Saturday, December 24, 2005

Meta-Snooping: Tag -- You're It

Lots of hue-and-cry about the Bush administration and the NSA doing various spy stuff to catch terrorists before they terrorize. Lot's of drama on both sides: "We need these tools to catch terrorists." "You're trampling on people's rights." "Would you rather have a repeat of 9/11?" "I'd rather have my prviace!"

Not going to get into it here.

What I am going to get into is a really, really interesting line in a NYT article (not sure if you need to be a subscriber anymore) about the latest "data mining" that the NSA is doing. I'm going to summarize and quote from it heavily r.e. my points (big surprise, there, eh?), so don't worry too much.

The basic gist is that the NSA has been working with various telecommunications companies to get their switch data in order to analyze traffic patterns to help identify possible terrorist activities. Here's a quote (emphasis mine):

A former technology manager at a major telecommunications company said that since the Sept. 11 attacks, the leading companies in the industry have been storing information on calling patterns and giving it to the federal government to aid in tracking possible terrorists.

"All that data is mined with the cooperation of the government and shared with them, and since 9/11, there's been much more active involvement in that area," said the former manager, a telecommunications expert who did not want his name or that of his former company used because of concern about revealing trade secrets.

Such information often proves just as valuable to the government as eavesdropping on the calls themselves, the former manager said.

"If they get content, that's useful to them too, but the real plum is going to be the transaction data and the traffic analysis," he said. "Massive amounts of traffic analysis information - who is calling whom, who is in Osama Bin Laden's circle of family and friends - is used to identify lines of communication that are then given closer scrutiny."

Got that? The content itself is "useful," but the "real plum" is the "transaction data and the traffic analysis." In other words, the metadata (the tags) and the knowledge management.

Let's have one more quote:

Historically, the American intelligence community has had close relationships with many communications and computer firms and related technical industries. But the N.S.A.'s backdoor access to major telecommunications switches on American soil with the cooperation of major corporations represents a significant expansion of the agency's operational capability, according to current and former government officials.

And one last one:

Phil Karn, a computer engineer and technology expert at a major West Coast telecommunications company, said access to such switches would be significant. "If the government is gaining access to the switches like this, what you're really talking about is the capability of an enormous vacuum operation to sweep up data," he said.

The government's position is that since they're not really listening to the conversations -- the content, the data itself -- it's not really an invasion of privacy. It's not snooping. They don't need a warrant. They're just looking for "patterns."

Er... well... just so we're clear, these neat little dots on the screen you're looking at are just patterns. Just recognizable bits of electrons in a slightly more coherent order than the ones around them, as far as your eyeballs and brain are concerned. Voices modulate the air in wave patterns. The gun in my sock drawer is part of a complex patter. Etc. All that crazy stuff.

The assumption is, I believe, that once an official has sufficient metadata to make a decision (i.e., "these are bad guys") that he will then obtain proper warrants, do the due dilligence, get the white hats, and go in and stop the bad things from happening. So purpose of the collection of metadata is to then gain data and then use that to make knowledge decisions which will have real world (hopefully positive) consequences; classic learning theory. Which is all good.

Same as how we use eBay to search for deals on kids clothes. Follow the simile:

  • eBay stores price/product metadata; NSA stores call metadata

  • eBay and NSA both perform sorting/storing operations

  • Customers (eBay = public, NSA = government) scan metadata

  • Customers make decisions based on metadata

  • Customers take virtual action (eBay = order online, NSA = initiate warrants)

  • Real world consequences (eBay = you get Pooh onesy, NSA = arrests made)

Again... it's all good. Right? Using metadata to make knowledge decisions about content and actions.

Except on eBay, nobody's storing metadata about my kids' clothes without my consent.

Oops. I just "got into it" a bit, didn't I?

Allright. I'm backing off. I don't really want to get political. But I do want to make the point that metadata is just as much a piece of information about you as is the data which it informs. Think about the following questions:

  • How much did you pay for that car?

  • How old are you?

  • What do you weigh?

  • What's your salary?

  • Do you color your hair?

  • What kind of perscription drugs do you take?

All those questions feel like data questions, don't they? Real questions. Questions that, it many contexts, you wouldn't want to have to necessarily have to answer.

Are they data questions or metadata questions? Well... it depends on whom you ask, what kind of system you querry, what the fields in the database are, what the key fields are and how you perform the search. And if the questions are:

  • Who did you talk to on the phone?

  • How long did you talk to them for?

  • What times did the calls start and end?

  • Who did they call right afterwards?

  • Where were you when you made the calls?

Those questions are all metadata questions from a telco standpoint. The data itself -- the phone call, the words you spoke -- is encoded in the voice traffic. Right? But is that the whole message? How much of what you do, say, buy, earn, eat, live, smoke, dope, etc. is data, and how much is meta?

I'm going to go out on a limb here and warp the most famous quote from one of my heroes, Marshall McLuhan:

The meta is the message

So... if the government can tag you... that's the same as a tap.

And... Tag -- You're it.

UPDATE: John Battelle's Searchblog has a good post on the NYT's story, too. Read the comments as well. As we've seen in the general discussions in the news, there are lots of folks who don't mind their privacy being infringed... yet.

Sunday, December 18, 2005

Copyright. Copywrong. Content. Value. Biscuits.

What do you own?

What value to I add to work that I comment on? What value to I add to things that I own when I comment on them based on work that I don't? When is art a stand-alone proposition? When does it rely on the consensus of society? When does a conversation become content? When can I stop asking rhetorical questions and start this actual post?

A recent article in Wired addressed a situation that we all need to think about. Yes, even you, Stan. Put down your paintball videogame and think about copyright issues, software development, open source, art, creativity and the Web. Yes... you can eat a biscuit with honey on it while you think about these things [Stan is a ferocious multi-tasker, is Stan].

The basic gist of this article is that a fairly small outfit (basically a bright guy named Walter Ritter) invented software that helped people find songs they liked based on the lyrics of other songs they liked. Cool, hunh? It worked with iTunes, and Apple even linked to it from their official site.

But (cue Darth Vader's theme), it could be used as part of your illegal scheme to download and copy music illegally. And so Warner Chappell Music (who have more money than God), sent Ritter a cease-and-desist. They also sent one to Apple. Apple ceased and desisted. Guess what Ritter (basically a bright guy out on his own) did? Yup. He ceased and desisted, too. He didn't want to get sued into a small black chunk of smoking, bituminous coal for distributing software that furthered music piracy. So he stopped.

