Innovation: Sense Making and Aesthetics
Innovation is an aesthetic activity. This can seem odd to many — isn’t innovation about doing something useful and necessary?
Isn’t aesthetics about doing something that is deliberately not useful.
Isn’t art something that has no mundane purpose?
So how can innovation be an aesthetic activity?
We would push this even further: innovation is an aesthetic activity — and if you fail to recognize this - it is exceedingly difficult to actively develop radical forms of innovation.
SenseMaking - Dancing with Innovation
To be alive is to be actively adjusting the environment — both internally and externally. We are not simply in an alien and indifferent world to which we are forced to subjectively (internally) adjust ourselves. The world, our environment, is something we actively make. This is a dance: as we make the environment it in turn makes us.
We and our environment co-make each other. Because of this we are a conjoined couple in a permanent connected dance of self-other oneness. We “live-make” in an environment of co-constructive adaptive potentiality. This environment is both the actual environment in its current configurations and its virtual potential. We are actively engaging both the actual and the virtual in our daily lives.
This activity of active living-making is the core of sensemaking. To make sense of a situation is not principally an act of removed reflection. Sensing is at its core is an always ongoing activity of feeling-responding-making-stabilizing that is both internally and externally directed.
The things we do and the world around us are not places upon which we impose subjective meanings. Our world is not one of arbitrary and independent things that are the mere “carriers” or “vehicles” of meanings we impose on them. Meaning is intrinsic to the relation between the self and environment. To be alive is not to subjectively interpret an alien environment for subjective signs representative of “meaning” as “content”. Meaning is an activity, meaning is enacted by two mutually co-shaping partners — the self and the environment. Meaning, significance, and value are inherent properties of this relationship.
Our meaningful environment that has co-shaped us with embodied abilities has properties that afford us opportunities for action (based upon our co-shaped abilities) which we can sense.
This loop is sense-making. It is a loop we are born into —it is ongoing, social, material, and intra-subjective. It is something that is first and foremost an activity. It is more embodied and felt than it is clearly and reflectively conceptualized. In fact, much of it cannot be put into words — it exists in its relational material and habitual embodiments.
This is why it is sense-making: It is felt far more than it is thought. This is also why it is sense-making: it is far more an activity than it is a form of removed contemplation.
Sensemaking is an Aesthetic Activity
It is always a particular form of sensing that makes and transforms how we feel the world, how we sense the world and see the world. In this way it can be accurately said that our most basic way of being alive is aesthetic. Living is the activity of sensemaking that is always a particular engaged and situated practice of sensing, feeling, seeing and doing. Any significant practice of sensemaking involves the development of a unique aesthetic regime (practice).
Our most basic way of being alive is aesthetic.
“Beauty” is not something trivial and superficial that we add to the meaningful, useful, necessary and important. Beauty is a fundamental feature of reality for all living beings. Sensing-making — living — is an aesthetic activity.
Beauty in general is how we sense a world as a world. It is an enacted state of engaged being where we feel something bigger than we can clearly see, sense, or know. Beauty is a sensation that holds together the world as our world. We feel it prior to knowing it.
Creativity and Sensemaking
As we change and are changed by our environment we develop a new and distinct way of sensing — a new aesthetic regime. This is always (as is all sensemaking) a social habitual practice.
How does such a regime emerge? How do we engage our environment? One key aspect of sensemaking is toolmaking. Tools are extensions of the self that directly change how we sense. Tools are types of new sense organs— they afford new potentials for sensing and acting. The classic example of this is the blind persons cane — it allows for a new form of embodied sensemaking and as such co-composes a unique way of being-in-the-world.
But tools do not come individually — they come as a set of nested inter-related tools and these inter-related tools form environments — the digital environment for example, which is composed of many nested and interconnected tools. These interconnected tool-environements are all-encompassing — they become the medium in which we live, and like the proverbial fish in water we cease to notice them as anything special. And more importantly we cease to recognize how profoundly they make us.
These complexes of linked tools (and their related practices) are what Marshall McLuhan called “media” or a medium. “All media work us over completely. They are so pervasive in the personal, political, economic, aesthetic, psychological, moral, ethical, and social consequences that they leave no part of us untouched, unaffected, unaltered.”
