy about voice activation. Now that we are on the verge of ubiquitous, wireless computing through personal, always on, technologies, we are technologically enabled to a new degree. At our desks, thanks to a computer, an ISP, and Google, we have instantaneous access to a very large chunk of knowledge and opinion on any given subject. We all now have much larger brains and much faster recall. The wireless option allows us to take our brains with us when we leave the desk…a useful thing, generally. But voice activation takes us the penultimate step. Now we may access anything in our brains without having to tap away at our PDAs. We will only have to say “Key word: Maine coast line geological formation” and hey presto, data will begin streaming in our ears. (The ultimate step here will be thought activation.) The guy I talked to said that voice activation option awaits a big step in technology and the willingness of consumers to pay a higher premium. Once more consumers are proving underwhelming early adopters.

3) One guy said, “In America, 200 years is considered a long time. In Europe, 200 miles is considered a long way.”

Your man in Camden


Good news from Indiana University Press. They are in the process of publishing a book called Culture and Consumption II (out in April). They agreed yesterday to publish the Culture by Commotion trilogy: Plenitude, Flock and Flow and Transformation. It will be nice to get these books into hard covers. (We must wonder about the wisdom of publishing 4 books in a 18 month period. Have to have a word with the boys in the product development lab.)

I am in Camden, Maine for the PopTech conference, today throught Saturday, on the theme of Plenitude.

PopTech descends from the Camden Conference on Technology founded by the first generation of computer creators and enterpreneurs. People from MIT and the Boston PC community moved to the area around 10 years ago. CCT/PopTech was founded about 8 years ago.

Andrew Zolli is one of the architects of the event, and what a good choice he was for the job. Here is a man who has travel visas for every province of the world of innovation and fully appointed residences in several of them.

Will let you know what I hear over the next couple of days. That is if you trust me to be your man in Camden.

More on the PopTech conference here

massive change


I spent the week in Vancouver, visiting family and talking at the Design Management Institute meetings. (Sorry about no posts.)

When I was growing up there, I used to think of Vancouver as the bimbo of the Pacific Rim, beautiful but not too bright, routinely outclassed by San Francisco, LA, Hong Kong, Singapore, Shanghai.

She was the kind of city that made a good impression until she opened her mouth. The hope was that she would marry well, because the idea that she should have to fend for herself was not a happy prospect.

Well, she did marry well. There is now a very substantial Chinese community, South Asian community, tech sector, and art scene. The universities are getting better. The house prices continue to rise. The population grows. The parks, beaches, mountains and ocean continue to enchant. With all that rain, it must be the greenest city on the planet.

It was a funny place to hear Bruce Mau talk about saving the planet. Crisis, what crisis?

It was a virtuoso performance. For 40 minutes, Mau described his new project, Massive Change in ordinary language and a low key way. 10 minutes into the presentation I was gasping for air. The sheer scale of the thing! The presumption! The drama! Who thinks this way? Who dares to dare this much?

Massive Change will be installed at the Vancouver Art Gallery in October of 2004. Vancouver will never be the bimbo of the Pacific Rim again.

Now, I have to run. Small things like food and laundry need attending to. Hope to post again this afternoon. Come back for more on Bruce Mau and Massive Change.

Surveillance Camera Theatre

Thanks to Evolution Will Be Blogged, I now know there is such a thing as Surveillance Camera Players.

What a clever idea. I like the idea of strolling through my city and coming upon a troop as they gamely see how much drama they can pack into the grainy lens and black and white photography of a security camera.

With a little ingenuity, it should be possible to jack into the feed and send the image to the internet.

With email alerts, we could gather round our browsers and enjoy wild, street corner, pantomime.

We might even wager what, if any, theatrical theme is intended. (“It’s about folk dancing in Romania!” “No, no, no, a tribute to Ty Cobb, surely.”)

Naturally there would be advertising, and this too would be interesting. How do you sing the praises of AT&T or Tide when all you have is a bad camera and a talentless band of thespians? Marketing, surely this is buzz worthy. Reinvent thyself.

But EWBB tells us that Surveillance Camera Theatre has been commandeered for the usual, dreary, political purposes. (Plainly they have found the medium they deserve.)

Here’s the sign that gets posted when the New York players perform. There is nothing quite as entertaining as a manifesto, is there?

surveillance camera screed.bmp

More details here.

Our new porousness and “latent inhibition” diminishment

"Cultural porousness”" is one of the intellectual challenges that faces the anthropologist who wants to understand contemporary life. 

Selves, groups, institutions, nations, cultures are all now more porous and less bounded than they used to be.  Once like silos, they are now more like bird cages: positively breezy in their willingness to admit influences from outside.

