Welcome to Emerging Futures -- Volume 122! Processes Make Practices Make Processes...
Good morning, processes and practices of ever creative becomings,
2024 is well underway according to the Gregorian Calendar – today is after all January 12th. But January 1st in the Julian Calendar will happen in two days – so happy New Year! (again). Pretty much every few weeks, it is another new year – Gregorian, Julian, Murador, Aluth Avurudda, Chol Chnam Thmey, Chūn jié, Diwali, Enkutatash, Hijiri, Kha b’ Nissa, Nowruz – such a wonderful thing to be always starting anew from the middle!
For us, we are already in the thick of talking with partners about new projects for 2024: interventions, workshops, unconference designs, keynotes, and consultations. In some ways, the holidays are almost a distant, neatly packaged memory of beautiful meals and parties with friends in Montreal and Central New Jersey.
But, before this sense of new beginnings is behind us – we want to take this week to continue to reflect on the key practices that will help make this year a truly creative one.
Last week, we began the Gregorian New Year by introducing some practices to help make this year one that is deeply interwoven with the ongoing creative processes of the universe. And this week, in celebration of another January first and another New Year (this time according to the Julian calendar), we are going to continue exploring creative practices...
For the last week, I (Iain) have been hanging out with my mum on central Vancouver Island. It's been a stormy week with avalanche warnings for the high mountain passes, power outages, big storms in the Salish Sea, crazy surf, and many ferry cancellations. So one evening this week, when the winds were dancing furiously with the big fir and cedars outside the apartment window and the rain furiously evoking a speed-metal rendition of an early Steve Reich percussion work, we stayed inside to watch a movie. Earlier in the day, we had been talking about exaptations and how the development of the first computers was, in part, an exaptation of the Jacquard Loom and its input programming system of punch cards. That discussion led to us deciding to find an interesting movie that was at least somewhat related to this topic.
After some haphazard online research, we settled on The Imitation Game, a movie that focused on the efforts of Alan Turing to break German secret codes during the Second World War. It is a historical biopic of the usual kind that is found when shopping in the “based upon a true story” isles of the movie universe. That said, this newsletter is not about judging its quality.
But, from the perspective of creativity, it is very much worth watching. Not because it portrays creativity well – but precisely because it does the opposite so well. In very helpful ways, this is one of cinema's worst portrayals of creativity.
Why? The Imitation Game gets literally everything factually and conceptually wrong about the creative efforts of the Allied forces to break the German secret codes. This movie brilliantly develops a plot solely based upon the historical Western template of what creativity is and what creative humans do. But, the small problem with this approach is that this template is total BS.
But don’t take our word for it. Here is a simple and actually fun exercise:
It is shocking how totally and completely this movie gets the history wrong. It is a very convincing movie that utilizes all of the classical tropes of the lone creative genius so convincingly – such that one has the feeling by the end that this must be at least close to the actual history. It is a real shock to realize how it is total invention. One blog, Information Is Beautiful analyzed the film to be 42.3% accurate when compared to real-life events. Which, in some sense, might not seem all that bad. For as the movie’s writer Graham Moore said in defense of the liberties taken, “When you use the language of "fact-checking" to talk about a film, I think you're sort of fundamentally misunderstanding how art works. You don't fact-check Monet's Water Lilies. That's not what water lilies look like, that's what the sensation of experiencing water lilies feel like. That's the goal of the piece.” And that is certainly a valid argument in general. But nonetheless, it is important to recognize for the purposes of this discussion, as Information is Beautiful puts it: “ …this film just rips the historical record to shreds."
Ultimately, as a work of art, the movie can obviously do what it wants. That is not the issue. What interests us in regard to this movie is how we, as a culture, understand, portray, and engage with creative practices. And as such the movie gives one a very clear portrayal of what creativity is: one individual, Alan Turing, worked heroically – and pretty much alone in his head to creatively solve the problem of how to crack the German secret codes. And that he did this despite being surrounded by lesser mortals who, either through unknowing incompetence or deliberate malevolence, tried to foil his heroic efforts.
In the movie, a repeated refrain sums up this approach. It is one that Keira Knightly’s character says tenderly to a despondent and seemingly defeated Alan Turing near the end of the movie, “I think that sometimes it is the people who no one imagines anything of, who do the things no one can imagine''. And while this is true in general (logically, how could it not be) – nothing could be further from the actuality of this story or how creative practices in general work. The fetishization of the tropes of individualism, the life of the mind, and the genius as savior are ones that have no basis in any reality.
