What You Do Afterwards

Creativity is all about what you do afterwards.

I’m thinking about something that Miles Davis said about jazz improvisation:

It’s not the note you play that’s the wrong note–it’s the note you play afterwards that makes it right or wrong.

In improvisation, you don’t know what an action means until later. The group creates meaning, by responding and building on that action. This happens all the time in improv theater, and it’s what gives it such creative power. I call it retroactive interpretation. In improv, actors intentionally speak lines of dialogue that are ambiguous, utterances that can be interpreted in multiple ways. Actors do this on purpose–not because they’re lazy thinkers, or they’re just trying to fill up time. Improvising these ambiguous actions takes a lot of creativity. It’s not easy to say something that opens up possibilities for the scene, and doesn’t close down possible futures, but something that also provides enough specifics to drive a scene forward, to give other actors something to work with.  Actors know that the improvised dialogue that follows their action will soon provide a meaning to what they did.

I think this is so fascinating! Imagine: To act, without knowing what your action means. To act, trusting the group to interpret your action later. To act, while you relinquish control over what your own action means.

This isn’t what most of us do in everyday life. When you say something, you own it. You get to say what it means. If someone else interprets it differently, you jump in and correct them. To do improv, you need to completely change the way you approach conversation. You have to give away power and control, to the conversation itself. The conversation creates, not the individual speakers. The conversation takes on a life of its own. Meaning emerges from the collective, sequential, unfolding utterances of each speaker.

In group improvisation, no single person gets to decide what everything means. No single person even gets to decide what their own actions mean. The group creates, not the individual.

Plato: The First Educational Software

It was called Plato, and it was created in the 1960s and 1970s, at the University of Illinois. Even though it was used by tens of thousands of students, all over the U.S., most people have never heard of it. That’s why we need Brian Dear’s new book about Plato, called The Friendly Orange Glow. I was amazed to learn how many ed tech innovations were created first in Plato:

  • flat-panel graphic displays (they displayed only one color, orange, hence the book’s name)
  • touch screens
  • collaboration apps for students to work together
  • online communities
  • multitasking: That means, many people can use the same computer at once–that used to be a serious technical challenge! PLATO was created before the personal computer, so it all ran on “mainframes,” with students using “terminals” (in 2017, it seems like those old-fashioned words need quotation marks!)
  • support for instructors to develop lessons without being programmers
  • remote computer terminals so that students didn’t have to be right next to the computer (which was really big, and behind a glass wall in a “computer room”)
  • PLATO was an open platform, meaning that anyone could build a lesson (foreshadowing today’s open source software)
  • a chat room where users could post messages
  • instant messaging between users
  • an email system

Plato was killed by the growth of the personal computer in the 1980s. Plato was shut down in 1993.

(Plato stands for “Programmed Logic for Automatic Teaching Operations”)

Inventor James Dyson on the Creative Process

Billionaire James Dyson is the inventor of the famous vacuum cleaner, the equally famous air-purifying fan, and many other products. In today’s New York Times, he writes about his creative process–and it’s exactly the non-linear, iterative, hard-work process that creativity research has documented in every creative field. Here are his words of advice:

  • His success is due to “perseverance, taking risks, and having a willingness to fail.”
  • “Inventors rarely have ‘eureka’ moments.”
  • “Developing an idea and making it work takes time and patience.”
  • “We fail every day. Failure is the best medicine–as long as you learn something.”

I’m really interested to learn that Dyson is launching his own university in England, called the Dyson Institute of Engineering and Technology. It’s right where the company is based, in Malmesbury, England. Unlike in the U.S., the U.K. ministry for universities has recently introduced reforms that make it easier for companies to get into education. The minister, Jo Johnson, then suggested that Mr. Dyson should start his own university.

*Weekend confidential, “James Dyson,” by Alexandre Wolfe. New York Times, Sat/Sun, Dec 9-10, p. C11.

The Inventor of Emergence: George Henry Lewes, in 1875

Emergence and complex systems: These concepts are more and more important, with the growth of the Internet, distributed intelligence, social media, and collective consciousness. “Emergence” refers to higher-level phenomena “emerging” from lower-level components, organized into complex systems. For example, mental states — like memory, attention, emotions — are said to emerge from neurons and their interactions. The biological brain is a complex system, with its many components interacting in multiple and different ways.