To take one example, US culture, once a drab and faithful descendant of English cuisine, now admits the influence of virtually every other cuisine (as Tyler Cowen, our economist on the spot, testifies each week).  To take another, we see once sober sided members of the middle class now opening themselves to new influences and definitions, as David Brooks pointed out in Bobos in Paradise.  To take a third, Tom Peters is a long time champion of the idea that corporations must make themselves newly open to outside influence.  To take a fourth (the last, I promise), let us quote Lamont:

In a loosely bounded culture such as American culture, one finds a high level of cultural innovation in lifestyles and in norms for interpersonal relations, and a high degree of tolerance for deviance.   (All references below.) 

Harvard Magazine, this month, has an interesting article by Craig Lambert that bears on this theme.  New research says that some people may owe their creativity to diminished "latent inhibition,"” a cognitive mechanism that works to screen out irrelevant stimuli. 

Latent inhibition helps most people to filter out random inputs.  But creative people are inclined to let things in.  In the words of Harvard psychologist Shelly Carson, creative people admit "bits and pieces"” which they may then combine in "novel, interesting ways."”  In short, we may think of porousness as one of the conditions of their creativity.

Reading Lambert’’s piece, I began to wonder if it might not give us a useful way to think about contemporary culture.  Perhaps things might be a little clearer if we supposed that our culture suffers a diminished latent inhibition of its own. 

Many cultures captured by the ethnographic record are pretty good at latent inhibition.  They regard as ill-formed (or "noise”") anything that is not fashioned according to the cultural code in place.  This impulse is sometimes the very well spring of xenophobia and the deep suspicion that things that are "different"” must be dangerous.  In the words of Mary Douglas, these cultures see external influences as "unclear"” and so "unclean."”  In reaction, they will mobilize extraordinary efforts (and intensity) to bar "difference"” and, when necessary, to root it out.  (Some part of the enduring crisis of the Islamic world might be put down to an attempt to refuse foreign influences that cannot be refused.  The French treatment of 16th century Huguenots and the Nazi treatment of German Jews in the 1930s and 1940s are sometimes seen in these Douglasian terms.)   

First-world cultures enjoy a relative confidence that difference is "ok,”" that we may admit foreign influences from abroad, and novelty from within, with impunity (not impurity).  The confidence had deep roots in the Western tradition but there are moments when confidence falters.  Early reviews of Samuel Huntington’’s new book, Who are We?, suggest that a man once confident in the Western capacity for assimilation is now wondering whether we shouldn’t raise the draw bridge.  The Western feeling for porousness is marked by moments of doubt and repudiation. 

But now there are grounds to ask whether what the West once endured, with moments of ambivalence, it must now require.  Our culture and our economy now appear to be predicated on the constant flow of "difference"” both from without and within.  In the words of Thomas Stewart, "intellectual capital"” is the new wealth of organizations.  More to the present point, it is the necessary wealth of organizations.  Without a constant stream of new ideas and innovations the organization withers and dies.  To put this more apocalyptically, it is as if we are as a culture and an economy, now hydroplaning.  As long as we continue hydroplaning, we’re fine.  It’’s the moment of touchdown we do not want to think about.

This would allow us to add a second supposition.  Not only are we inclined to "practice"” diminished latent inhibition but we are called upon to do so.  Without this characteristic approach to porousness, we cannot hope to summon the creativity on which our world depends. 

But is diminished latent inhibition a useful idea with which to understand our culture?  Could this idea make us make more sense?

Certainly, it would help explain why we advance a new category of white collar worker, the group Richard Florida calls the "creative class.”"  We prize these people, perhaps, because they suffer from diminished latent inhibition and are to this extent peculiarly useful in a culture of the same character.  We prize them. that is to say, because they have an internal condition that replicates, and helps fund, our external condition.

But we could use the idea less mechanically.  If we were to understand diminished latent inhibition as one of our essential conditions as a culture, we might be in a position to calm the fears of those who treat our porousness as the occasion of a fundamentalist anxiety, as this manifests itself on high in the work of a distinguished scholar and en bas in the eruption of political and religious conservativism.

But these are merely the most particular and general opportunities for application.  A more thoroughgoing attempt is called for.  And here we must ask what precisely are the characteristics of diminished latent inhibition in the creative individual and may we may use these characteristics as a model with which to understand the dynamics of our culture and economy?  Lambert’’s essay, at several hundred words, does not give us quite enough detail to try this here.  (Besides, might I be allowed to point out that this is a blog entry, not a dissertation!)

There are reasons, of course, to think that the exercise is wrong-headed.  Projecting the psychological on to the cultural has been undertaken before by the likes of Ruth Benedict and Christopher Lasch.  And in Lasch’’s case the results were disappointing and reductive.  On the other hand, we have embarked on an ethnographic experiment for which there is no comforting precedent.  It is perhaps unwise to refuse any gift horse that comes our way.  We are almost certain to experience touch down one of these days and wouldn’t it be nice to have a little more preparation?