When, after watching the movie, I began to read the actual story, my initial feeling (after the total cognitive dissonance caused by how far the movie was from actuality settled down) was one of nearly overwhelming complexity. Of course, it would be a complex story – but just how complex was still shocking. First, this is a big story of a long history – it does not begin and end with one person. Many disparate groups – especially the Poles and French, were central to the effort, starting well over a decade before Turing got directly involved. It is also a complex story about the long development and perfection of many distinct tools, technologies, and machines (again irreducible to any one person and having an agency of their own). In addition, so much was based upon luck, the contingencies of human behavior, the role of embodied logics, military rationality, and so much besides… The real story is a fascinating story and a highly illuminating one about creative processes and practices.
The lesson should not be that “of course a movie has to simplify history and tell a good story – and that is what they did.” We can take it for granted that the telling of any history will necessarily involve many simplifications. That is not the issue. The question is, rather, why simplify it into this pattern of the lone genius against the world? Or as the historian and critic Thomas Haigh summarizes its tropes, "It combines the traditional focus of popular science writing on the lone genius who changes the world with the modern movie superhero narrative of a freak who must overcome his own flaws before he can save the world.” The question is, why these classical human creativity tropes?
Why not invent narrative devices and patterns that could tell something like the actual creativity story in a profoundly artful and unique manner?
This is the key question in relation to how we understand creativity. And this is the source of our criticism: it might be a great work of art with astonishing performances, but it is shit at helping us understand anything like the creative process. In fact, it is worse than that because it is so wonderful at depicting the absolute wrong approach to creativity that it makes it even harder to get to a useful operational understanding of creativity.
For us, in regards to creativity, the elephant that is always in the room is our history – and, to be specific, our Western history of the god model of creativity. Without explicitly coming to terms with this model (which is so perfectly depicted in The Imitation Game) it is extremely hard to effectively move forward with developing effective creative practices.
Last week, we shared thirteen practices to help develop a new enactive approach to creativity for 2024. These practices do not come from nowhere – they come from a critical response to this history. And they come from directly testing and developing alternatives to this deeply problematic logic.
It is no accident that the first of our practices we shared last week focused on “moving away from the historical practices of creativity as hyper-individualism.” This should not be taken as some trivial reminder. Moving away from hyper-individualism is both critical and difficult. It needs to be undertaken as a deeply considered and all-encompassing project. It requires many real changes to our habits, language, interactions, tools, environments, and much besides. To do it effectively, we really need to commit to both dismantling the habits, language, practices, tools, and environments of individualism and systematically building up intra-subjective and ecosystemic alternatives. It is something that we can see in the real history of creative cracking of the German codes.
But how do we go about doing this?
First, we need to be honest with ourselves and others – this is not going to be an easy task. The tropes, practices, habits, tools, and environments of the God model have a long history and are deeply embedded in all aspects of our reality.
The problems that this difficulty raises is something we know all too well – for in almost every initial consultation meeting, we are asked, “this sounds very difficult – is there not some easy set of simple actions we can do?”
And while there are many simple actions we can do, such as seeing others as genuine collaborators or actively acknowledging the agency of our tools – that does not mean this is ever going to be a simple undertaking. It requires of us a massive embodied cultural and infrastructural transformation. And this is not going to happen via one simple action, nor will it happen overnight.
But, this is what the Celebration of the New Year and the rituals of new beginnings can be really helpful with. This year, let's all make a conscious effort to really change things! Let’s fully recognize the power of, and profound fallacy, of the God model of creativity. Let’s challenge it deeply at every turn. And let’s invent something else.
To undertake this, we can take inspiration from the strong and highly developed collaborative networks that were critical to the development of the code-cracking innovations of the Allied forces: Many teams worked together, traveled to share information, and taught each other new techniques.
So, where can we go after we begin to move away from hyper-individualism? Where should we start? This question brings us to a core logic of our approach: creative processes are always already there – the universe at every level is always engaged with processes that lead to novel processes. Because of this, our human creativity is always a “more-than-human creativity."
This means that our human creativity is always one that involves the developing of practices to join with ongoing creative processes. Our creativity is in the development of practices to meet and inflect collective more-than-human processes.
We can see these logics also in this code-breaking story – for in simple ways in this story in how the seeds of their code-cracking innovations emerged from how actual patterns and processes of the German users (what were called ‘cribs’), the physical logic of the encryption devices (what were called ‘cillies’), mathematical logics (like the theory of probabilities) and other similar practices.
