Unintentionality is the Story

The evolutionary biologist and theorist Stephen Jay Gould near the end of his life, would often start his lectures by quoting Freud on how the three great intellectual revolutions in history have step by step toppled the human from its lofty pedestal of exceptionalism and greatness.

Unintended Possibilities Drives Creativity
Creativity: Entering the Stream - Staying with the Ocean

The first revolution in Freud's tale was the Copernican which moved us from being at the physical center of the universe — which Gould loved to quip “was only about real estate.” The second was the Darwinian which took us from being a wholly unique entity to being a tiny contingent branch on a massive wild, teaming, entangled and unruly bush of life. For Freud, he quite modestly claimed the third great revolution for himself: dethroning the human with the revelation that we are controlled by unconscious forces deep within us. Gould himself had little time for the third revolution and always passionately argued that since we have not yet completed the Darwinian revolution that's where we should put our attention.

Now Freud had both a very provincial sense of history, and a very inflated sense of his own importance, but he was onto something — our belief  that our ability to reason is what makes us who we are(we even put it in our name homo sapien — the reasoning ape) cannot stand up to scrutiny. While the Freudian revolution has rightly withered into a modest branch of psychoanalysis, the approach of Enactive Cognition has begun to show us how thinking is something far stranger than we historically conceptualized it to be in the west. Thinking happens outside of our heads in action, with others and our immediate environments. The distributed nature of thinking is quite humbling and radically transformative to our expectionalist pretensions.

In reality there are not three great revolutions but many critical breakthroughs that continue to reconceptualize the status of the human, and how we operate. Happily, our pretensions continue to crumble. Each of these shifts has transformed our understanding of creativity and innovation. Or, at least they have given us the opportunity to do this. But for many in the field of innovation it is like we are still in the year 1513.

In the field of creativity and innovation we see rampant human exceptionalism —for many, individuals are glorified, and ideation in all its forms is still the de facto source of all creativity. Perhaps in no area more so than in regards to ideation and intentions.

Our understanding and use of the concept of the “unintended” has been deeply shaped by this western history of human exceptionalism. We imagine that “we” intentionally create things with a fixed purpose starting from ideation to final realization. And then and only then does the unintended come into play with the dreaded figure of “unintended consequences.” We believe good intentions precede the unintended and good design will mitigate the potential unintended consequences. We are the originators of creativity and we can ultimately control the consequences of our actions.

Of course considering the potential harmful effects of any innovation is critical, and it is necessary to consider unintended consequences. Now it is also common knowledge that there are many good unintended consequences of inventions — Viagra — designed originally as a heart medication, had the unintended ‘side-effect’ of engorging a region of the male anatomy to the great the delight of some and great profit of others — now it turns out to have a new potential unintended benefit: of aiding with dementia. So we do celebrate the unintended on occasion. (Freud would have had a field day with this innovation…)

We talk alot about the unintended, about side-effects and how we can co-opt these, but in all of this the unintended is seen as secondary — as a by-product of the intended — as a by-product of our great human intentions. But what if the unintended was the whole story? What if intention was the secondary outcome? What if human creativity and innovation was a fragile practice  that swam in the vast creative sea of the unintended?

Could it be that human creativity surfs the unintended, and not the other way around (that the unintended is a mere and mainly problematic by product of human innovation)? We have not only fallen off the pedestal — we are out to sea…

Consider what happens when we make this conceptual shift: we move from being authors separate and above the world acting to plan and control the world to our ends —  to participants learning on the fly to skillfully work with, in and of a complex reality that is spontaneously creative. This spontaneous creativity is not a mere side-effect or problematic accident of human innovation — it is our reality. We are all the children of, and participants in,  the unintended.

Having the right self-conception of ourselves as ‘creatives’ is critical, not the least because it frees us from continuing to make the same category mistakes and ascribing the creativity all around us to being a mere by-product of our actions that originate in our heads. Having the right self-conception is a critical part of having the right concepts, tools and frameworks to act in a more humble, effective, creative and sensitive manner.

Which brings us back to the un-intended —all those things that exceed and precede purpose. In evolutionary theory these are referred to as “exaptations” (things outside of adaptation). Last week we wrote an article introducing this concept. There are a number of useful insights into the nature of the unintended that we can take from evolutionary theory:

1. The unintended always precedes the intended (exaptations precede adaptations).  For example: inorganic matter had some set of properties that could, because of some unintended qualities,  give rise to a self-organizing process that led to life. Or that later in evolution the unintended properties of a feather (which was evolving for thermoregulation and sexual selection) as part of a specific creature in a specific environment could give rise to parachuting and gliding effects. Novelty involves the creation and stabilization of what first emerges without a purpose (the structurally non-intentional but available).