Which is bad. Because his software, which was cool and useful, has nothing whatsoever to do with piracy. Except inasmuch as pirates could use it to help them identify lyrics to songs they wanted to pirate. Much in the same way that murderers can use binoculars to identify victims and counterfeiters use paper to make fake money.

Now, normally... The story would stop there. But in a strange, almost "Bizzaro World" (links  1 2 3 ) reversal, Warner/Chappell has appologized to Ritter. They may let him post his software again. They may (dare I type the words)... "get it."

What do you want to own?

A great economic philosopher (it may have been me, back when I was still drinking) once said, "Wealth is a measurement of excess food." What I meant by that (if I said it; if I didn't, then what I understand it to mean), is that wealth is everything that's left over once you take care of necessities. So...

Stan owns his biscuit outright. Damn straight, Stan. That biscuit is so yours, I don't even want to talk about it. Especially after you eat it, it is really, really yours. 110% Stan's biscuit. All the way, buddy. Pride of place. You go.

One the other end of the spectrum -- I think -- are "nebulosities." Stuff that's so vague that we can't really say whether or not it's even ownable. For example, pride. Do I own my pride? Can you buy it from me? Can I give it away? Can I rent it to some dude from Pittsburgh for the weekend who needs to confront his girlfriend about her loud, overbearing friends? Nope. Other nebulous stuff that may not be "ownable" could include talent, love, honesty, time, attention, good taste, terror, rhythm, beauty and farfegnugen.

I'm going to get arguments on "time," I know. Since, ostensibly, we all "own" our time and sell it every day at work. But I don't think that's really true. Whether we go to work or not, time passes. If I work hard or not, time passes. If I "add value" or jerk my company around and steal office supplies, time passes. It's not mine to sell. Anyway...

On one end is stuff that we can be said to literally and truly own. My head. My hair. My biscuit and honey. I bought it, I inherited it, I grew it, I won it on "The Price is Right," I traded for it on eBay... whatever. Stuff. It's mine. If you take it, you're a thief and I can sue your ass and either get it back, and/or put you in jail. Nyah. So there.

But what about content? Said age of which we are purportedly in, says the blogger. What about our pesky thoughts? Since most content is, essentially, ephemera, it is much harder to pin down than real estate, bicycles, wigs or biscuits.

What content do you want own?

I'm repeating myself, I know. But marketing gurus are always telling us that you must repeat something three times before people actually see/hear it.

What do I own? From whence comes my wealth?

And an even better question: Why do I care?

I am forever bugging my students (and was forever bugging my marketing clients and former client/readers in my legal marketing days) to drill down to the "root why" of a situation. "We need to run an ad!" Somebody says. "Why?" you should ask. "To drive sales of the new product!" Ask yourself, "Why?" again. Keep asking "Why?" until you get to one of the root goals of your business, which is usually the provision of value to stockholders; i.e., profit. Most businesses are built on three fundamental "Why"s: owner profit, customer value and employee satifaction. Screw the pooch on any of those three, and you're dead. Fail to link any process to any one of those, and you're wasting time.

Meanwhile, back at my point...

Why should you care what you own? What's the point of aquiring wealth? Remember -- wealth is what Stan's got after he takes care of all his biscuits, bedclothes and bicycles. And why, especially, should you care if you own

a thought.

For example, the thought: 1-4-5

Three numbers in a row. Big deal. But if you write them: I - IV - V

Many musicians will know that you're talking about a basic blues progression; twelve-bar blues, usually. Play that on a piano or guitar, and it will sound very familiar to you. The basis for hundreds, if not thousands, of blues, rock, jazz and other pop songs. Same thing with the "Bo Diddly" riff; a particular set of chords and a specific rhythm that's been used in bunches of songs over the years.

Again, patient reader, I assume you are asking me to get to the freakin' point.

It is simply this: what would have happened to music had somebody copyrighted I-IV-V or the peculiar, "bump-diddy-bump-diddy... bump-bump" of the Bo Diddly riff?

And here's the next thought in the chain. When you buy a piece of content -- a book, video, song, legal opinion, ticket to a sporting event, whatever -- what part of it do you own?

What do you own when you buy content?

Clearly you DO own the right to enjoy it yourself in the medium provided. Clearly you DO NOT own the right to profit from the retooling or redistribution of the exact medium you purchased in a way that robs the copyright owner of value.

So we've got two book-ends; the "nobody will argue with these two ends of the spectrum" goal posts. Listening to music I purchased on a CD on that CD is fine. Making a copy for my own specific use on a casette tape is also OK. Selling that tape to somebody else? Not OK. Giving it away is also not OK. We're clear on that, eh?

It's all the stuff in the middle that's weird. And it's because ideas are so fluid. Because creativity and content feed on freedom the way Stan feeds on biscuits. For example:

Let's say I write a song. I own the copyright of the lyrics and the music. If you want to perform that song for money, you need to pay me a royalty. That's fair. But what if you want to perform it for free? Well... then you don't. But to learn that song, you need to buy sheet music. Right? Which makes me some money. So... wait... you don't need sheet music? Because you just listen to the song at your friend's house (who paid for the CD) over and over and keep practicing on your guitar until you can do the song on your own.

And then you perform it for free. And I, as the copyright holder, get nothing. No remuneration. Nada. And you... by performing my wildly popular song, you gain credence (maybe even mojo) with those young hipsters who love my crafty tunes. You begin to get followers. Groupies. Hangers-on. A posse, perhaps. And, eventually, you begin to get offers to be paid for your own music. Which nobody was originally interested in.

All because you learned to play my song that you never paid me jack for.


Of course it is. Because, at the same time, you were spreading the meme of my song. If you believe -- even for a moment -- that the playing of my song helped you get famous, then the reverse must be true; that the playing of my song was good for me, too. Because as your fame grew, so would the value of people hearing you play my tune.

Content is not a fixed asset. When you sing a song, it doesn't get "un-sung" somewhere else. It's not like Stan's biscuit. Just because Stan sings "The Long and Winding Road," doesn't mean I don't want to anymore. In fact, the more people who sing it, the more people may want to sing it. Content is more like fire than like grain.

What scares so many of the people involved in the production of various content media is that the pace of change in the technologies surrounding distribution of those media is rendering the meaning of "value" porous.