Today “emergence” is associated with the Internet and social media. But “emergence” isn’t so new, after all. It comes to us from the 19th century. The term “emergence” was coined in 1875 in a book by the British philosopher, George Henry Lewes. The issue at that time was: Why doesn’t all science ultimately reduce to physics? After all, everything in the world is composed of atoms. So the science of atoms and how they interact could, potentially, explain everything. If everything scientific reduced to physics, then all of the other sciences would potentially be unnecessary: biology, chemistry, neuroscience, psychology, sociology, you name it. If that seems wrong today, then it seemed even more wrong in the 19th century, when science was a lot more primitive than now. But you can’t just say it seems wrong; you need a scientific and logical argument for why everything doesn’t reduce to physics.

“Emergence” was the answer to why all science isn’t physics, even though everything in the world is made up of physical stuff. (This is still, basically, the answer of today’s philosophers of science.) In 1875, George Henry Lewes wrote about the difference between mechanical effects (which he called “resultants”) and chemical effects (which he called “emergents”). (Lewes was borrowing from a similar distinction made by John Stuart Mills in 1843.) Lewes’ example of emergence was the combination of hydrogen and oxygen to make water. Because water doesn’t have any of the properties of hydrogen or oxygen, its properties were “emergent” from the combination. Contrast that with a steam engine: It’s a complicated system, to be sure, but the properties of the whole system aren’t that different from the properties of the components, the metal, water, and coal that make up the engine’s operation. They are “resultants.”

I tell this history in my 2005 book Social emergence: Societies as complex systems.

You’ve probably already noticed a serious problem with the emergence argument: In 1875, Lewes didn’t know how hydrogen and oxygen combine to form water. But a few years later, scientists were able to explain water, and how the properties of water were explained by hydrogen, oxygen, and their combination. Water doesn’t seem so “emergent” any more. This is why the reductionists, the people that argue that everything can be explained by lower-level sciences, dismiss the emergence argument. Sure, they say, it seems to us that consciousness can’t be explained in terms of neurons and the brain. But just wait a couple of years, a couple of decades, and we’ll see that everything is really just neurons.

I was reminded of G. H. Lewes this weekend, when I read a book review of the new book Reading the Rocks  by Brenda Maddox. The book is about Victorian geologists (it sounds like a snooze-fest, but the review calls it “engaging” and “absorbing” and it sounds like my kind of book!) and it starts with the novelist George Eliot. It turns out that she was a geologist, as well as a novelist. She was introduced to geology by–guess who–George Henry Lewes. They spent vacations together, hammering at rocks.

One sentence in the book review jumped out at me: “Ms. Maddox traces the emergence of geology in Britain during the 19th century.” Emergence is everywhere! But we still don’t know for sure: Does it really happen? Or is it just a figure of speech?


The Maker Movement and Education

New UNC Course for Spring 2018

Course title: The Maker Movement and Education

Instructor: Professor Keith Sawyer

Education research shows that people learn better when they move, they work with their hands, they manipulate objects, and they design and make things. We’ve known this for years, but it’s been very hard to design activities for children where they can move and make, and at the same time learn the required course material. But today that’s changed, thanks to exciting new technologies that bring learning and making together. Today’s parents and teachers can choose from a big variety of research-based toys and software apps that engage children in playing, making, and creating. Libraries, schools, and museums are opening “maker spaces” where children can use tools to create and make their own ideas.

TInkering 3This semester, we’ll learn the research behind these new learning technologies. We’ll learn about the software designers and education experts that design and build them. We’ll learn how to design activities so that children learn while they create with these new technologies, and we’ll learn how teachers and parents can use them effectively. You’ll learn by designing with new technologies, and by engaging with learning sciences research on how and why these activities contribute to learning.

3D printerThis is an active, hands-on course. For most weeks, one of the two classes will be a design studio format, where you work with technology tools to create and design, with critique and feedback from the professor and your peers. In the second class, we’ll learn the research in the learning sciences, about what works best and why these designs work.

