Welcome to Emerging Futures — Volume 29! Creativity is to Surrender...
Good morning fellow participants in the processes of creativity and innovation.
It’s been a week where both Jason and I came down with that quaint and old fashioned malady — the common cold. It is a good reminder that we are a swarm of critters in a highly dynamic relation with each other.
The world around us similarly reminds us that, as we say in our book “we live in an era of large-scale radical transformations from Black Lives Matter to Climate Change to rapid technological breakthroughs — all of which exceed the grasp of our existing conceptual, social, ecological and political tools.
To truly engage with these and other novel changes we need new tools — for it is our historical tools, structures and habits that have gotten us into this reality and are unlikely to get us elsewhere.”
Over the last couple of weeks we have been enquiring into our historical tools, structures and habits in regards to making. This week we would like to quickly review these tools and offer a really interesting example of a concrete alternative.
Last week we talked about the need to slow down and recognize that we are still deeply invested in a human centered “idea” driven model of creativity. And that this should really worry us because:
Given the challenges we all face — it is morally and aesthetically unacceptable to continue in our historical practices — we need to believe in the world and work from the assumption that“other worlds are possible beyond anything we could know or imagine.
Before we go further let us remind ourselves of the basic model and highly problematic model:
We have a god model of creation— “this is a heroic model of creation involving the imposition of form upon inert matter by an autonomous subject, whether god or mortal, who commands the process by a pre-established plan…” (Marshall Salins)
The four underlying assumptions that are critical to this model:
— these four assumptions make radical worldly creativity impossible.
1. Believing that creativity happens in ideas, knowing, and imagining stops the new from emerging.
To engage with creative processes effectively we need to engage prior to thinking and what can be thought.
The emergence of the new precedes what can be thought (as well as simply not requiring thought whatsoever — e.g. evolutionary creativity).
2. We need to believe in the world
The new is continuously emerging as unintended (exaptive) potentials and possibles in every situation.
It is incredibly hard to notice (think, see, visualize, sense) novelty in the act of emergence. Which is to say, it is nearly impossible to cognitively recognize the new as new— e.g. think the new).
Disruptive forms of the creative process will need to begin differently. They will be far more enactive, engaged, distributed, emergent, entangled and focused on perturbations, affordances, exaptations etc.
What would an example of such a practice look like?
There are many many great examples of this from the work of the Wright Brothers and other pioneers of flight to the great molecular gastronomy restaurant El Bulli. But we wanted to choose a more extreme example — where the researchers deliberately refuse human ideation and conceptualization.
It is an example that we first learned about from the great book on Artificial Life, Art, Emergence and Creative Processes, Metacreation. And it is the story of using techniques from evolution to come up with new electrical circuits that could distinguish tones. (Here is a link to the article where he writes up his findings).
The work was carried out by Adrian Thompson who is a research fellow at the Center for the study of evolution at the University of Sussex where he leads a Research group focused on: What can evolution do that human designers can’t?
Adrian puts it this way, “Artificial evolution, working by the systematic accumulation of blind variations, can produce designs that boggle the mind…”
Adrian argues that conventional creative methods can, because of evolutionary creativity their reliance on conceptualization, and abstractions, only work with a highly constrained design space. We do what we know — but could we set up a system to explore the vast space of possibility beyond what we can know? Underlying this method is a dynamic systems approach to the spontaneous emergence of novelty that cannot be traced to any one source.
The goal was to develop an unconstrained approach to evolutionary creativity and test it with a simple electronic circuit. To do this blocking was used — to limit the effect of standard key components. This would force the evolutionary exploration into novelty far from standard pathways.
The actual experiment developed 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”.
It is a highly iterative method where unintended capacities of the system (exaptations) emerge in the action of the circuit. 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.”
This last point is critical — this is how we believe in the world — we let matter have agency, a voice, in the process.
Could the process produce circuits looking completely alien to an electronics designer or whether in practice such bizarre circuits are unworkable”. Here is how Adrian reports on the actual experiment:
“For the first few hundred generations the best circuits simply copied the input to the output combined with various high frequency oscillatory components. By generation 650 progress had been made.”
“The entire experiment took 2-3 weeks, this time was entirely dominated by the five seconds taken to evaluate each individual… If evolution is to be free to exploit all of the components' physical properties then fitness evaluations must take place at the real timescales of the task to be performed…”
As the experiment was well underway “it is apparent from the oscilloscope photographs that evolution explored beyond the scope of conventional design. For instance the waveforms at generation would seem absurd to an electronics designer of either digital or analogue schools.”
Here is what the final circuit looked like:
What is really interesting is where and how the novelty emerged. The circuit was carefully examined and it was discovered that most of the components were not connected and removing them had little to no impact on the functioning. But there were unconnected components that could not be removed without impacting the performance (see grey squares in diagram below).
“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 miniscule 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.”
Here we have a clear example of a process of creativity that both refuses and exceeds ideation. 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.
In this example we see an astonishing process that is:
Can this process stand on its own? Is it somehow fully separate from ideation and abstraction? Of course not.
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. This experiment gives us a concrete view into the workings of a worldly approach to creativity — and hopefully by doing this gives us a powerful sense that we can effectively engage with creative processes differently.
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 believe in the world and 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.
We need to believe in surprise — that the new when it emerges will exceed what we know or even how we know…
While this example is quite a narrow one — focused on evolving an novel electronic circuit — it has implications that go far beyond the immediate scope of the experiment. The general processes utilized here are as crucial for working on the innovation of new circuits or new environmental change.
These are processes that rely on:
Perhaps there is one last thing to say about the ethics and aesthetics of this approach — it is an approach that sees our role in the process as one of following and surrender. Where the god model of creativity was a heroic, abstract and anthropocentric model — this approach is something very different.
It involves following the agency of things, and relations.
Too often we confuse things with what they are for us. Things not only exceed our abstractions — they have active powers. It is important that we feel this deeply — for to do so will change who we are and how we work.
This opens us up to the wondrous expansive creative questions:
“What can it do? — And what else can it do?”
We need to genuinely ask this question — not what can something do for us, or how does it fit into what we know — but what can it do? What it can do will exceed our abstractions, knowledge and even imagination — as the example of the evolution of circuits shows us so clearly.
How do we find what something can do?
Engaging this question — which is at the heart of creativity — can only be done by getting outside what we know and engaging in experiments where we follow.
Following involves surrender. We surrender and put aside our abstractions. We do this actively by refusing or blocking habits, practices, abstractions, uses, frameworks and paradigms.
We actively and experimentally surrender to embracing a process of following things iteratively across qualitative thresholds into the new — the unknown.
We experiment embracing and actively supporting the reality that we do not know — embracing that we cannot know where such a creative process will take us. Embracing that the process will make us — we will also be changed in ways we cannot predict.
This is not an abject surrender — nothing is passive and everything plays an active role — we will always be part of the mix in some manner. But, the manner in which we actively participate matters: we need to be there in a way that genuine creative co-emergence can happen.
OK! We will leave things there. Here’s to a good weekend! We have a workshop to do on Saturday — but our hope is to get some rest and our common colds wander off.
Till Volume 30,
Jason and Iain
Emergent Futures Lab
We’re How You Innovate
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