For example -- books. I love books. L-L-L-Love 'em. All kinds of books. Hardcover, paperback, old, new, fiction, non-fiction, antique, glossy, paper and eBooks. But, in the past, very little of the payment that readers forked over for books went to the content creators; the authors. Because the process of finding, proofing, editing, printing, publishing, shipping, stocking, shelving and selling books is hugely expensive. And writing a book, frankly, isn't.

But now... after all the writing is done... I can push a book at you for roughly...


What do you own when you buy a book?

Do you own the paper? Do you own the words? Do you own the right to read it out loud to your kids? How many times? Can you read it out loud at the library? What about in school? Can you loan it to friends? Can you resell it? Can you sell tickets to folks for them to hear you read it?

Do you own the thoughts?

I've bought dozens of marketing and business books. Many of them have very similar thoughts. Could any of the authors sue the others? I don't know. I doubt it. Most of the "thoughts" are basic, old-school marketing fundamentals, often dressed up in new metaphors and funny anecdotes.

I've read dozens of fantasy novels. Many of them have very similar plots. Same question... Same answer.

Monks used to have to copy out books one at a time. It used to be that very few people could read. Now, just about everybody can read. And information flows from a couple hundred million Web sites in billions of page hits a day. And it keeps changing and growing and getting more interesting and funkier all the time, what with RSS and wikis and tagging and wireless and the semantic web and Web 2.0...

Marshall McLuhan said "The medium is the message." That means more than you think it does. We'll do a whole rant (or 12) on that one at some point. But we're going to be "post-McLuhan" pretty soon. We're going to be "post-medium." Content will be without borders. Those businesses and entities that make the mistake that Warner/Chappell did -- trying to get between people and ideas -- will lose. Because someone else will open the gate.

Content's not grain, people. It's not even water. It's fire. It doesn't need to be portioned out. And if you try to control it, you will get burned. Your best bet? Feed the flames, baby. The bigger the bonfire, the farther away they can see it, and the more hotdogs you can cook.

People will always pay for good content. And you shouldn't stop trying to bring down the real pirates. But we need to get beyond the idea of "owning" content the same way we "own" biscuits.

Friday, December 9, 2005

Great Truth... Bunny Style

No deep thoughts right now. I've been down with some kind of plague for three days and the deepest thought I'm capable of is, "Yes... the tree can go in a different room this year."

This site is just fun, smart and good. Check it out. Many fine tips from the bunny at Brian's Guide.

The one to the left (you know... the one you're looking at right now) is my favorite. Made me laugh my tuchus off. If you don't know why, see this. Warning to anyone over the age of 9 and those with a Y-chromosome; you may need sunglasses and Zanex to view the site properly.

If you don't know what a tuchus is, see this.

Thanks to
Hazelfaern for the pointer.

Tuesday, December 6, 2005

"It's All in Your Head, I Guess."

My day job is working as Manager of Creative Services at OCLC, the Online Computer Library Center. One night a week I teach a class on the history of advertising at the Columbus College of Art and Design (CCAD). CCAD is a liberal arts college for art students. They have an advertising major for students who want to use their skills to go on to become designers at ad agencies, in marketing departments, in merchandising, etc.

Two weeks ago, I was talking to a couple of the kids about gaming -- several of them have played World of Warcraft, which I played for a few months back last year -- and I mentioned that I was also starting to look more deeply into Second Life. I dropped out of WoW because my favorite part of gaming is being the Game Master (often called Dungeon Master, DM or GM). In Wow, the opportunities for true role-playing on the part of players are kinda slim, since all the raw content is developed by the programmers. You can stay in character, you can form a guild, you can team up with buddies... but in the end... you're an actor, and they (the game company) are the writers/designers/directors. That's not a bad thing. It's just not what I'm as interested in.

So I've been checking out Second Life. It is less of a game and more of a "platform" or a system. The publishers provide a "world" and the tools to interact with it:

  • an in-game 3D modeling system

  • clothing/skin modifcations based on Photoshop / Paintshop files

  • character animations based on Poser

  • object programming via a dedicated scripting language similar to Java

You create an account and an avatar and start running around in the "game," called SL by most of the players. You can interact with other players via chat and IM. You can build stuff using any of the tools I mentioned above and sell them using an in-game economy based on Linden Dollars (LD) that are exchangeable for $USD. Quite a few folks are making good money by doing stuff in SL that other players find valuable: buying, improving and reselling plots of land; creating houses and other structures; crafting clothes and tattoos; programming games, objects and inhuman avatars; designing more realistic avatars and character animations; providing in-game services, including dancing, gambling, hosting of events.

When I told my students about this, a couple scoffed at the idea of paying real money to dress up, house or otherwise improve the life of your avatar. Which led to a wee rant on my part.

We'd just spent a whole semester going over American advertising, and how to look for certain trends that can be seen to have "flowed" through almost a century of marketing. We've looked at scores of print, TV and radio ads and sought common psychological, artistic and marketing devices. We've examined the "wisdom" of pundits who have claimed -- at various times since the 1850's -- that "everything is going to hell in a handbasket" and that "it's all so different." When, in fact, many of the same themes, ideas and tricks that worked in the 19th century are still working today.

So I told them I was a bit disappointed to hear them poking fun at a new kind of entertainment media without really thinking about it.

"How," I asked them, "is playing a character in an online world different -- in any significant way -- from reading a fiction book?"

No response. Which isn't unusual. The class starts at 6:45 pm and most of them are either starving, dying to go to bed or both.

"Come on," I prodded. "You pay good money for a hard-cover fiction book. $17 on Amazon for the new Harry Potter. All that does is put a bunch of pretend characters in your head. Ones you have no control over. In SL you can talk to people. Create things. Build a house. Make friends. Learn about programming, scripting, animation and 3D modeling. You can improve your social skills. You can learn to be a game master. You can be the other gender. You can flirt. You can earn money. $17 will buy you almost 2 months worth of time in-game on SL. How long does it take to read a Harry Potter hardcover?"

More silence. One of them finally agreed that there wasn't much of a difference. Her response, "It's all in your head, I guess."

One of the best library blogs out there, The Shifted Librarian, is covering a symposium on gaming in libraries. Do yourself a favor and check it out. Lots of good comments about gaming and how it interacts with the world of books, information, libraries, literacy, society, etc. One of my favorite OCLC people, George Needham, is on a couple of the panels and has some good comments, too.

The reason I bring up the "Gaming in Libraries" symposium is that it mirrors my conversation with my students, and many thoughts I've been having about where we're headed with the confluence of content, social interaction, games, role-playing and education.

