TED Talks as One Night Stand

Last week, I wrote a bit about the limits and virtues of TED Talks as a vehicle for ideas that can transform how we work and live. I love TED Talks and usually find them wildly inspiring. The trick is what to do with that feeling. Where can we carry that sense of inspiration? How do we apply it?

Jim Rettew offers great insights on the nature of TED and what we should be doing with it. You should read “Are TED Talks a One Night Stand With Ideas?”

Rettew offers two essential insights for me. The Biggest Ideas are usually statements of problem rather than statements of solution. He offers Picasso’s Guernica as an example.  To be fair, Guernica is a different sort of thing than a talk, but the example gets Rettew to this statement:

Great Ideas, then, don’t merely easily please us with their immediate utility — often, they break our hearts with desperate futility; with both the aching impossibility and sure inevitability of the trials and tests of human life. But that’s precisely what makes them Great.

Which leads to Rettew’s other essential point about the TED Talks way of sharing: “It gives us the climax of epiphany, without the challenge and tension of thought.”

The habit of thinking represented by TED Talks delivers the quick thrill of insight without the underlying work of thought, reflection and bewilderment.

Rettew sees trouble not specifically with TED Talks, but rather the Ideas Industry. TED Talks are just a useful exemplar.

TED Talks are powerful, useful and generally helpful. The trouble is with the easy trust that TED Talks can create. The TED Talks website is an epiphany machine. Since viewers receive these epiphanies without the preliminary discomforts of confusion, critical thought and experience, the machine delivers the appearance of solutions as a form of entertainment. We can feel better about things because smart people have come up with great ideas. Action is not required. We aren’t asked to actually do anything.

Great Ideas, Rettew tells us, require something from us. Great Ideas require action. We are more than pundits and consumers.

As bloggers, we are part of the Ideas Industry. When I post, what is it I am doing? Am I contributing something useful that can be used to make something useful happen? Am I just a conduit for the comfort of other people’s epiphanies?

Maybe the idea of epiphany is what I am actually working with in this series of posts. The assumed belief that useful insights and solutions always arrive as epiphanies, and that progress always happens in unexpected, brilliant leaps forward.

We need those leaps sometimes, to be sure.

More often, progress comes from slow, steady application of reason, hypothesis and process of elimination.

The Idea Industry tells us that epiphanies are required to make things better. The problem is that epiphanies are not something we can count on everyone to provide. If we are going to improve things that matter, we need to get everybody into the game. We need to encourage both kinds of thinking.

Plumbing for the Next Creative Act

Yesterday I wrote about an interview Corey Doctorow gave to the Bizarre Assemblage in which he talks about how wrong-headed enforcement of copyright law interferes with creative progress. He talks about copying as the source of learning, refinement and, ultimately, improvement. Doctorow speaks on this theme a lot.

I have been carrying around this quote from that article all day: “[I]f we’re honest with ourselves, we’ll admit that everything we do is creative and everything we do becomes plumbing for the next creative act.”

This is a lovely, direct way to say a very powerful thing. Humans are creative. We create things. Being creative is what makes us unique. Current copyright law focuses very much on the need to protect fixed expressions from theft. That is not a bad impulse. People who create things deserve credit for those things. People who make a living creating things deserve fair compensation for creating those things. No argument there. The problem arrives in the overreach. We have fetishized the end product so much that we have missed the point of what we are actually doing when we create something.

The artistic products we value — the books, movies, paintings, poems, stories, pictures, drawings, performances, music — have value because they transfer ideas. New artistic works don’t spring up from nowhere. They come from previous works. They take ideas and comment on them, enlarge them, refocus them, refute them. Artistic products tell us about ourselves and tell the people who come after us about ourselves as well.

I am very, very interested in the idea that art is really just a conversation. That the point of any creative work is simply to give someone else an idea so that they can do a creative work that will give someone else an idea so that they can do a creative work and so on.

When we think of ourselves this way, the work we do, all the work we do, becomes an inspiration factory. We are always building the plumbing for the next creative act. The goal is not really to write a book or make a movie or paint a picture or write a program. The goal is to propagate our best ideas, to move the species forward by mixing thoughts and ideas in a mad foam where the best ideas can combine, survive, mutate and grow.

Biology gives the example. This isn’t a one to one transfer where you give me an idea then I give the next guy an idea. This is pollination. A mad spray of ideas, inspiration and perception which mixes together in weird, unexpected, powerful ways.

We cannot control the outcomes of our creative output. Maybe we can’t even really understand it. That’s why the impulse to control and limit creative copying is a bad thing. We are limiting ourselves before we have even had a chance to see what we are capable of doing.

Cory Doctorow: Copying is the source of creativity

Cory Doctorow is a great writer with a fascinating mind. He writes around the edges of the science fiction genre about themes like intellectual property,  information economies, informatics, censorship, and internet connectivity. If you think he sounds like a nerd, you’d be right. He’s a nerd’s nerd. I say that with great admiration.

