Wednesday, 11 October 2017

On creativity

I wrote here about how there are thought to be essentially only three ways in which several things can be related or connected: resemblance, contiguity in time or space, and cause or effect.

Creativity is often talked about as making connections between disparate things. For example, Steve Jobs told Wired in 1996 that "Creativity is just connecting things."

But is making connections the only way we can be creative?

A recent article by Dan Jones in Nature, reviewing three books on creativity, suggests not - depending on what you define as a "thing".

In their book The Runaway Species: How Human Creativity Remakes the World, Jones says, David Eagleman and Anthony Brandt "trace the roots of creative thinking to three key mental skills: bending, breaking and blending".

Clearly blending involves connecting two things, but what about bending and breaking? I would say these don't, or at least not if we want to look at things in the most fruitful way.

As an example of creative bending, Jones cites architect Frank Gehry's warping of the lines and planes of buildings into waves and curves (see also Zaha Hadid). Now, you could frame this as connecting unbent buildings with any of a number of things that cause the building to bend, for example: mechanical stresses; the concept that curves are beautiful; or even, to get meta about things, the suggestion that bending is a key skill at the root of creativity.

(The bending doesn't have to be physical, btw: Jones also cites Einstein's bending of how we look at the fabric of the universe with his theories of relativity. )

But this seems silly: to say that something has been connected with the idea that it would be better off bent is an unhelpfully roundabout way of saying it was bent.

Likewise breaking, which Jones exemplifies with cubist painting, also seems better thought of as a standalone process.

So it does seem that creativity is not just connecting things, as Jobs asserted: it can also be purposeful, novel changing of a single existing thing.

Indeed, it seems to me that Eagleman and Brandt have (or perhaps Jones has) overlooked various other kinds of creative changing - for example, of colour, texture, size, proportion, orientation, stiffness and surface contiguity (say, whether or not something is perforated).

So are these two subsets of creativity (connecting and changing) exhaustive - do we now have a complete taxonomy of creativity?

Jones goes on to talk about another book, Mario Livio's Why?: What Makes Us Curious. This, according to Jones, says that curiosity, and subsequently creativity, is piqued by novelty, complexity, uncertainty and conflict. So what mechanisms does creativity piqued by these prompts act through?

It occurs to me that each of these four things can be not only properties inherent to a thing one is presented with, but also properties that one can oneself introduce to a thing. Could this introduction in itself be a creative act?

Clearly bringing something into conflict entails connecting it to something else, so that's already part of our taxonomy. But what about making something more novel, more/less complex or more/less certain? Can any of these things be done without connecting something to something else, or without changing it in a way that isn't better described as simply twisting, bending, snapping it, etc?

Is, say, the solving of a complex mental problem best characterised as a creative mechanism in itself or as an abstract form of straightening / unravelling - i.e. changing?

(Holy shit. I was going to ask whether problem solving might also be better thought of as an abstract form of rearranging multiple tangled strands, and that made me realise that not only can single things be creatively changed but so too - duh - can the connections between connected things. Hence that's a third type of creativity right there, or a combination of the two primary types, if you prefer.)

Likewise, can something be made more/less certain without adding or removing something else to or from it? (Removing might seem to be another creative category, but following my holy shit moment about changing connections in the above paragraph, I'm going to lump the removal of a connection in with other changes to connections, or bracket disconnecting with connecting.)

I'm not sure, and this post is getting a bit long, so let's end by summarising:

Creativity is not just connecting. Creativity includes changing, which is more than just bending, breaking and blending; it includes connecting, which seems to be limited to likening, bringing into proximity, and affecting; it includes changing connections or disconnecting; and it might also include other things.

To be continued...

No comments:

Post a Comment