Stephen King, in his book "On Writing" says that writing is essentially telepathy. The writer projects his/her thoughts into the reader, across boundaries of space and time. I agree. But if that's the case, then email is telepathy, too. And so is IM. And the phone. And WoW. And SL. And the sharing of tags in Technorati and

All these ways of putting my thoughts into your head. And getting yours back. Read my book. Join my dark elf guild. Buy a Photoshop tatto I made for your avatar. Give me good feedback on eBay.

Reply to this post.

It's all in our heads, I guess.

And if you're determined to be a creative type... ain't that a happy, happy thought?

I love this stuff. Love it. Love it. Love it. I just have to remind myself (as I tried to do with my students, and as the folks at the gaming symposium are trying to do for their libraries) to keep my head as wide open as possible.

Saturday, December 3, 2005

Google Axon. Advertising Dopamine.

OK. Bear with me. This will take awhile to get where I'm going.

Giant, long introduction to the point I'll get around to making eventually...

Alan Turing -- who invented the idea of the modern computer (sometimes called a "Turing Machine"), and whose first real stab at which is shown here -- basically said that given a recording medium big enough, and enough time, you could record and solve any problem that could be stated clearly. That's a gross oversimplification, but it'll do for my modest blog.

Last October, we hit the 60th anniversary of John von Neumann's initial proposal for the "universal computing machine" -- i.e., the computer. Von Neumann took Turing's ideas and turned them into a reality -- a machine that could process different equations, rather than solving only one. A programmable computer, that is. The first use for which was to work on the equations for the atomic bomb.

60 years ain't a very long time, and look what we've got today?

George Dyson has written two really interesting articles, one called Turing's Cathedral and one called The Universal Library that deal with how far we've come since Turing's initial thoughts on the subject, and where we're headed; specifically with regards to what Google, and Internet search in general, is doing with our "thoughts" on the Web.

Dyson does a good -- and admirably brief -- job of describing the history of how Turing  and von Neumann's ideas have gotten us to modern computing, the Web and Google.  But I want to pull out a couple passages in order to make a point.

First:Google is building a new, content-addressable layer overlying the von Neumann matrix underneath. The details are mysterious but the principle is simple: it's a map. And, as Dutch (and other) merchants learned in the sixteenth century, great wealth can be amassed by Keepers of the Map.

OK. So Google is mapping the Web. Big deal. We knew that. I've heard the metaphor before, and ain't really surprised to hear it again. I'm not sure I buy it, as a map is fixed, and search results change, not just based on criteria, but daily, based on changes to the data landscape. But Dyson goes on to talk about the three types of computing calculations that can be done, and how most computers are built to deal with "computable problems;" those with questions that can be easily asked and solved (if not easily solved, at least being predictably solveable). The second type, "non-computable problems" have questions that can be asked, but where we know we have no way to solve them.

The third type are most interesting, most fecund, and most appropriate for creative types like us:

...questions whose answers are, in principle, computable, but that, in practice, we are unable to ask in unambiguous language that computers can understand.

The example he gives is the question, "What makes something look like a cat?" A child can draw a circle, six lines and a couple dots, and almost anyone will say, "That's a nice cat." But to get a finite answer that would distinguish that solution from, say, "What makes something look like a mouse," would be very hard. In this case, as Dyson puts it:

A solution finds the problem, not the other way around. The world starts making sense, and the meaningless scribbles (and a huge number of neurons) are left behind. This is why Google works so well. All the answers in the known universe are there, and some very ingenious algorithms are in place to map them to questions that people ask. (emphasis mine)

And at this point, while reading his essay, my brain had a "Rubix Cube" moment. Which is what I call it when various things all start twisting around and reassembling in a different array than they were a few moments ago. I'm not saying all the colors line up (in my brain, sometimes the yellow side and green side do, but rarely any more than that), but something certainly changes.

I studied some child psychology and development in school. Not much. Just a few courses. But I do remember that the human brain starts out with lots more open neual pathways than it ends up with. Babies have (if I remember correctly) something like 10-times as many neural connections as adults. As they grow and learn and try to do things, certain pathways become strengthened -- i.e., "putting spoon in mouth to get food" beats out "putting spoon in ear to get food" and the latter set of neural paths eventually dies out.

[Aside: we also learned that the part of the brain responsible for processing the "don't do that!" response to painful activities is the same part that processes the response to trying do do things in a new way after all those initial, baby-to-youngster, extra neural pathways have died out. That is, our response to change is physiologically very similar to our response to pain. We don't want to do things that might hurt us, and we don't want to do things in a new way, because it might hurt us. My prof explained that this is a survival mechanism; if you do things in the way you've done them before, it probably won't kill you, because it hasn't already. Problem is, from a creativity standpoing, doing the same thing might as well be death.]

Dyson goes on to talk about machine intelligence, the possibility that Google may be the basis for the first worldwide artificial intelligence, dogs and cats living together... mass hysteria. OK. Not those last two. But, while I think it's interesting and, as a sci-fi fan, not boring or laughable, AI is not something innately predictable or that I want to focus on.

I do, however, want to focus on the idea that Google is providing a worldwide brain already. Not an intelligence, per se. But a digital analog (I love saying that) to the physical, juicy meat and chemicals that make up our own grey matter and allow us to process our own biological questions, searches, answers and thoughts.

For the love of Pete, Havens... Get to the point.

OK. OK. Calm down. Here's the point.

I have a friend at work whom I respect very much. She's one of our web team managers. Loves wikis (as do I), but hates blogs. Because, to her, they are, basically, unrestrained "thoughts," posted to the Web. I'm paraphrasing her, but she finds most of what she reads on blogs to be drivel.

As do I. But I love blogs. Why?

Because they let everyone post their drivel, and some of that drivel ain't drivel to me. I don't care about the 9,000,000 teens who are blogging on what they wore to the blah blah blah. Or about many entertainment blogs. Or about hundreds of millions of other blogs out there. But I care what John Battelle says abourt search. And I care what Bill Ives says about KM. And I care what my friend Jenn writes in her poetry.

Again, I hear you say, "Get on with it. What's the point here? That everybody likes different stuff on the Web? We knew that."

Yes, but...

If Google, by searching the Web in finer and finer increments -- and, more recently, printed materials and other media -- provides a methodology for me to determine which thoughts (for words, which are mostly what we're searching for and through, are thoughts) out there are going to help me be more productive, creative, happy, healthy, etc... then isn't Google acting as a kind of meta brain, by which everyone will be connected to those thoughts?

