Welcome to Emerging Futures -- Vol 61! Creativity and the Myth of Human Exceptionalism...
Good morning distributed systems of curiosity,
It’s been an interesting week getting ready for a number of presentations and workshops we will be doing over the next couple of weeks.
The main topic we are exploring at these events is “how to engage with early stage disruptive innovation.”
There is quite a bit that can be said, and we will lay out an approach. But, laying out an approach by itself is not enough. It is also important to dispel a number of crippling myths that haunt so many approaches to innovation. Without taking on the myths it is hard to get things to shift.
In our experience, the most intractable myths are those involving human individualism, essentialism and exceptionalism.
In an effort to make a clear argument (and be able to offer pragmatic alternatives in a one hour presentation) we have honed our list to six key myths that all in some way revolve around the trio of individualism, essentialism and exceptionalism:
We are pretty sure you will recognize these concepts — even if you do not agree that they are problematic myths. As concepts they define a modern western consensus on what creativity is. It is certainly not the only approach but this consensus is pretty dominant.
Let’s just quickly point out a few issues:
We published a version of this list earlier in the week on LinkedIn to get a discussion going and also get a sense of how others might see things as we debated these myths in preparing our lecture notes.
One response was quite polemic (not necessarily a bad thing):
“…do you believe there is a fundamental difference between the creativity of a Jobs vs a Wozniak. Or a Jordan vs. Pippen? Or Paul McCartney vs Ringo?….
This notion of creative sameness and equality is silly and rooted in delusion my friend. And the only people who proselytize creative equality are the people who are not innovative or creative. Or people who are selling templates and paint by numbers creativity processes…
…someone has to be the architect and designer and someone else has to be the trade worker: plumber, carpenter, ditch digger. That is defined by DNA and early childhood development and where you fall on the innovation and adaptor curve. Go look at every record ever made, every movie ever made and every innovative partnership.“
This is the type of response we often get and it contains all the standard western tropes: creativity is human, individualistic, god-like in its powers of origination, and mainly innate. (For good measure it utilizes a wonderful manichean argument in which there are only two options — and only an idiot would choose the other…)
Reading this response and preparing for these talks had us reviewing a number of articles we wrote over the last couple of years. What follows is a revision of one of those.
For us, debating who is creative and why — is it nature or nurture? Is it Paul or Ringo? — is not so much wrong as simply beside the point.
We are so caught up in narratives of human individualism, essentialism, and exceptionalism that we miss what is actually happening in the creative process.
The nature-nurture debate assumes that creativity is something we possess, and it is this very concept that creativity is something that someone could possess that needs to be questioned.
Creativity, the process by which something new comes into being, is a process and not a thing. But by focusing on the internal qualities and attributes of individuals when we approach the questions of “what is creativity” and “how to do we achieve creative outcomes” as our standard contemporary western models of creativity do — we are fundamentally missing both what creativity is and more importantly how we can effectively participate in it.
For us the short answer is NO.
There is a useful analogy that compares Creativity to Flight (our use of this analogy is inspired by a talk by the theorist of Enactive Cognition, Evan Thompson):
When you look at a bird that flies, and you ask: where is “flight”?
Is it inside the wing?
Is it in a feather?
Is there a genetic correlate for flight?
Of course not.
If you cut off a bird's wing and pull out a feather and examine it down to the genetic level you will not find flight.
Obviously for certain birds to fly they need wings & feathers and genes do play a non-exclusive role in this. But they also need hollow bones, a specific skeletal structure, muscles, a unique breathing system, a sensory system, & an aerodynamic form.
But is that enough?
No, they need an environment with a certain air density, winds, gravity & much else.
And how does, for example, wind come about? Wind requires thermal differences. So now we need the sun, & the different absorptive properties of water, rocks, earth, etc.
The wings, feathers and bones are needed because of the air density — the body and the environment are in a mutually reciprocating dance — they are wholly conjoined.
This list of the systemic features — processes really, would need to be extended & the total assemblage would be quite vast.