And then, if we look at the other practices on our list from last week, we can see how they were also practices that were critical to this creative code-breaking effort. Below, we make a few comments on each – which are by no means exhaustive:
We can see this primarily in how critical it was to engage in the actual practices of using the German Enigma Machines and making various forms of replicas – these were from simple diagrams to graphic tools to actual machines. The understanding of the embodied actions of German users was critical in many ways.
There are many ways the environment was critical from the actual machines and the task-space of the operators (as mentioned above). But even in the most seemingly mundane ways, the environment was critical. Even the location chosen to do the codebreaking was hugely important. Bletchley Park was on a major train line between Oxford and Cambridge. It was close to London but far from any German bombing targets. It has great communication resources. It was far from prying eyes, etc.
The tools that were invented were numerous and critical, and some evolved into the first modern computers. Many of these have become famous in their own right from the Zygalski-sheet to the cyclometer, the Herivel tip, to the Bombe.
The Germans changed something critical about their encryption tools and methods every few months. This necessitated significant and sometimes total reinventions of the Allied approaches. A narrow, static, goal-based philosophy would never have worked to maintain the broad creative ability to crack the codes.
Ultimately it was a vast ecology – a carefully shaped and developed world that creatively came to terms with the German codes. Of course, it is far more glamorous, “simple,” and welcome to stick to the narrative tropes of individual genius and heroism. But nothing could be further from the truth of the actual creative processes involved.
While we could continue and go through the rest of what we laid out last week point by point, it would quickly become a redundant exercise if you have already read into this history (as we hope you have). Here is the list of the final six points:
The goal is not to get lost in any one list or any one claim to a perfect approach to genuine creative practices. Rather, as we enter this year and we take a moment to “begin again” – let us reflect on how pernicious and pervasive the God model of creativity is – and yet how easy it is to recognize. And how once recognized, we can begin to develop alternatives that are far more effective approaches to a creative practice.
Last year, in Volume 106 of the newsletter, we laid out a longer set of suggestions for a creative practice. It’s still a reasonably short list. As an experiment – try editing it (perhaps based on your own reading into the history of cracking the German codes), formatting it, and printing it out. Put it somewhere visible – say, the fridge or in your workspace. And as the year begins, focus each week on one aspect of it. Try developing your own practices to make each of these suggestions yours. Here is the list.
1. Actively embrace that all reality is creative
[a] Develop a process orientation that is as dynamic as reality.
2. Move away from approaching creativity as a human, individual, brain-centered, and idea-focused practice.
[a] Consciously & actively refuse the "ideation first" approach to creativity.
[b] Avoid the practices of ascribing causality/agency to brains, mindsets, individualization, psychology, etc.
3. Practice thinking as an extended worldly activity.
[a] Thinking is about ecosystems & not brains.
[b] Embrace “doing-thinking” – treat thinking as a worldly engaged activity: no thinking but in doing
[c] Probing is a form of thinking – knowing is emergent.
[d] Knowing is a co-creative act
[e] Develop a way to work that is conscious of its inherently collaborative and ecosystemic nature.
[f] Recognize that agency is intrinsically relational
[g] It needs to be widely distributed: recognize and actively give agency to non-human actors (objects, systems, habits, etc., embrace abstraction).
4. Be active, responsive & open to what emerges
[a] Attune your interests to surf the self-organizing
[b] Let yourself & organizations be changed by the emergent process
[c] Collectively Develop & trust feed-forward processes
[d] Actively participate in the emergence of new worlds
5. Work with Enabling Constraints
[a] Actively disclose & block dominant patterns
[b] Sense & perturbate the propensities of relevant systems & change probabilities
[c] Experiment with ways to disclose unintended affordances/possibilities (exaptations)
6. Change requires an active process of keeping qualitative difference alive.
[a] co-develop “differences that make a difference”
[b] let the new be new
[c] keep difference alive
7. Focus on developing creative ecosystems, and the outcomes will happen
[a] People need intersubjective agency
[b] Organizational logics need the ability to change with novel emergence
[c] Rooms, workflows, rituals, unintended affordances, time allocations, etc., all participate in the ecosystem
8. Change is embodied in ways that stay in the body and environment.
[a] Use experiential “games” – exercises and contexts to allow all members of our team/organization to engage with the above processes in a deeply experiential manner.
Well, that’s it for this week. Please, if you can, enjoy the movie. And then, read up on the actual history. It will be, we promise, a powerful and enlightening exercise! And if, in doing your own research, you have thoughts on creative practices you wish to share with us – please reach out; we would love to hear your thoughts and enrich our own understandings. Have a wondrous new year and week!
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