I'm not positing artificial intelligence here. I'm not imagining some great, Ozymandian force, rising up under the Google campus and causing us to buy more porn, redo our mortgages and connect with classmates. I'm theorizing that this "new brain" is making the aggregate cognitive abilities of everyone connected to it more... something.

Faster? Happier? Productive? Worried? Distracted? Creative?

I'm not sure yet. Some people I know are very distracted by the Web. I know I can be. Some are very empowered in their jobs and personal life and hobbies. There's so much more that we can know in a few seconds or minutes than we could even a few years ago at all, or in a time span that was prohibitive. And it keeps getting better. Or at least faster, more, funkier, distractiver, etc.

Was that the big point?

Almost. Sort of. Yeah. In brief:

  1. Google (and search in general) is a way to connect our thoughts across time and distance

  2. Tools like blogs and wikis allow more people to put thoughts out there.

  3. As Dyson says, providing a robust manner to search a "von Neumann matrix" (the Web) in a random fashion is a good way to solve the "third kind" of logic problem; i.e., rather than try to program a computer to answer the asked question, "What does a cat look like?" you search the Web for decriptions or pictures of cats until you have an idea in your head that satisfies your personal contextual need.

  4. By searching others' thoughts, we find ways to use them to solve our own problems

  5. By posting our thoughts, we incrementally improve the matrix (i.e., we help the Web "learn")

But here's an ancillary point.

How appropriate is it that advertising is Google's "dopamine" in this "big brain" metaphor?

I know, I know. The big search window isn't "advertising supported." The "natural" search results are based on some insanely complex calculations that are based on key words, inbound links, how often your page changes, etc. etc. That being said, Google pays for all that with advertising. That and that being said, many of the best "natural" links are buoyed by SEO strategy that is, essentially, advertising (or at least marketing) supported.

In our metaphor, then: advertising/marketing = positive neural reinforcement.

Which is true in reality when we examine how the Web works. Those sites that are visited more often are more likely to survive. More traffic equates to either more revenue -- for commercial sites, that's the definition of life -- or more interest. If you have readers, sponsors, friends, authors, contributors... whatever... your site will be much more likely to flourish than if you have fewer.

I'm not saying that the model is bad. I use Google a couple dozen times a day at least. It's a great tool. Once you learn about how to narrow and expand your searches, you can get around a lot of the crap that's force-fed by SEO "strategies." But I am saying that if we're going to have a global brain that's going to help us connect to each other's thoughts, maybe we need to be thinking about what the chemical is that stimulates that brain.

Because, if we work the metaphor backwards, an advertising model might be akin to a lima bean advertiser telling your kid, "I'll give you a dollar to stick your fork full of peas in your ear," every time he's trying to eat peas.

Wednesday, November 30, 2005

White Elephant Blog -- This is what the Internet is for

John Moore, who writes for and edits the excellent Brand Autopsy site/blog, has started a seasonal spot called The White Elephant Blog.

This is what the Internet is for.

No, this is not one of my stupid metaphors. I'm being perfectly literal.

OK, yes, it's also one of my stupid metaphors. But I'm also being literal. I love that John took the scant couple of hours it now requires to set up a decent looking blog in order to pay homage to a wonderful little cubicle-land festivity.

The White Elephant Party should be honored. It should be satirized. It should be blogged. It should be commented on. All at the same time. Somebody needed to do it. The Internet is where we should be doing it. I don't have a campfire. And if I did, the nice gal in the next cube (Hi, Heather!) would make me put it out.

What I got is the Web. And blogs.

So pass the s'mores, and tell John and co. about your White Elephant experiences.

Thanks, John, for moving the ball forward again.

Sunday, November 20, 2005

Coke, Campbells and Content DNA

In 1979, Coke aired a commercial where a tiny, young, Caucasian boy approached an enormous, African American football player to congratulate him on a great game. After initially rebuffing the kid somewhat gruffly, the player -- Mean Joe Green -- swigs a Coke that the boy hands him in a long series of gulps, and then, made friendly (one assumes by the tingly, sweet concoction), calls the kid back and throws him his jersey. The kid shouts, "Thanks, Mean Joe!" and they share a nice moment. All courtesy of Coke.

Somewhat standard American advertising fare, sure. But it struck a nerve in the American public's mind at the time, for whatever reason. Maybe it was the contrast in size between the two -- the kid couldn't have weighed 60 lbs. soaking wet. Maybe it was that the sugar water "melted" Mean Joe's heart (I'd been told by Mr. Frost, my 7th grade Social Studies teacher that Coke could dissolve rust off a bicycle chain, so I suppose that melting an NFL player's heart is no big deal). Maybe it was a nice moment in race relations. Maybe it was a combination of all of these, or just a really well written and well shot ad.

Whatever the reason, the commercial proved so popular, that it was turned into a made-for-tv-movie, "The Steeler and the Pittsburgh Kid."

I am not kidding. They made a movie based on a TV commercial. That's why I included the IMDB link in the preceeding paragraph. To prove it to you. When I have this conversation live, I often get the, "No freakin' way," response. Here in cyberspace, I can put my hyperlink where my mouth is.

I use this event to date the beginning of the wonderful weirdness of modern genetic content mutation.

Yes, I know. Books were made into movies and plays and musicals long before 1981. Same for songs. In fact, I'm tempted to go back and revise my date to 1976, and to the making of the movie, "Ode to Billy Joe," based on the 1967 Bobbie Gentry song of the same title. I'm tempted... but I'm not going to. "Ode to Billy Joe," is weird, yes. But songs have had stories in them, well... forever. The leap of creative evolution to take one and turn it into a movie doesn't quite do it for me in terms of calling it "mutation."

Turning a commercial into a movie though... yeah, baby... that's a mutant love child.

Was the TV movie "The Steeler and the Pittsburgh Kid" a good film? Hellll no. That's not the point. The point is that, as Forest Gump's mama might say, "Content is as content does."

If you create something that causes an effect... it can live in other media. It can mutate and change and have a effect elsewhere, if you know how to take out the pieces of the DNA that can live in another environment. Or, as I like to ask my students, "How can you put that on a T-shirt?"

I don't mean that statement literally, of course. Usually.