Additionally, the bird as an embodied, extended and embedded being needs to learn to attune itself to the environment of flying. This process of attunement is not a one-way process — the environment has great agency in the process. The outcome is a relational and emergent domain brought forth by interactions in which causality is non-specific.
And of course we could take away or alter some of these components and a creature could still fly, but the relation between the parts is only partially decomposable. The whole system hangs together as one thing that collectively via mutually reinforcing feedback loops makes flight happen.
This begins to give us a better way to understand flight:
Flight is an emergent process that is the outcome of specific relations that must be maintained dynamically across many unlike things/processes.
It is not “in” any oneprocess, nor is it the aggregate of many processes. It is an holistic emergent process that has come from the relations and can then shape both the things and the relations.
If it is “in” any “thing” we would loosely say that flight is in the relation. But notice how odd that sounds — what is it for something to be “in” the relation?
It would be better to say it is held “across” the relation, or emerging across the relation. Better yet, attributes and capacities such a flight emerge from the middle of the totality of the unique emergent relation.
And in reality it is even stranger: as an emergent process arising from the dynamic relation it exhibits global to local causal influence: the “whole” can make the parts. Such that the very parts (e.g. the feather, or the brain area) that make up the network are fundamentally transformed by the whole of the network.
Flight is an emergent process that is held across a set of complex relations that it itself “produced”.
We can go even further “flight” is any emergent process that satisfies an abstract criteria. Flight does require sentience, wings, feathers, or any of the existing known ways to fly. New assemblages are possible that can engage with this space in wholly new ways.
For example — Is a wing even necessary? No. One of our favorite alternative approaches to flight is the giant spinning ball airplane. While it looks like a hot air balloon — it is not a lighter-than-air balloon. It is literally just a spinning ball that by spinning backwards produces lift (the Magnus effect). It does not even need to be a ball, a spinning tube works equally well.
But we are getting off track…
Creativity, like flight, is not some thing found inside some thing — whether it be the bird or the human.
Creativity, like flight, is an emergent process that is the outcome of relations that must be cultivated across many unlike things…
And like flight there are an open-ended number of ways to participate in this process: you do not need a certain form (say a human form, or even a brain) — for creativity it could be any process/system that produces novelty. Birds are after all dinosaurs that evolved via a highly creative exaptive process to take to the sky.
Emergent process relations like flight or creativity are abstract dynamic relations that we join or participate in; they are not things we possess or can acquire (own).
Creativity is a dynamic event and our role in it cannot be adequately summed up by describing human capacities and their activation.
Here is an example: The creative processes that led to human flight.
What does the creative dynamic event of the invention of flight look like?
First it was happening in many different places all around the globe at the same time. There was an expanding experimental community at the end of the 1800’s. One of the most consequential interacting nodes was the one involving the Wright Brothers and their team.
If we zoom in on a critical moment in the activity of this node we would find Orville and Wilbur Wright and their team of collaborators at a deliberately chosen island, Kitty Hawk, attuning themselves to sands, prevailing winds, soaring birds, wing warping, kite systems, struts, fabrics, novel concepts, historical actions, metals, motors and much else in a series of iterative probes, experiments and co-emergent processes.
Is it as our interlocutor would have — we have to choose between Orville and Wilbur — one of them possesses “it” and the other is the “adapter”— the mere servant? And going deeper is it in the brain region of one of them? Or going even deeper is it in the DNA that purportedly led to that brain region?
At this point, it should be clear why we said that this line of questioning was not simply wrong, but beside the point.
Creativity — the emergence of the new — is not in or because of any one thing or individual — nor in or because of any one moment — it is the emergent outcome of unique relations and dynamics between the brothers, their collaborators, Kitty Hawk, the sands, winds, materials, individuals, birds, concepts and multiple parallel histories actively attuning themselves to this event. And in all of this each agent whether it be a person or a sand dune is transformed. It is a dynamic process of an assemblage becoming an emergent whole.
What is critical to creativity is that a whole (the assemblage involved in the invention of flight) is becoming more and different than the sum of the parts, and that this novel whole is in turn shaping its parts (including the Wright Brothers themselves— they are an outcome of this extended event). This also means that brains, bodies, habits, concepts and practices are properly speaking outcomes of the whole.