In this class, we will:

  • Learn the research on how children learn
  • Learn how to design research-based learning environments for children
  • Learn about the new toys, robots, and programmable objects that are designed to help children learn
  • Experiment, create, and make things with these same new technologies, to experience how children engage with and learn from these devices, tools, and apps
  • Learn how to design learning environments that incorporate these new technologies, in activities that are aligned with the science of learning, so that making and designing leads to the desired learning outcomes

Ozobot on pageHere are some examples of the learning technologies we may study in Spring 2018. These are current as of Fall 2017, but this is a fast-moving area, and new technologies and toys are released all the time. The course will change to keep up. Here are examples of what we might be studying and designing: Dot and Dash, Ozobot, Arduino, Hummingbird, Lilypad, Virtual Reality, 3D printing, the Scratch and Blockly visual programming tools, Sphero, the Looking Glass story animation tool, wire-framing user interface tools…

Tuesday and Thursday, 12:30 to 1:45

Undergrad: EDUC 390-002

Grad: EDUC 790-002

No programming experience is required. Anyone can take this course! As long as you’re open and ready to learn, and you’re comfortable experimenting with new apps and robot toys. (Keep in mind, these are all designed for kids in middle school and younger!)



snap circuits




Where Entrepreneurs Have Ideas

Where do successful entrepreneurs get their best creative ideas? Molly Reynolds* interviewed some entrepreneurs to find out. Here are my favorites :

  • John Goodman, John Goodman PR: Takes a three-hour walk and that’s “when I have my best creative ideas. My head de-clutters, and I start thinking clearly.”
  • Kat Quinzel, Cash Cow: “I get my best ideas when I’m making food. I think it’s because I tend to forget about everything else.”
  • Bian Li, The Hungry Lab: His ideas come while scuba diving.
  • Allen Klein, author/speaker: “my best ideas come from times when I’m walking my dog.”
  • Lisa Kipps-Brown, Glerin Business Resources: “I get my best ideas when mowing the grass with a push mower.”

These stories align with creativity research. Researchers have found that ideas are more likely to come when you take time off from your hard work. We call it incubation. It often happens when you’re doing something physical, like walking or cooking. (Warning! It only happens if you’ve worked hard and long before you take this time off.)

*Molly Reynolds, Kiplinger news service, “Inspiration points: Entrepreneurs reveal what sparks their creativity.” July 2017.

Writers’ Drafts: Who Needs Them?

Like all creativity, writing is a wandering and iterative process, where the creator doesn’t know where it’s going. A writer makes hundreds of creative decisions along the way–sometimes, a hundred in just one day. Which word to use; choosing a comma, period, or semicolon; moving a paragraph a few pages forward, or maybe up at the beginning. Then, the bigger changes. Realizing that your protagonist just isn’t carrying the story forward. Noticing that the words are telling you: Over here! Here’s where the story is. Here’s where you explore, where you need to go.

In the old days (before word processors) writers had to write by hand, edit by hand, type by hand, and then edit the typescript by hand and retype everything. Each full version of the manuscript was called a “draft.” Now that concept is obsolete, says writer Sarah Manguso.* When everything is on your computer as a file, you never have to print it out. You can edit a word here, a paragraph there. Delete an entire “page.” Rewrite the first two pages and leave everything else the same, to be explored a few days later. Here are some excerpts from her wonderful essay:

A novelist friend works on books one draft at a time, and she saves each draft. Another novelist friend works on the computer and keeps just one digital version. They are both successful and prolific.

I used to compose my work on paper, revise on the computer and save the initial drafts. Now that I compose on the computer, there’s only ever one extant version, and no drafts at all….Now that writing can take place digitally, [it] effectively removes the idea of the draft from the work process. There’s no need to finish a draft before you can go back to the first sentence and start revising it again. There are no drafts….After some duration of continuous work, the piece is done.

I think the concept of the draft is an anachronism from the time before laptops and word processing software.

What do you think? How do you write? If you generate drafts, what do they look like (printed? a computer file?) and how do you edit them toward the next draft?

*Sarah Manguso, August 6, “Paper Trail,” New York Times Sunday Book Review, p. 9.

Creative Collaboration at Apple Park

Jony Ive, the legendary designer of the iPhone, is now designing Apple’s new Cupertino headquarters, known as Apple Park. He worked closely with Steve Jobs before his passing, and now with CEO Tim Cook. As professional creatives, they know the importance of collaboration in creativity:

Ive and Cook place great importance on employers being physically together at work–ironic for a company that has created devices that enable people to work from a distance. Face-to-face communication is essential during the beginning of a project, when an idea is sprouting, they say. Once a model emerges from a series of conversations, it draws people in and gives focus. “For all of the beauty of technology and all the things we’ve helped facilitate over the years, nothing yet replaces human interaction,” says Cook, “and I don’t think it will ever happen.”