Benedict, Ruth. 1934. Patterns of culture. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

Brooks, David. 2000. Bobos in paradise: The new upper class and how they got there. New York: Simon & Schuster.

Cowen, Tyler. n.d. My thoughts on food

Cowen, Tyler. n.d. Ethnic Dining Guide

Douglas, Mary. 1966. Purity and Danger: An Analysis of Concepts of Pollution and Taboo.  Harmondsworth: Penguin Books.

Florida, Richard.  2002.  The Rise of the Creative Class and how it’s transforming work, leisure, community and everyday life.  New York: Basic Books.

Huntington, Samuel P. 2004.  Who are we? American national identity and the challenges it faces. New York: Simon & Schuster.

Lambert, Craig.  2004.  Ideas Rain In.  Harvard Magazine.  May-June, pp. 13-16.  available on-line here

Lamont, Michele. 1992. Money, Morals and Manners: the culture of the French and the American upper-middle class. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, p. 115.

Lasch, Christopher. 1978. The Culture of Narcissism: American Life in an Age of Diminishing Expections. New York: W.W. Norton and Company.

McCracken, Grant.  Transformation. Toronto: Periphe: Fluide.  (available for download on this site).

Peters, Tom and Robert H. Waterman, Jr. 1982.  In Search of Excellence.  New York: Vintage, p. 201.

Stewart, Thomas A. 1997. Intellectual capital the new wealth of organizations. New York: Doubleday / Currency.

This old house (where ideas come from)

Quick summary:

This entry is about creativity, how ideas form, the places we are most creative. Creativity is of course a large topic. I am interested particularly in the creativity that responds to the dynamism of contemporary culture and more particularly in creativity that takes place in commercial contexts for commercial purposes. (Other entries on this theme can be found by going to “categories” and clicking on “creativity watch.”)

Full text:

I just took my cat Daz to the vet. The vet occupies a house that is probably 120 years old. Daz and I sat in the waiting room, keeping a careful eye on an enormous sheep dog and the office cat who wasn’t much smaller. Daz is normally a champion talker, but in this case he wasn’t letting out at much as a murmur.

I began to see that a door frame in the house sloped badly. Over 120 years, the house has developed pretty bad posture and now leaned heavily in one direction.

I started wondering why it is that places like this, in neighborhoods like this (the Plateau) in cities like this (Montreal) in cultural domains (the francophone) are so conducive to creativity. This is part and parcel why bohemians always occupy neighborhoods that are tumbled down, old, decrepid, and coming apart at the seams. Something about this urban desshelvement seems to aid them in their reckless pursuit of the new. (And I don’t think it’s wise to say: they occupy these neighborhoods because they are cheap. We know have modernist suburbs that have fallen on hard times and no artist community ever takes up residence there.)

The door frame is a friend of creativity because it evokes the world from which it came (the creative world of design and conception) and it how leans towards the world in which it will be a mere memory, a recollection.

The door frame is a friend of creativity because it signals its origins and its future, and is not very dramatically marked by its present, corporeal, actual form. I wish MoveableType allowed for drawing (because, really, how do you think without images) because in this case what we need is a box marked “the real” that shows a tiny arc that begins in the lower left hand corner rises not very high and then exist in the lower right hand corner.

In a door frame, neighborhood, city and culture like this one, creativity enters and takes form in the world, but it is always evocative of the creative domains from which it came and to which it will return. This is why its a good place in which, with which, to think. (Maybe.)

I heard a museum curator recently speak sneeringly of the bobo phenemonon. (This referred to the very interesting book by David Brooks called Bobos in Paradise). The curator was particularly contemptuous of the middle class professionals search for an “urban redemption.”

He seemed to be implying that creativity and bohemian neighborhoods were just for artists (and, of course, curators). But in fact now that everyone lives in a dynamic world, now that every corporation is obliged to be responsive and changing, creativity is the way we live in the world. It makes sense that middle class professionals should want to live in places that are conducive to creativity.

It also makes sense that museum curators should sneer at them for being faux bohemians. Curators have no clear that the world of business is now at least as creative as the world of the artist. They do not know that the world outside the protected domain of the museum has ligquified by dynamism. They do not understand that creativity has moved from being the special domain of artists to becoming a mainstay of capitalism. It is no longer the place we go for new ideas. It is now the first order and the principle grammar of business. Creativity is the dynamism with which we respond to dynamism.

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."”

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

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. Books: The Rise of the Creative Class: And How It’s Transforming Work, Leisure, Community and Everyday Life Books: The Cultural Creatives : How 50 Million People Are Changing the World