We are always in and of a specific medium. “Media, by altering the environment, evoke in us unique ratios of sense perceptions. The extension of any one sense alters the way we think and act — the way we perceive the world. When these ratios change, people change.”
Change — creativity is fundamentally about medium design — as McLuhan puts it “Any understanding of social and cultural change is impossible without a knowledge of the way media work as environments”.
Life is the lived activity of environment making (sensemaking) — the making of the medium in which we live. And in turn this environment/medium makes us.
To understand creativity or innovation we can replace “life” with “creativity”:
Creativity is the creative activity of environment making — the making of the medium in which we live. And in turn this newly created environment/medium will remake us differently.
Creativity is an Aesthetic Activity
Let’s come back to the role of sensing in creativity. By physically altering the environment — say by inventing a new tool (and its related tools, habits and practices) new and unique ratios of sense perceptions will be developed. The tools will by acting as the extension/transformation of one mode of sensing in turn alter the very way we think, act and perceive the world.
“When these ratios change, people change.”
Our sense of self is shifting. Our deep and general disposition is shifting. Our pervasive sense of emotional valences are transforming. We are shifting, pivoting, evolving towards new ways of sensing, feeling, acting and being. Our sense of beauty is being changed as our world is recomposed.
This is felt long before it can be put into words. It is felt as a disconcerting form of beauty — an aberrant beauty.
Think of an experimental situation: As an experiment co-evolves towards something more stable via an iterative process what we sense will shift — the emotional valence will shift. We are evolving with the new into a new sense of quasi-belonging. Here as a nascent world (novel medium/environment) emerges we are accompanied by a sensation of something like wonder.
Wonder emerges, but not as the feel good emotion of romantic walks at sunset. Wonder is the sense that perhaps something is there. Wonder is the vague sense that we could go in this direction — something is opening up, something is happening.
As we sense this complex fraught wonder we open ourselves up to following it. A path is emerging in the walking. Perplexity is transitioning. Something is emerging as we are changing (first at the level of purely embodied practices — know-how).
Then as a novel environment/medium fully co-emerges with us, it evokes in us a sense of beauty. Now it will not be a beauty we recognize or feel comfortable with — it will be a feeling of an aberrant beauty — a novel and altogether strange, but nonetheless compelling, beauty — a disconcerting beauty.
Sensing, and welcoming disconcerting forms of beauty is a critically important skill — it cues us into the opening up of newness in its nascent state. Additionally, welcoming these feelings of perplexity (which is really some combination of bewilderment, horror, disgust, boredom and wonder) open us to an encounter with difference where we can “recognize”— really sense — difference as a difference.
This is the felt contrast space we need to avoid inattentional blindness. It is something that requires real practice — our skills of sensing, and feeling are strong and do tend to push us back into the safe and the known. But they are also our cue to the novel and different.
These aesthetic feelings are critical to creativity and invention. Knowing — conceptual knowing and engaging with the new come out of and rest upon the deeply enactive and embodied sensations of beauty.
A new form of beauty is integral to a new world — for a novel world gives us new ways to sense, feel, do, see, and think — which is aesthetics. This feeling and new modes of sensing of wonder and beauty become slowly conceptualizable and enter into discourse and debate and thus transforms into new values, and truths.
Beauty precedes and exceeds truth as novelty emerges. What is the making of beauty? It is a composition of non-conceptual feelings entangling with the unintended in a strange relay towards a difference that makes a difference. But will this be the beauty we know? No.
Beauty precedes and exceeds truth as novelty emerges.
The new is an aberrant, strange and acquired beauty. It beckons us further, it pulls us out and draws us in -- we sense something other and we follow…
Innovation and Aesthetics
As inventors we are all environmental designers innovating tools that transform and create new properties and abilities that in turn create new ways of sensing that will give rise to new ways of thinking and doing. We are working from thing to environment to medium to world. We are working via sensing, making, feeling and becoming. This is the space and work of the creative aesthetics of innovation.
The useful, practical, meaningful and necessary emerge with and as part of a new way of being alive — and all of this is the aesthetics of innovation.