Welcome to Emerging Futures -- Volume 77! Scratching Discovery...
Good morning co-emerging capacities,
Before we begin - we’ve queued up a playlist to accompany the text below: Crow Hip-Hop - Spotify Playlist
Here it has been a beautiful week – finally a bit of snow falling and crunching under our feet.
This week we have been preparing for the second part of our Green Innovation Intensive that will be taking place in Graz, Austria. As we prepare we have been talking quite a bit about affordances and exaptations, as well as testing out new exercises and looking for interesting materials in regards to these two critical aspects of innovation.
One great documentary we have been watching on innovation and change making is Chuck D’s new four-part documentary on Hip Hop – Fight The Power: How Hip Hop Changed the World. It is worth watching.
And this brings us to this weeks topic – we are still interested in exploring what we have been investigating over the last couple of weeks in the newsletter: Affordances and Innovation, but there is one critical aspect that is both confusing and often overlooked. It is, in fact, something that we’ve on occasion also added to the confusion. And this is about “where is the new?” – is it in things? Is a novel affordance in some thing? Is a novel exaptation already there awaiting our discovery and our co-option?
The answer – it is and it isn’t – is not very satisfying and is ultimately confusing. At a recent conference we said "The beginnings of the new are already there in everything – they just need to be actively and experimentally co-opted." This, while correct, can perpetuate the confusion and allow one to imagine that the new is out there in the world awaiting our discovery – that we just need to locate something and then magically co-opt it and voila! – a new innovation.
But if it is genuinely new it does not yet exist – it is not anywhere.
But – the new must come from somewhere – it cannot just materialize from nowhere. So where is it?
Where is it?
This way of asking the question leads to an assumption that the “it” is some where and that we just need to uncover it – or discover it.
One of our biggest frustrations in regards to innovation is the use and misunderstanding of the concept of discovery.
Far too often we, in the world of creativity, talk about someone “discovering” something in regards to innovation – whether it is Alexander Flemming discovering penicillin, or the early Hip Hop pioneer Grand Wizzard Theodore discovering scratching.
Once we pay attention to the word discovery and its related cousins (uncovering, finding, noticing, etc.) – we really see how they are everywhere in the creativity and innovation discourse.
This so oft used phrasing in innovation of “discovering something new” radically separates us from what actually happens in a way that gives us an utterly false sense of creative processes.
And none of these concepts are correct – In innovation nothing is discovered. This is not the process of creativity – the new has to be made.
We are not attempting to “discover”, “notice” “find” or “uncover” what it can do – as if it was already hidden somewhere inside the object.
So what is really going on if we are not discovering anything?
Let's go slow and take a favorite example: the innovative exaptation of working with a shoe to open a bottle of wine:
When I have a wine bottle that I need to get the cork out of and there is no corkscrew handy – I have to get creative. And I start playing with the bottle and my work boot to see what they might afford. I am not hoping to unlock (discover) a secret capacity that the shoe designer hid in my boot to open wine bottles.
Rather I am about to enter a journey – an adventure of actively co-creating a process that will push the cork out of the bottle. I am actively asking all parts of the system “what else can they do?” – and what I really mean is “what new actions can we do together in this specific context?”
The first time I enter on this journey, I might have a “hunch” – an experimental starting point – say “the shoe might do something…?”, but I do not know what will happen, exactly where things will go, or why something might work or not.
We – the boot, the bottle, the wine, the cork, my self – and whatever else emerges as necessary – are joining on an adventure of collaboratively making a process emerge in the doing.
After playing with various assemblages perhaps I settle on putting the bottle in the shoe in a standing-up fashion and hitting it against a solid wall and now this combination of my body (arms, hands, skills, etc.), plus the hard but not too hard sole and the encasing leather of the shoe, plus the low friction of glass the type of cork, the air space between wine and cork, the liquid nature of the wine itself, plus the very solid nature of the brick wall – all of this careful stabilized and held in the balance “affords” the opening of the wine bottle (with quite some skill and effort).
Don’t believe us? Here is a video of the process. Now we highly recommend that you try this – the embodied actuality is far more illuminating than our words will ever be – and please share with us your video (only if you wish)!
This can feel like a process of discovery – “we discovered how a shoe can open a bottle of wine!!!” – but nothing could be further from the truth.
The shoe has no hidden wine-opening capacity in it, nor does the wine bottle glass, nor does the wine itself (no wine maker was thinking about how this liquid would assist in opening the bottle!).