The thousands of employees at Apple Park ….will be seated in open space, not the small offices they’re used to….Whiteboards–synonymous with Silicon Valley brainstorming–are built into floor-to-ceiling sliding doors in the central area of each pod.

The space aligns with Apple’s iterative, improvisational creative process–one where the ideas and designs emerge from collaboration, not from the mind of a brilliant lone genius.

*Christina Passariello, August 2017, “The circle is now complete.” Wall Street Journal  Magazine, pp. 56-63.

The Creative Spark

Here’s a great new book by Agustin Fuentes, The Creative Spark. He starts with a pretty standard claim: that compared to all other animals, including our close primate relatives, creativity is what makes humans special. But what’s new here is that Fuentes says that it’s not just creativity–it’s creativity combined with social collaboration. I make a similar argument in my book, Group Genius: The Creative Power of Collaboration–that collaboration drives all creativity.

Here are some of Fuentes’ statements:

Our humanness can be attributed to our ancestor’s collaborative creativity.


The spark of creativity emerges from the way that our ancestors made social lives and social innovations central.


Science is rooted in deep patterns of human creativity and collaboration.

This is great stuff!

Note: in the quotations I’ve drawn on paraphrases from a book review by David Barash, in the WSJ July 22-23 2017.


The One Device: A New Book about the iPhone

Brian Merchant’s new book, The One Device, has gotten a lot of media attention, including this review in the Wall Street Journal. It’s a compelling story–and an exhaustive one; maybe the book has too many details–but if you really really want to know everything about the iPhone, this is the book for you.

In any book about innovation, the first thing that I look for is to see if the author debunks the “lone genius” myths that we’ve heard so many times. According to endless media reports, Steve Jobs is the classic lone genius. He’s a loner, he dropped out of college, he comes up with an inspired vision and insists that everyone follow through, without compromise.

There’s a bit of truth in every myth, I suppose. But basically, the idea that Steve Jobs is a brilliant, visionary, lone genius is exaggerated, if not completely wrong. The details in Merchant’s book debunk the lone genius myth. He provides details about the many people who came up with the small creative insights that made the iPhone happen. Often, these people worked without Job’s involvement, and sometimes without his knowledge.

None of Apple’s three products–the Mac, iPod, and iPhone–were original. (Although they were improvements to what existed at the time.) With the ten-year anniversary of the iPhone, I keep thinking of how everyone’s forgotten about the Palm Pilot. Five years before the iPhone, I was checking my email, surfing the Internet, and downloading and installing apps. When the iPhone came out, my first response was, big deal, what’s so new about this? My second response was, I HATE trying to type words on this f***ing touch screen keyboard. (Ten years later, I still can’t do it. Am I the only person with big thumbs?) But my skepticism of the iPhone turned out to be on the wrong side of history. Everybody else was happy to get rid of the stylus and learn how to make their thumb tips really small.

Merchant describes plenty of dead ends and iterations that weren’t planned but that emerged during the innovation process.

  • Jobs didn’t want the Mac to be compatible with other computers (such as IBM PCs with DOS). Does anyone remember when the Mac had its own word processor and spreadsheet programs?
  • In 1985, Apple offered to license their operating system to clone makers, just like Microsoft licensed its PC-DOS operating system. Apple failed, Microsoft won, and now, every computer runs Microsoft Windows.
  • The iPod struggled in the market, until Jobs was persuaded to make it compatible with Windows computers.
  • The iPhone didn’t take off until Jobs finally agreed to open the app store to non-Apple products.

And furthermore, as Dan Gallagher writes in the Wall Street Journal, Apple thought that the iPhone would primarily be used as a phone. (As in, making and receiving voice calls…remember those?)

Yes, Steve Jobs was a strong and stubborn individual who was committed to his ideas. That fits our cultural myths about the lone genius. But the most stereotypically genius of his ideas (stubbornly sticking with your vision) were usually the most wrong. What made Apple, and the iPhone, successful was that its innovation continued down an iterative, wandering path, and that Apple brought together great people into creative teams.