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?