Andy Warhol saw pop and commercial culture as art. Ba-da-bing. Before that, pop and commercial culture had borrowed from the world of fine art, but had rarely been seen as art per se. Why not? Because the worlds of "art" and "business" were kept apart by people who stood to gain from doing so in most cases, either monetarily, psychologically or culturally. I don't mean this as harsh criticism, though it comes out as such. It's an anthropological fact, and not a judgement -- people look at the segments of the society they are given and are hard-pressed to de-segment them. Church = religion. School = education. Home = family. Art = culture. Business = economics. You play on the playground, you drive on the freeway. The white zone is for the loading and unloading of passengers only.

The problem for artists, writers, marketers and other creators, is... this kind of thinking is linear and predictable. It leads to the same place it started, often with the same results. And the same results are... well... boring. And boring is the enemy of creativity.

Mean Joe Green and Andy Warhol. Keep them in mind when you try to think of new ways to put your stuff on a T-shirt.

Wednesday, November 16, 2005

Peter F. Drucker: Creativity at its best

Peter Ferdinand Drucker
November 19, 1909 - November 11, 2005

You owe it to yourself to bookmark Nova Spivak's "Minding the Planet" blog on its own merits -- he's always interesting and often highly creative. But you also should check out this post in particular, because in it Nova speaks very candidly and with great feeling about the life, and recent death of his grandfather, the legendary Peter Drucker.

My blog, now, is about creativity. But many of you who have read my former stuff -- chiefly in the field of legal marketing -- know that I go on at great lengths about goal oriented marketing. Focusing on measurements. Process improvements. The quest for truly rigorous management principles. We owe much of our learnings in these areas to the great work of Peter Drucker.

The name of my consulting company -- Sanestorm -- is meant to symbolize the balance between reason and energy. The idea that you can achieve the most when you work on strengthening both the artistic and business sides of your creative nature. I think Peter Drucker epitomized that balance.

Sunday, November 13, 2005

Machinima: The 5th Wall?

Check out an interesting article over at Wired News about the new digital film-making technique known as "Machinima." This is an artform where the creators utilize the animation engines of 3D games in order to create films. The article focuses on the upcoming Mackies Awards -- the equivalent of the Oscars for the genre.

There are interesting questions of artisitc quality vs. story quality, fanfic, cost-of-production, copyright law, etc. in the piece. Here's what really grooves my squirrel, though; we now have an art form that was originally designed as interactive -- computer games -- being turned on its ear by the players (the audience) to go back and create content.

We have gone from passive entertainment (videos, books, etc.), to active entertainment where the player is a character in a world created by the programmers (video games), to entertainment where the player becomes a creator him/herself, using content delivery tools to turn around and create content. The "4th Wall" of the theatre has truly been broken when the audience can get up, coopt the stage, props and cameras, and begin crafting an entirely new piece of art.

Reminds me a big of blogs; using what was once generally a content delivery mechanism (the Web) as a content creation mechanism. Much more interactive. Much more participatory. Much more 360-degrees-of-involvement.

In the words of Artie Johnson's "pop-up-German" character on Laugh-In... "Verrrry interesting."

You heard it here first, folks -- I'm changing The Rule from, "He Who Dies With the Most Toys Wins," to "He Who Dies With the Best Content Wins." And it's getting less and less important where your office sits in relation to Hollywood or Madison Avenue or Paris or Nashville or wherever... as long as you've got the Flux.

Saturday, November 12, 2005

Growing from Un-Knowing

When my son, Dan, was about three years old, we were sitting in my big recliner, watching "Thomas and the Magic Railroad," for about the 209th time, and he asked me, as James, the Red Engine, was being pused towards almost certain doom by the evil Diesel engine (whose Christian name escapes me):

"Will James be OK?"

"Yes, Dan," I replied. "James will be fine."

We kept watching, and Dan kept asking questions about upcoming plot issues. Will this-and-such happen? Will they find the gold-dust? Will the giant rats feast on the living brains of the graduate students (that may be from a different Thomas the Tank Engine movie... they all run together in my head)?

The point being... he kept asking questions about a movie we'd watched together many, many times.

Finally, I asked him, "Dan. We've seen this movie before. Do you understand that it will be the same every time?"

"Oh," he replied. "No. I didn't know that. OK."

"He's never asked me questions like that again about movies he's seen before."

It was an absolutely explosive moment for me as a father, and as someone who thinks about thinking and learning and creating.

Why should a child -- new to the world, and new to our very fast-paced, media rich world -- have any idea that a movie will be the same every time? We, of course, as adults understand this implicitly. But a child's world is different everyday. And not in the same way that our days are different -- they discover the world every day; we just experience it.

So until we learn that a movie -- or a book or any recorded media -- proceeds along the same line each time, we have no way of establishing that this is, in fact, the case. It makes no more sense to assume a thing is one way as opposed to another.

The Buddha called this state of being, "The Beginners Mind."

The Beginners Mind is incredibly important to the creative experience. Why? Because it is, essentially, the blank canvas. Assumptions are deadly to creativity, both in one's private, personal art, and in the art of business, marketing, commerce, etc.

My son, Dan, is now in Kindergarten. And he's having a grand time of it. We were afraid, at first, that he wouldn't. He goes hot-and-cold on structured learning activities. He loves picking stuff up on his own, and, if he becomes comfortable with a teacher or group of other kids... goes gangbusters. But if something makes him uncomfortable, he can really zwang off into a corner (both emotionally and physically) and avoid participation. But his teacher and  class -- a public-school in Columbus, OH -- are doing a great job at providing what I might call "non-threatening structure." Which is, frankly, what the Kindergarten model has been about for quite some time.

Kindergarten was invented around 200 years ago by a young German academic named Friedrich Fröbel (good article about Fröbel  at Boxes and Arrows). Before that time, it was generally assumed that kids younger than seven were unable to think and learn in a fashion appropriate for schooling. They were, from an educational standpoint, ignored.

Frightening, eh? We know, now, after two centuries of developmental psychology and physiological study, that children's minds are most active and open to learning during their first five to eight years. So, ignoring them until they are seven or so, is not only a bad idea, it is, in fact, totally wrong-headed and counter-productive from a cost-benefit standpoint. It is, frankly, the absolute worst thing you can do.

But it took Fröbel to figure out that it wasn't kids who couldn't learn, but school -- the old-style school for older kids -- that couldn't teach. He needed to apply the Beginner's Mind to the subject of the mind itself.

How meta is that?

What assumptions are you making in your creative life? Who are you continually correcting or challenging, when, really, you may simply be seeing things from very different perspectives? What basic views do you have that need to be examined at a root level so that you can wipe your creative canvas clean and reinvent your process?