Unintended possibilities of creativity

This means that while part of working with the unintended is co-opting and repurposing intentional things for new or different existing purposes (our Viagra example). Or using a coffee cup as a pen holder, making sandals of car tires, etc. That is only the tip of the proverbial iceberg. Most creativity involves things — structures that were never intended. Things that are the automatic structural side-consequences of anything coming into being. This is a much harder aspect of creativity to see (we see utility — affordances), and only becomes visible when we deliberately ignore (or block) purpose and play around with things in new ways.

Blocking — the deliberate construction of an enabling constraint becomes a critical tool to human creativity.

2. The unintended is not simply world expanding but is also world making. It is easy to see our history or evolutionary history as one of steady progress — in each generation more things are possible. But the unintended is not simply expanding and building upon what exists in a linear manner. Think of the feather evolving to be better for thermoregulation and sexual selection — this is a linear development. The unintended also disrupts history and allows new contingent modes of being alive to emerge: life leaves the ocean to make a distinct way of life — this is not progressive — it is different. “Haunting” the feather as it improves thermo-regulation are unintended possibilities to become otherwise: flight.

Our creativity is similar — it also can give rise to distinct modes of being alive. The contemporary Guarani peoples in the rainforests of Brazil are not ‘simpler’ people in singular progressive history — they are part of a distinct mode of being alive — creativity makes distinct worlds.

Our innovations are also “haunted” by unintended and non predictable possibilities. How do we activate these? We need to block not just a single purpose or feature — but a world — whatever system or paradigm we are in…

Blocking to find the unintended possibilities for creativity

3. A seeming paradox: The unintended is radically contingent. We cannot know in advance what will come next. And the seemingly opposite is also true: Creativity is constrained by the contingencies of deep history — the unintended works on and from what history has given it. Practices, habits, and structures, once in place have a powerful role shaping and constraining things.

This does not mean that radical creativity is less and less possible. “With greater complexity in number and form of components, cooptable side consequences must rise to exceed, or even overwhelm, primary adaptations” (Gould, page 1264 The Structure of Evolutionary Theory).

Quite the opposite: Understanding the unintended super-charges our creative works, enables differentiation, guides change and provides  transformative possibilities to those that are savvy enough to swim in it.

For us this means that how we go about blocking is even more critical. Blocking purpose to co-create with the unintended needs to involve a deep, critical and all encompassing act of disclosure. If we don’t get an understanding of things on a deep level, and figure out what the key generative systems are that reproduce things (so we can strategically block them) we will never get to novelty.

Ironically, being good at creativity profoundly involves the multiple skills of a critical historian…

How do we effectively surf the unintended? How do we effectively swim in a creative universe? Here a few thoughts:

How to Surf Creativity:

  • Embrace that unintended “drives” change, novelty and creativity and is not simply an unwanted by-product of poorly designed human actions
  • Give up on the illusion that “we” intentionally create things with a fixed purpose starting from ideation to final realization
  • Recognize that we are in the middle of what is ongoing
  • We do not ‘originate’ things
  • Our creativity involves co-creating with the unintended at every step of the process (which has no clear end)
  • We are probing and nudging things via the unintended into differing states and trajectories
  • Systems have agency and a heading
  • Blocking — the deliberate production of enabling constraints activates the unintended
  • Deep disclosure is fundamental to successful blocking
  • The unintended is critical to both world expanding and world-making
  • Moving from world-expanding to world-making depends on the depth and sophistication of the blocking

This brings us back to Freud and his revolutions, we are the outcome of a contingent history that is surfing the radical forces of the unintended and so too are our most cherished concepts and all of our contemporary practices. Now that we have left our pedestal, we are of a world and the future is open — how do we surf this creative reality to participate in the co-shaping of something different?

Additional Unintended Pathways:

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How we got here: past articles in series:
✪  One: we looked at how creativity works, in the sense of the making of something genuinely new, was not part of the western tradition until the mid 1800’s. And for the previous 2,000+ years to create was to copy.
✪  Two: Where do Ideas come from? We went on a genealogical journey to discover how we came to believe that big ideas are both the source and goal of creativity and innovation.  
✪  Three: Thinking is not in your head – Thinking, especially creative thinking happens in the middle of acting and doing….
✪  Four: The New Cannot be Seen or Thought -- how does the creativity and innovation emerge if it cannot be seen or thought?
✪  Five: Reality is Creativity -- how creativity is fundamental to reality itself.
✪  Six: Creativity: “and what else can it do” -- we introduce the concept of affordances for innovation and its relevance to creativity.
✪  Seven: Creativity: Constraints, Fields and Systems -- all creativity is a part of a larger field and system… you win when you can see and leverage them in your work.
✪  Eight: Stop Being so Smart: Creativity Eats Ideation for Breakfast - Tales of fish that grew legs; to walk on land – which now serves as the blueprint for innovation and creativity.

on What Is Innovation, and How to Innovate

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