Afterall, the shoe did not open the wine bottle – the carefully calibrated system did.
Did the shoe play a very critical aspect? Yes. It was absolutely critical and did play an active role. Was it’s potential to open the bottle always there? If by this you mean did it have a way of holding a bottle and a stiff sole – then yes. But if by this you mean that it literally had some “thing” in it that was there for opening wine bottles then no.
And this is critical – the potential is not in the shoe as much as it is in the relationship (which must be carefully collaboratively made). What the shoe offers is the potential for developing via skillful and experimental work a relationship. And this cannot be called “discovery”.
In the first video we shared this experimental forming and stabilizing of a relationship is hard to see. But if you try opening a bottle of wine this way (which we highly recommend), you will really get a sense of a process of co-emergent tuning and relationship building that is critical.
There is a complex process of invention going on. Not any form of banging will work, nor will any wall work nor any shoe nor any cork – it is about developing a very specific relational dynamic – both the techniques and the material properties of the things matter. You can see this much better in this video – where a number of humorous failures open us up to the process of active engaged attunement (but it is best to try this for yourself).
The affordance of opening a bottle is not in the shoe – but a quality of the specific relationship we invented together in our collaborative adventure. The German philosopher Martin Heidegger (1889-1976) in a wonderful series of essays defined a “thing” as a form of gathering – an active bringing together of a world. He digs into the history of the word – which in old german (english comes from old german) literally meant a gathering – which one can still see in old place names such as Thingeryi in the far North-East of Iceland – an old gathering place where community decisions were made. Thing – Gathering – An active holding together. What is gathered is what is afforded by the relational dynamics (the Gibsons, who developed the concept of Affordances, were close readers of the Phenomenological philosophical tradition which Heidegger plays an important role in) .
This is something active and experimental – it is only when relations stabilize that we equate a purpose with a thing. It becomes a “chair” or a “wing” or a “corkscrew” or a “shoe”.
Seeing things as active gatherings is a critical shift in how we both understand and creatively engage with things: what are they part of bringing together and in doing so what worlds? What practices are they opening up? What else can they do?
In all of this what is critical is that we sense the active nature – the creative doing that is going on. The shoe is not made to reveal a hidden truth – the shoe comes to participate – becomes – with its relational capacities in an active manner in our shared adventure. We, the human agent, do not discover any thing, nor do we alone do something special. No, a unique novel assemblage is being actively collaboratively formed, stabilized and ultimately activated. We co-emerge. And ultimately it is the new practice that makes us. We are less the author of innovation than the outcome of it (which is more reason to avoid the language of discovery) – how can we discover something if the “we” was not there at the beginning…
After the fact, when we are no longer doing – in retrospect, it is easy to slip back into the language of properties, uncovering, discovery, and discrete objects. But this retrospective projection is the problem, we are radically distorting what happened. To stay true to the process of innovation we need to stay within the process and allow a language of doing to emerge – a language that might be ungainly and full of strange neologisms – “co-emergent relational becoming” – and seeming paradoxical statements – “the new emerges but it is not in anything” but at least it keeps us of the process that actually happened in such a way that we can see the process for what it is.
And this brings us back to where we started, the problematic word and process in the context of innovation: discovery. It is a passive term that silences the agency of things, and silences the active nature of developing novel affordances – of collaborative affodancing. Discovery is not the process – collaborative co-emergent doing is the actual process.
Affordances, which we defined last week as:
“Affordances are relations between aspects [not features] of a material environment and abilities available in a form of life.” (Rietveld and Kiverstein).
– they are brought into being in this active experimental process of us opening a bottle of wine with a dress shoe and a solid wall.
All affordances – from a chair's capacity for sitting to the shoes capacity to open wine bottles, or to wrap around my foot are dynamic emergent relational adventures. The mundane world of things is an astonishing adventure, not a world of dumb stuff out there awaiting our discovery and use.
Look around your room – the table, chairs, books, floor, walls, art, cups, toys – everything – it was once an active uncertain experimental process of becoming that we were part of – not too different from your moment with the shoe and wine bottle. We changed with the chair – we co-emerged. A world came into being with the table and how “it” gathers. Now the activity is no longer experimental – but the adventure remains as we live and make sense via our relational co-shaping activity with things. Making and doing never stops – “chairing” and “tabling” are ongoing adventures.
And as Hip Hop reminds us – there are always new adventures – the record player is sitting there in the corner, but it is neither passive nor is its future written… It will be made beyond what can be discovered…
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