Welcome to Emerging Futures -- Volume 72! Problems, Emergence, Worlds, Chat GPT, and Creativity...
Good morning fellow creative problematizers,
We hope that you had a beautiful week celebrating the lunar new year and the beginning of the year of the rabbit/cat. Our cat Blacktop, being now 18 years on this planet, was not up to partying like it was 1984 but he did enjoy some quiet moments in the snow.
Jason and I are busy preparing for various events and projects. We’ll be at SXSW in Austin delivering a workshop (if you’re going to be there send us a line so we can connect in person) and presenting at a number of other conferences this spring, including VentureWell.
Last week, in the newsletter, we wrote about non-human creative systems – contrasting closed symbolic systems like ChatGPT with open materially based ones. We looked at the very interesting work of Adrien Thompson something something.
This week we spent some more time exploring Chat GPT. We were having some fun in the evening:
Which led us to ask it to conjure up some new work by the blind poet of the English Civil War:
from the Paradise of God
Without remorse drive out the sinful Pair
From hallowd ground th' unholie, and denounce
To them and to thir Progenie from thence
If patiently thy bidding they obey,
Dismiss them not disconsolate; reveale
To Adam what shall come in future dayes,
As I shall thee enlighten, intermix
My Cov'nant in the womans seed renewd;
So send them forth, though sorrowing, yet in peace.
That got us into the spirit of exploring more writers devoted to exploring generative constraints:
It was surprising that by the second sentence it had broken the rule. And so we asked it again:
But, of course it is not impossible. We explained this, citing the Example of Georges Perec:
So we asked it to try again…
And again not very successful. Now, it is not our interest to critique Chat GPT’s creative potential based on an evening of human + digital banter. But it does raise the issue that how we ask questions really matters.
The early twentieth century philosopher of creativity and change, Henri Bergson, who devoted quite a bit of thought to this issue famously said “For Creativity it is a question of finding the problem… even more than of solving it. For a speculative problem is solved as soon as it is properly stated”.
His argument was that a problem once well posed already contains all of its potential answers. Let’s take a game of checkers as a simple example: it is a type of problem: how can you win given these specific generative constraints? And the moment that this question is properly posed (e.g. the game is fully formalized) then all the possible solutions (ways to win) are already there virtually – they are simply waiting to be actualized in a game.
What allows for the space of possibility – all the 500 billion billion possible games of checkers – is the initial conditions – the initial problem. If the problem is posed well then a vast and interesting field of answers is generated. While we tend to focus on one answer – one seemingly perfect solution – what we experience with Chat GPT – or even in the work of Milton, of Georges Perec – the singular outcome – we need to also step back and focus on the radical generative power and logic of the problem that led to each of these specific outcomes.
Chat GPT mirrors our cultures general working model of focusing on outcomes – solutions – it works at the level of delivering a single answer to a single question. But innovation requires us to consider:  what is a question  what is a problem and  how answers emerge?
We often hear this kind of cliche answer – that it is “all about asking the right questions” – but in a very real sense, for creativity it is all about asking the right questions.
The reason that this is a cliche is that too often we are happy to stay at the level of the general and never fully engage with what it takes to generate a question – to generate a problem.
We need to know what a problem is. For creativity's sake we need to fall in love with the nature of problems. But, what is the nature of problems?
Well, what is a problem? In a very simple sense, we could say that it is “the stating of a question that addresses an issue”.
But if this was all — there would be little to say.
Problems such as, “how do we win at checkers?” or “how do we solve world hunger?” contains far more than what is explicitly stated. The explicit components such as “winning” or “hunger” that can be explicitly defined, rest upon a vast sea of highly diverse implicit factors. This unstated side of things is not exclusively or even mainly conceptual. What is implicit in a question cannot be put into words because it is about things, environments, habits, practices, and beliefs.
Thus questions/problems come to us embedded in a network of unspoken assumptions, equipment, approaches and practices that frame and support the way the question/problem is posed. But more than this – it is this network. A problem is not simply a set of words – it is the network that these words are part of. It makes no sense to imagine the problem “how does one win at the game of chess?” seperate from this larger network.