If you don't start fresh once in awhile, you may be losing out on major opportunities.

Wednesday, November 9, 2005

The Art of Leadership: Harvard agrees with me!

There's a very interesting article over at Harvard Business School's "Working Knowledge" site about how "adaptive leaders" share many talents and attributes with artists. The basic idea being that working with the resources and media of your business -- money, logistics, personnel --  may require as much creativity as working with the media of traditional fine arts -- clay, paint, the words of a poem, etc.

I love this article for three reasons.

  1. I love it for the same reason I love most of the stuff that comes out of Harvard's presses, especially HBR. It's well written, highly informative and so much more interesting than 99.5% of the dreck that passes for "business news" out there.

  2. It's true.

  3. It's in agreement with something I've been saying for years.

Hooray! Harvard agrees with me!

I've been giving a speech/talk for about three years now (you know... the kind that they drag you into doing when you're on a committee and they can't find anyone to fill the lunch speaker slot at the last minute) on the "Creative Split" between artistic and scientific creativity. I won't go into the whole she-bang-a-bang in this post, but the basic point is that around about the end of the 17th century, folks started to really differentiate between the types of thought used for creating art vs. creating other stuff. Ever since, we've kept them sort of... well... apart.

Remember Leonardo DaVinci? Great scientist. And a great artist. He was, in many ways, the model for the "conjoined mind." Somebody who didn't think about creativity as having to be either "one thing" or "t'other." It just... was.

We go on a bunch in our culture about left and right brain thinking. That may be part of it. But I don't think so. There's plenty of "right brained" creativity going on in science, engineering, technology and the business world. But do we automatically think of that work as "creative?"

We should. You should.

I had a friend in the Finance department back at Verizon who would joke that he wasn't creative, and shouldn't be, because, "Nobody wants us engaging in 'creative finances.'" He was being cute, of course. But he was also one of the most creative thinkers I've known. He was always helping the business design new ways to approach billing and pricing issues. He was an artist who used Excel as well as my designers use Photoshop.

So... when you think about how you want to improve your own creativity, or that of your company, make sure you remember to include the boardroom in your plans. Not just the artroom.

[Note: as a Cornell alum, the jumping-up-and-down, hands-pressed-to-face, tearful joy of the title of this post is meant to be more than a little ironic. I do like HBR... but wasn't ever going to change my tune if they didn't agree with me.]

Saturday, November 5, 2005

The "Process of Process"

Among School Children, Part VIII
William Butler Yeats

Labour is blossoming or dancing where
The body is not bruised to pleasure soul.
Nor beauty born out of its own despair,
Nor blear-eyed wisdom out of midnight oil.
O chestnut-tree, great-rooted blossomer,
Are you the leaf, the blossom or the bole?
O body swayed to music, O brightening glance,
How can we know the dancer from the dance? 

The last line of that stanza is one of my favorite lines in all poetry, ever:
"How can we know the dancer from the dance?" Let us stick with acting, which I don't know very well, but have done a bit of.


What is acting? When does it begin? If I feel the same things that I am supposedly "creating" for my audience to see, is it "art" or is it real? If I rehearse, alone, my part a dozen or more times, and it is bad, at first, and then better and better... until finally it is great... at what point did it become art? Is the rehersal craft or part of the art? Is the performance itself also, if repeated again and again, craft? What if it gets worse with repetition, because I am less interested in it? What if my craft decays? What if I find, after time, that I dislike the play, my part, my lines, my co-actors, the theatre, the audience, my costume, my props... all those things that contribute to the whole of the production. What if I "phone it in" one night?


What if the fat lady, the one wearing too much perfume that smells of peaches and white wine, keeps catching my eye one night and distracting me. Because she looks, for all the world, like my fifth-grade teacher... the one who was always (inadvertently?) flashing us glimpses of her tits and crotch through her inappropriately flimsy, hippy outfits. And, because of her, my performance suffers greatly. Is my overall "art" diminished? One show, one matinee out of eighty-seven performances...


I don't know.


Sometimes, for me as a writer, the words seem to come from nowhere. I look at the screen (almost never a page anymore) and I think about... nothing... and the words come. And they bring other words with them, and I follow them (her) down a chaotic path and then, at some point (usually) I start leaning on the tools, the craft, the history, the order... and they are what bring me through to the end of the piece.


Other times, I begin with the craft/order/tools. I start by saying, "I will write a piece about death. It will use metaphors of water and the color grey. It will rhyme and have clear meter." And then, while working in an orderly fashion, chaotic paths will cross my level, straight road and I will wander off to pick up words, phrases, ideas... and come back to the main street again.


Tick and tock. Yin and yang. Black and white. Order and chaos.


I distrust art that relies too heavily on one or t'other. When I work with writers (on and off-line) who seem to do more of one... I like to push them the other way. For example, one young writer I worked with recently was all about chaos and randomness when I first started reading her stuff... and yet, burried within, were the seeds of craft. She showed real promise, and so I started leaving her lots of comments, bullying her into trying some more ordered routes across the same terrain. In some cases she resisted. But she's very young, and I'm a very good, very gentle bully. She improved very quickly, too. Dreadfully smart kid. Once she started looking at her own stuff with an eye towards the  "art" of it, she got a handle on how to eliminate some of the randomness that didn't fit. Which is a big part of great art; removing the chaff and leaving the wheat. Ezra taught us that.


So... the process of process. When I feel myself at a loss, I try to go "the other way." If I'm feeling random, and am hoping/praying for help "from the muse," searching desperately for a new idea or metaphor or theme... I intentionally "go ordered" and make myself write something more "formulaic." I force myself to pick a theme, a pattern, a rhyme, etc. If, however, I find myself becoming too ordered... I jump away into the sea of chaos. I write with much less fear (or try to). I get jiggy wid it.


Does it always work? No. But it doesn't always not work, either.

Creativity Requires Tension

I got a bunch of emails about my "Heisenberg" post asking me, "What the heck are you talking about with this creativity and uncertainty stuff."


Here's what I meant by the
uncertainty = something to do with creativity thing. When you observe something (in quantum terms), you can either nail down its position, or its momentum; its present state or its potential. The closer you get on one, the further you get from the other.


