A Composer and a Neuroscientist Walk into a Bar …
That’s no joke! If it were, there’d have been a third person in the bar. There’s always a third person to bear the brunt of an archetypal joke, as composer Anthony Brandt and neuroscientist David Eagleman note in their ambitious romp through the philosophy of creativity, The Runaway Species: How Human Creativity Remakes The World.
What is creativity, anyway? Edwin Land defined it as “a sudden cessation of stupidity.” Claude Shannon might have described it abstractly as a process that increases informational entropy. Quite interestingly, Shannon took time to muse on creativity in a brief speech from 1952 called “Creative Thinking.”
Brandt and Eagleman have written an exuberant book about creativity. If you were a fan of James Burke’s brilliant Connections, or perhaps of Don Norman’s ruminations on design, there’s a similarly sumptuous buffet of brain candy here on which to pig out. At the outset, Brandt and Eagleman promise they will “rifle through the inventions of human society like paleontologists ransacking the fossil record.” The examples they unearth include NASA’s stunning 1970 rescue of Apollo 13 juxtaposed with Picasso’s Bordel d’Avignon; Louis C.K. riffing on smartphones in the hands of dummies; Van Gogh and Gaugin; E.O. Wilson and Isaac Newton; Steve Jobs launching the iPhone; the Egyptian Sphinx and African mami wata; Ruppy the transgenic puppy, a Shinkansen, Wegner and tectonics, Darwin and evolution, Richard Branson and Jasper Johns and Eli Whitney and Henry Ford and Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Jony Ive and … and … It’s a dizzying barrage, designed to loosen up stale presumptions readers may have, all tethered together in about a dozen pithy essays.
This sort of book is one of many responses to the “big bang” of the digital/biological era that has us all reeling. Historians of the future will look back on this moment as the abrupt end of the beginning. And since the most important things humans make are ideas — the product of creativity — when the tools and media of ideation change so fundamentally, societies become unmoored and disoriented. In contrast with the slow grind of evolution through natural selection, we humans mostly evolve through behavior: through ideas. And all ideas begin the same way: as frail, delicate, wispy glimmers. An idea becomes durable through expression, recording, implementation, refinement, sharing. For thousands of years, ideas and analog media have coevolved in ways limited by the regimes of clay, paper, broadcast. As Winston Churchill said, “We shape our buildings and afterwards, our buildings shape us.” That profound meme was echoed by Marshall McLuhan (“The Medium is the Message”) and John Culkin (“We shaped the alphabet and it shaped us”; and “We shape our tools and thereafter they shape us”). Our coevolution with media had been steadily gathering steam.
Then — bang! — we find ourselves suddenly swept up in a digital, all-connected global village, in which ideas can be blended and shared instantaneously and infinitely, and not merely by people. Thinking machines are starting to chip in.
Historians of the future will look back on this moment as the abrupt end of the beginning.
What this mind-boggling backdrop ultimately means for the evolution of our species — and for whatever we value in human creativity — is anyone’s guess. Here’s one fear: mass global media swamps diversity, wiping out regional differences, eliminating intellectual variation that was crucial to our behavioral evolution. On this point, Brandt and Eagleman offer a favorite Ben Franklin quip: “If everyone is thinking alike, then no one is thinking.” But won’t that be the ultimate effect of mass media saturation? Especially if (or when) machine creativity outstrips human creativity?
Runaway Species skates past these sea changes, and is a book I enjoyed more for the ample icing than the cake. The confetti of examples often leaves the reader scratching her head. For instance, as one element in creativity, the authors develop the notion of breaking ideas to reassemble them in new ways. And then in just a few pages, they blitz through Seurat’s pointillism, the invention of cellular radio, the poems of e. e. cummings, Frederick Sanger’s approach to sequencing insulin and DNA, cinematic montages, John McCarthy’s notion of time-sharing in computers, David Hockney’s photo collages, Contac’s “tiny time pills,” the use of acronyms and synecdoches, Bruno Catalano’s sculptures, and David Fisher’s architecture, then pause briefly on the D major fugue in the second book of Bach’s Well Tempered Clavier. That little Bach piece is used to simply suggest that the fragmentation of a fugue’s melody into smaller chunks that are put together like mosaic tiles “gave composers like Bach a flexibility not found in folk songs such as lullabies and ballads … like the movie montages in Citizen Kane or Rocky IV.” Oh really? The problem with this disjointed didactic blizzard isn’t just that it overwhelms the underlying points. It distracts from them since there’s more to do than just scratch the surface.
For instance there’s a fleeting point about the way Monet’s many paintings of the Rouen cathedral or the Japanese bridge at Giverny represent the artist creatively “bending” a subject (another creative function), almost beyond recognition:
TILT. Among other things, this glib mention leaves out the fact that the first picture was painted by a 59-year-old Monet when he could see and paint pretty well. The other one was painted by an 82-year-old Monet, nearly blind from cataracts, using longer and fatter brushes due to farsightedness, no doubt depressingly aware that the sands of time were rapidly running out. He was struggling to make out what he was putting on the canvas. Monet’s cataracts began to substantially alter his visual perception from about age 65. At 72 he was diagnosed. At 82, Monet’s eyesight had deteriorated so badly that he finally and reluctantly underwent cataract surgery in his right eye. To say he was unhappy is, well, just look at the note he wrote to his eye surgeon:
I might have finished the Décorations which I have to deliver in April and I’m certain now that I won’t be able to finish them as I’d have liked. That’s the greatest blow I could have had and it makes me sorry that I ever decided to go ahead with that fatal operation. Excuse me for being so frank and allow me to say that I think it’s criminal to have placed me in such a predicament.
After the surgery, his left eye remained blocked by a dense, yellow cataract and could not see blues or violets. But his right eye could see those colors clearly. He complained constantly about his glasses, but at age 84 he got a new pair that made him somewhat happier. After he could see somewhat clearly again, his colors and some of his finesse were restored. By some accounts, he was chagrined when he finally saw what he had actually painted in the years of cataracts, and he destroyed dozens and dozens of canvases he felt were inferior. But what really burned his bacon was the fact that an emerging young generation of painters was mimicking the style of late Monet, unaware they’d been copying a nearly blind artist. So was Monet simply “bending” the bridge scene into two different paintings? The painterly bending might be due to creative artistry, or failing eyesight, or a change in seasons, or maybe just running out of blue paint. It seems kind of a shame to say “Check out this pair of Monet paintings” and then move right along.
Given the authors’ breeziness, this tendency is inevitable. I try to enjoy it as a feature that piques one’s curiosity, even when it obscures any underlying arguments. Runaway Species doesn’t leave the reader feeling bruised and battered and in a state of shock, as I was after reading McLuhan’s Understanding Media. And it delivers little of the satisfaction of a well-wrought tale that ends with a zinger of a denouement, an approach at which James Burke excels. But as a celebration of creativity, the reward of devouring Brandt and Eagelman’s smorgasbord is that so much of it really is fascinating, even if it leaves you dizzy and hungry for more. All of which reminds me of my favorite quip attributed to Ben Franklin: “When you’re finished changing — you’re finished.”
Michael Hawley is a musician and computer scientist who has worked in such creative industrial settings as Bell Labs, NeXT, Lucasfilm, and the MIT Media Lab. He is the director of the Entertainment Gathering conference, known as EG.