A problem always exceeds its explicit stating it is an assemblage of physical things, environments, concepts, habits and practices that give rise to an emergent field of possibility. Here the term “assemblage” is ideal – it is something assembled – brought together as a creative act, which will allow for the emergence of a vast field of possibility.
As we bring into the light both the assemblage and the emergent field — we see the actual contours of the problem:
Problems are not immaterial abstractions but an assemblage of agents that give rise to a stable patterned field of potential outcomes.
All questions/problems have two “sides”:
By its actions an assemblage aposes a question: Given these circumstances what is possible? And the emergent field of possible outcomes directly offers the potential answers.
The more we dig into the implicit space of problem (the assemblage/“world”), the more we can see how critical it is to both concretely uncover our concrete implicit assumptions and frame the problem/question in the best manner possible (with the most qualitative degrees of freedom). Thus a properly stated question would articulate what is hidden (the pattern of the emergent field) — and experimentally block the assumptions that limit the new from emerging.
What is critical in developing a problem is that it is not an abstract or intellectual exercise — it cannot be reduced to language, concepts or ideas (this is what we explored in depth in last weeks newsletter). Problem production always involves the production of an assemblage and the experimentation with it’s emergent field.
Now we can come back to Henri Bergson and his statement “a speculative problem is solved as soon as it is properly stated” and break down its logic:
Problems then are creative – generative – they make up worlds that can be explored. When we focus on quickly solving problems – mistakenly imagining that problems can be “solved” (rather than resolved) – we lose sight of the fact that there are many ways to resolve a problem and that the problem itself has generated these.
It is important then to both see the tree linked aspects of a problem (the 1. assemblage, 2. field of possibilities, and 3. the actualized resolution).
To “fall in love with problems” is to experimentally discover ways to work at and across all three of the connected aspects. What does this entail? Instead of focusing on hunting for the singular desired outcome – begin with (1) gaining a direct engaged sense of the full assemblage, and (2) in parallel probe the field of possible outcomes with concrete experiments (tentative outcomes) to gain a sense of the full field dynamics, then (3) take this knowledge back into the work of recomposing the assemblage – re-inventing the problem.
It is this last step that is critical – the classical ways of engaging problems is to solve them, but the system remains, what is necessary for qualitative change is to experimentally change the very conditions of the problem – the assemblage.
With this we can begin to see that these two related options (resolution vs recomposition) are each fundamental aspects of the two forms of change – with resolution being a form of change-in-degree and recomposition potentially leading to a change-in-kind.
A full and experimental understanding of what a problem is – is to be able to move in both directions effectively – sadly we tend to focus far too much on the side of exploring resolving – solutions, and not enough on experimenting with the qualitatively transformative possibilities of changing the assemblage.
Discovery, or uncovering has to do with what already exists (exploring the emergent field of a stable assemblage); any resolution/outcome was, therefore, something that was certain to happen sooner or later.
But “Invention gives being to what did not exist; it might never have happened… The effort of invention consists most often by raising the problem — in creating the terms by which it is stated”.
In inventing and radically reframing a problem (so that it no longer emerges) we move from the world of “it will happen sooner or later” (change-in-degree) to one of true novelty (change-in-kind).
How do we invent a problem? By co-shaping an assemblage differently to allow a novel field to emerge…
Creativity fundamentally involves the invention of “problems worth having, for worlds worth making.”
And seeing the discussion emerging around generative systems such as Chat GPT makes us all the more aware of the importance of understanding both what problems are, and how they are so radically generative of genuine novelty.
We ended one of our LinkedIn posts this week by reflecting on our mixed understanding of problems:
“The most common histories of creative practices focus on those who solved a problem and how – such as the Wright Brothers “solving” the problem of flight. But far too little attention is given to how they specifically invented the problem.
What would it be to have histories of the invention of problems?
What would it be to teach how to invent problems?”
This is our interest and what we feel is the critical skill in our very young twenty-first century.
We have written in depth about how to go about this in previous newslettters and articles, which are really worth reading and experimenting with.
OK! The sun has risen, and we are being summoned into the daylight world of work – we leave you here to keep falling in love with the problem.
Till Volume 73,
Jason and Iain
Emergent Futures Lab
We’re How You Innovate
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