Today the dominant model of creativity is a cognitive-psychological model focused on brains, ideas and humans. This is a deeply flawed model of the human, thinking and creativity (as many have pointed out for quite some time). We know that:
- We are not fundamentally individualistic — we are wholly intra-subjective and collective beings
- Thinking does not occur “in” the head but is fully embodied and deeply entangled with an environment and tools
- Creativity is a worldly process that is going on all around and through us all the time
While we have been repairing the cognitive-psychological approach for quite some time (attempting to make it more responsive, more relational, more inter-subjective), — but how far can you actually get by fixing a wrong framework? Sure you can navigate quite successfully believing in a flat earth — but at some point the approach is just not worth the effort…
The continued reliance of our most of basic models of creativity on the core logic of the cognitive psychological model should really worry us:
- This divests the world of a real independent agency or meaning
- It alienates each of us within a permanent subjective bubble
- It makes all action into debates about interpretations
- It reduces creativity to an internal subjective attribute
To engage with the very real issues we face in a creative manner we need to believe in the world.
The creative process begins quite differently to what brain centered models propose. Creativity is enactive, engaged, distributed, emergent, entangled and focused on perturbations, affordances, and exaptations. It is happening out in the world, beyond the internal realm of the imagination — it is something more-than-human — and certainly not something that can or should be conceptualized as a psychological-cognitive process.
But, while this all sounds good in the abstract — what does this look like at the level of practice?
An Example of Worldly Emergence
What would an example of such a practice look like?
- What would the emergence of the new look like if it was not placed in the context of ideas, concepts, symbols?
- What would it look like to work with the world as having a real independent agency?
- What would creativity look like if it was not about the expression of subjective imaginative states?
Mitchell Whitelaw in the excellent book on art and artificial life, Metacreation tells the story of the work of Adrian Thompson which provides an exceptionally interesting example of the emergence of novelty.
Thompson, is an English researcher who was using a system based on evolutionary principles to breed new electronic circuits to sense tonal differences. Each circuit is built, tested and scored as to how well it preforms a task of discriminating between tones. The “fittest” circuits are “mated and mutated to generate the next generation”.
This method stands in strong contrast to conventional circuit design which works via abstraction — where the complex physical behavior of actual parts are reduced to a binary diagram of logical operations (a symbolic representation). This abstract ideational methodology “precludes the nonlinear complexities of feedback loops and the complex dynamics of the physical medium itself.”
That Thompson’s method produced novel outcomes is no big surprise — what is interesting is where and how the novelty emerged:
“When the final evolved circuit was examined, it was apparent that it functioned in an entirely unfamiliar way. After initial analysis, only sixteen of the one hundred cells in the programmable array were found to be involved in the circuit, and these units were connected in a tangled network. Further investigation delineated three interlinked feedback loops that appeared to make use of the minuscule timing delays to convert the incoming signals into a simple on/off response. The exact mechanisms involved finally defied explanation; the results could not be reproduced in simulation nor could the circuit be probed physically without disturbing its dynamics. Thompson and his colleagues described the circuit as “bizarre, mysterious and unconventional.”
What is interesting about this experiment for our discussion of the emergence of novelty is that the system separate from human control and concept driven design generated the novelty. And that this novelty was not something that could be explained or simulated — our go-to techniques of ideational abstraction. The novelty was an emergent property of the physical system outside and beyond our capacities of predictive ideation. Whitelaw goes on to explain:
“It seems that the design made use of highly specific physical qualities of the chip on which it was evolved. It had also evolved to operate accurately at a particular temperature.”
The physical properties of the substrate and environment that it was taking advantage of were not intentionally designed for any of these purposes (and thus never considered as being conceptually relevant to circuit design previously). These properties were unintended affordances that were co-opted and shaped into relevance by the emerging system via the non-linear process of system causation (the process of exaptation).
For Thompson, the process of innovation continued by working to stabilize the emergent and non-fully explainable phenomena.
What is most striking, as Whitelaw explains, is the process of “adaptive, nonhuman engineering lodged firmly in a material continuum rather than in the finite, discrete domain of computation” (or what we would call “ideational abstraction”.
This model of creativity involves a moving away from human conceptual models of what things are, how they work, and how outcomes will emerge. Ideas, intentionality, imagination, formal structural models, and abstraction working as a bounded system of knowing — even imaginative speculative knowing miss the radical emergent potential of worldly things, forces and processes.
Novelty is Sense-Making
Novel emergent processes give rise to new forms of sensing, meaning making, and environment building. We see this in how the circuit formed a new “sense organ” where new forms of emergent environmental “information” became available for it. It co-emerged with and of a novel environment.
Sense-making is the activity of bringing and holding a world together in a specific manner. This is, as this example demonstrates, not just a human process — it does not even require sentience as we would normally understand it. It happens out in the world as an agent co-shapes and co-emerges with an environment.
It is enacted — brought into being by the embodied, embedded and extended activity of all the parts involved. It is sensed and responded to but is aconceptual — which is why the researchers could not immediately understand it. Novel sense-making of a system does not easily get translated into reflective awareness and conceptualization (ideas). It is a form of enacted “know-how” and not abstracted “know-what” at the level of an emergent non-human non-living process.
An “Unimaginative” Creativity
In this example we see an astonishing process that is:
- Involving the creation of an open material open system
- Independent agency is given to things and environments
- Novel concepts, techniques and stabilization processes follow what independently emerges
Can this process stand on its own? Is it somehow fully separate from ideation? Of course not. That is not what interests us in this essay. What is important is that we can see another possibility of approaching creativity and innovation beyond the “cognitive-psychological” model that is implicitly driven by a mind focused model of mediation and abstraction.
Creativity does not need to be in our heads, or in meeting rooms and workshops far removed from worldly experimentation. It happens best when we join ongoing creative worldly processes. It happens best when we give agency to things, and environments. It happens best when we co-emerge with novelty.
This is true when working on the innovation of new circuits or new environmental social movements.