Doctorow spent several years at the Electronic Frontier Foundation working on information policy issues related to copyright and intellectual property. Doctorow has become a powerful voice in the movement against Digital Rights Management software. DRM is the stuff that makes eBooks impossible to share or use the way you use paper-based books. DRM is the stuff that makes “owning” eBooks a fundamentally different experience than owning a paper-based book. He writes a lot about the concept of ownership and how we try to manage ideas as property.

You should read his books and essays to learn more about that.

Doctorow generally opposes the idea that piracy is an author’s worst enemy. In fact, Doctorow gives electronic copies of his books away for free in the belief that free copies increases his reading audience which, in turn, drives more sales. It seems to be working for him.

I admire Doctorow for his ability to reduce complex, abstract ideas to their essential core. He makes big ideas small enough for me to carry around with me and share with other people.

This recent interview in the Bizarre Assemblage is a great example. This is how he describes the role of copying in creative works:

 I knew even before I went to work for EFF that there really wasn’t any way that you could prevent people from copying things that they wanted to copy. And I also understood that copying was not in and of itself evil. In fact, copying is kind of the basis of humanity. You know, four billion years ago some molecules used some process that we don’t understand to figure out how to copy themselves and we are their descendants  We have a name for things that don’t copy themselves: we call them dead. So it’s pretty hard to condemn copying as wrong when everybody biologically copies all the time. And I felt like, as an artist, there was something profoundly intellectually dishonest in proclaiming what I did to be original. Obviously I do a lot of verbatim copying as an artist and my life is filled with mixed tapes and with things that I copied as part of my journey, as it were, to becoming the person I am today. But also every time I write a novel, I copy Cervantes who invented the Western novel. And every time anyone writes a detective novel, you copy Edgar Allen Poe who invented the detective novel. And it’s very tempting to say well, what I’m doing is a creative input of what those people did. But I think that’s intellectually dishonest. And I think that if we’re honest with ourselves, we’ll admit that everything we do is creative and everything we do becomes plumbing for the next creative act.

He goes on to offer great advice to young writers: Write a lot. Write everyday. Great advice from a writer who has made a creative career that matters. Read his stuff. Study it. Copy it and make it your own. By making it your own, I mean add value. If you can add value to someone else’s ideas, you are making the world better for all of us. You are making “plumbing for the next creative act”.

Does the iPhone kill creativity?

It feels good to be writing again. Earlier today, I was wondering why I ever stopped. The iPhone and iPad crossed my mind but I wasn’t quite sure how they related to my decreased creative impulse. I haven’t been lazy. Quite the opposite, I’ve been productivity obsessed. In the two years since I got my first iPhone and iPad, I’ve been busier, more productive and better informed that ever before.

In my small amount of free-time I have been Facebooking, tweeting, following RSS news feeds, setting up search builder alerts in library databases, blogging, and sharing links of interest to colleagues across the state. I have become ridiculously well-informed through the miracles of Twitter, Google Reader, Flipboard, Zite, Vodio and Instapaper. I’ve been gathering weblinks like a manic squirrel and stashing them in Evernote, Google Bookmarks, and various other digital hidey holes.

The trouble is, I haven’t been taking the time to process all of this information or wonder exactly what it is for.

The universe is often kind. I was pondering all of these things earlier today, wondering how they fit together and then I read Jay Fields’ LifeHacker post “Is Productivity Killing Your Creativity?”

Creativity requires downtime. Insights are created in the space between activities where seemingly unrelated events are casually examined and relationships are found. Fields, like me, loves his iPhone. The trouble is, the iPhone destroys downtime. The mind is hungry for information and the hand so easily reaches for the iPhone when standing in line, waiting for the bus, waiting for the kid to get dressed, whatever. The idea is that these moments between things used to be filled with free-ranging thoughts, which created the building blocks required to make new ideas. When the mind is always engaged in taking in new information, there is no time left to make anything happen with this information.

Fields writes:

I’m convinced that my iPhone was the root of my creativity issues. Life is full of ‘waiting time’ – waiting for the subway, waiting to see your doctor, waiting in the elevator, waiting in line at airport/grocery store/coffee shop, and waiting at the bar to meet your friends. Pre-iPhone I would spend this waiting time pondering anything that was troubling me. Now, I open Safari on my iPhone to see who is the latest injury on the FSU, or who’s tweeting about what (seems like it’s mostly sponsorship requests these days). I don’t spend that time thinking about anything, I spend that time reading – reading about things that have very little impact on my life, but seem to always more than fill my waiting time.

I’m not planning to surrender my iPhone, but I like Fields’ rather modest solution. He moved the attention-suckers to the second screen of his iPhone so that when he instinctively reached for the device, he had time to remind himself that he needs time to think. Fields also schedules “stare out the window time” into his day. Both of these are doable solutions.

I want to sustain habits that foster greater creativity. I still want to be ridiculously well-informed, but I need time to figure out how this information involves my life. I need time to do things with the stuff I learn.

Funny how the answers we need often arrive just when we need them. Or maybe, I’ve just slowed my mind down enough to create a relationship between two entirely unrelated events. Either way, I am feeling grateful.