This process of emergent global-to-local influence is critical to understanding creativity: the system as it comes together and as it is sustained is producing the novel relational properties that the parts “possess”. These were not there before.
The Wright Brothers did not invent human forms of flight — if by this we mean that it emerged from inside of them or their ideas. Nor were they the “spark” that catalyzed the process. They came to join an ongoing process that in turn made them and which they, in their turn, also influenced (we are not suggesting that they were mere puppets of a process— they mattered). To get stuck in a chicken vs egg debate is to miss what is critical: human flight was the creative outcome of a creative process that was itself the outcome of a specific assemblage and not the outcome of an idea emerging from the head of an individual.
We tend to ignore the dynamic systems, the logic of emergence and its powerful agency and put all the agency into singular individuals, singular brain regions , singular DNA, singular moments, and singular ideas that can be found deep inside singular minds.
This western cultural habit — this myth is a mistake. Individuals are not creative because of some pre-given internal thing or one intrinsic capacity — all novel outcomes happen because of a system that as it comes together has unique powers of emergent global-to-local influence.
The creativity of the system did not just lead to a form of human flight — the Wright Brothers also became who they were — they were invented by the very same process that invented the first plane, the Wright Flyer. They too, like all of us who engage with creative processes, became made anew and differently by the very process they participated in putting into motion.
One could reply, “yes that is true but who made the system? Surely someone — the Wright Brothers in this instance, had to have the idea to make the system, and is that not the source of the creativity?”
And of course they did. They made all sorts of decisions. But these decisions were also made from within emergent dynamic systems. We are never not Embodied, Embedded, Extended, and Enactive as part of specific intra-acting emergent environment that is co-shaping us. These were decisions made within and in response to a larger historical context and forces.
We have to put aside the false choice of the chicken-egg dichotomy — causality is not linear and nor should our conceptualization of creative processes be linear.
There is never a moment that is not systemic, or emergent or where we are not fundamentally shaped by the things we are interacting with.
Marshall McLuhan, put it this way: Tools “by altering the environment, evoke in us unique ratios of sense perceptions. The extension of any one sense alters the way we think and act — the way we perceive the world. When these ratios change, people change.”
The development of new ways of sensing, new senses, and new sensory experiences emerge as new networks of tools are invented. McLuhan called this interconnected network of tools and practices a “medium” and we are calling this a system — here the terms are not so important as the bigger point:
“Any understanding of social and cultural change [creativity/innovation] is impossible without a knowledge of the way media work as environments”.
If we come back to the question “what is creativity?” — for how we answer this question guides all approaches to practices of creativity.
Rather than defining creativity as internal human capacity to generate novel ideas that can be nurtured…
…We would like to suggest that it is something entirely different:
Note: We have also written more about this in other essays.
A New Approach To Learning Creativity Begins By Shifting To An Outward Orientation
Ultimately creativity is not all about you — it is not about your brain, your DNA or even your early childhood education.
It is not that we don’t have brains, or that we do not play a significant role — of course we do — but the myths of individualism, essentialism and exceptionalism derail us from understanding and engaging fully with what is actually happening.
What is far more critical than focusing on individuals and their brains is developing the collective skills and ecosystems to engage with and participate in worldly creative processes.
This can be “taught” and developed — but it won’t be paint-by-numbers or a one size fits all model.
The question is: what event — what “Kitty Hawk” needs to emerge in your specific context? Who are the dynamic “creatives” — processes and relations — called sand, wind, struts, birds, motors, people… that are relevant in your context?
Creativity is less about learning some thing, and certainly not about possessing some thing and more about becoming something other. You will be invented by Kitty Hawk as Kitty Hawk invents a novel world…
Well, that’s not the end of the story — there is much more to say. But for this week it is a good place to start…
Have a great week, and as ever, be in touch.
Last thing, if you are in Austria or Ireland over the next few weeks — come to one of our events!
Till Volume 62,
Jason and Iain
Emergent Futures Lab
We’re How You Innovate
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