I think that in a weird way, creativity is based on both rigid processes (some might call this "craft") -- very defined ways of observing the precise methods of creating art/writing/design/etc -- and also on indefinable, whimsical, chaotic "muse" driven elements. Some types of "art" have always relied totally on one, some on the other. For example, architecture relies heavily (pun intended) on craft. If you don't obey the rules, house fall down. Painting has fewer rules; or it can, anyways. Writing has more rules, generally. You need, for example, words and letters.


Losing the balance between craft and muse is where, I think, artists get confused. We sit and "wait for the muse to strike us," or we get bound up in aspects of craft, leaning too heavily on systems and methods that aren't our own.


My take on being "creative" is that you need this balance. If you trot too far towards craft, you lose something in your art that comes from the random, winding, soul-ful, wondrous, child-like place. If, however, you only ever rely on that place for your art, you become unable to create "on demand." You can't link your art to the demands of, let's say, a job in the arts or to the specifics of any requirements.


Place vs. Momentum. Present vs. Future. Status Quo vs. Potential. Conservative vs. Liberal. Chaos vs. Order. It is not the one or the other that produces great art, but the tension between the two. Moving back and forth, trying some of one, caroming back too far in the other direction, correcting, overcorrecting, swerving back, observing how the journey has impacted the result. The whole "process of process" (metaprocess?) is part of being an artist. Part of understanding one's own creative pulse.


Let's be clear on one thing -- I don't really think that observing the creative process is in any real way like observing sub-atomic particles. I just thought it was a kinda cool metaphor. And I, in my own art, always struggle with the tension between craft (order) and muse(chaos). At one point in my life, I found the struggle frustrating. I'm not sure how it happened, or exactly when... but I now find the struggle exhilarating. Fun, even, most days.


The struggle is, I believe, necessary to the creative process. It is not always -- and for most people not ever -- conscious. I think that when you are aware of it, however, you can control it more fully. And that gives you even more creative potential.

Monday, October 31, 2005

Parallel Libraries

I've been playing around with Second Life, an online, massively multi-player non-game (although there are games available within) over the last couple weeks. I tried it more than a year ago, and the tech wasn't up to par with the current set of MMORPGs. I felt like if the owners/publishers couldn't get their act in gear and put their cyberworld at least within shouting distance of Everquest or World of Warcraft, the time was not ripe.
I read recently that it had been pretty massively upgraded last June, so gave it another go with a free-trial subscription and have been pleasantly surprised, at least in terms of the improvements in technology. This is all, at this point, just a curiosity from my point of view as a gamer/designer/game anthropologist of sorts.

But, while looking at various fansites for SL, I found a site that has also provided an in-game analog (can you have a "digital analog?") that tries, as much as possible, to precisely mimic a 3D, contructed, navigable structure that presents the same materials as are available on the web site. The site, and the virtual library, provide fiction and non-fiction works, art, music and "spaces" to chat and leave messages.

Very cool. Very weird. Very much something that I think we'll see more of. Real worlds and virtual worlds smack-dabbing each other in various ways. Another example I've encountered in SL already is art galleries where real-world (called "First World" in-game) artists scan and provide looks at their art to in-game residents. You can often buy in-game, SL copies of the art to put in your SL domain, and/or get in contact with the artist to obtain the real world version of the art, too.

If you haven't read Neal Stephenson's "Snow Crash," now is a good time to do so. It's on my list of Top 10 Best Books of All Time, is the 2nd best cyberpunk novels ever -- bested only by the seminal "Neuromancer" by William Gibson -- and has one of the clearest, most compelling visions of how the real world and an online world (called the "Metaverse" in "Snow Crash") might interact and collide. Right now, Second Life is probably the closest thing to the Metaverse that's actually up and running.
One of the biggest players on Second Life, whose avatar is named Anshe Chung, earned over USD$100,000 last year by buying and selling "real estate" in Second Life. Yes, real estate. If you want a permanent house for your avatar, or a shop to sell your art, or a spot for your library, you need land. And buying it from the publishers of the game in big chunks is cheaper. And so selling it off in smaller chunks -- or renting it -- can make you money, using Linden Dollars, the in-game currency. And there is an exchange system, by which you can trade LD for USD. There are other folks making high 5-figure incomes designing clothes, bling, architecture, games and gestures for in-game use.

Oh brave new world wide web that has such people in/on/inside it.

Makes me wonder even more about the longevity of paper, when people are willing to pay real money to buy virtual clothes and virtual jewelry for their online personnae.

Then again, perhaps people would pay real money to interact with a librarian avatar who could help them find what they are looking for in a SL sim-library...

Sunday, October 30, 2005

Uncertainty and the Creative Process

Werner Heisenberg (shown at left in 1927... what a sweet lookin' kid) said, basically, that you can either know the location or the momentum (mass times velocity) of a particle, but not both. The more you know about one... the less you will know about the other.


I love the principle, because, loosely translated, it comes out to: "You can't really know where you're at and where you're going."


Lots of crazy shit (from a quantum mechanical crazy-shit perspective) jumps out from Heisenberg. It was this principle that caused Einstein to say, "God does not play dice with the universe."


Oops. But he does. And so do we. And dice, which are measurers of randomness to a degree, measure outcomes in terms of curves, which are wave patterns. And the universe is made up a waves, not points... But we like to think in terms of points, not waves.


This will get to the subject of creativity, I assure you.


What do waves have to do with anything? Well, have you heard of the "two slit experiment?" The one where you fire photons through slits in a wall and observe their effect on photographic paper? OK. Play along for a moment in physics class.

Waves, slits and how-the-hell did that happen?

  1. Imagine a wall in the middle of a pond. Drop a rock on one side. Waves hit the wall. Nothing happens on the other side.

  2. Put a hole in the wall. Drop a rock on one side. Some of the waves go through the hole and make waves on the other side.

  3. Put two holes in the wall. Drop the rock. Some waves go through both holes and make interference pattern/waves on the other side.

    No prob, right? We know from waves. Bouncy, bouncy, they mash into each other and get wiggy and cross and get bigger and smaller. Great. OK.

  4. Put a wall in the middle of a room. Shoot photons (light waves) at it. On other side of wall is photographic paper to measure light wave patterns.

  5. Put slit in wall. Shoot streams of photons through. Photographic paper reveals light wave patterns consistent with light behaving like wave. Right-i-o.

  6. Keep slit in wall. Shoot one photon through; one particle (point) of light. Photographic paper reveals pattern consistent with light behaving like single-point.

  7. Make two slits. Shoot streams of photons through. Photo paper reveals wave patterns consistent with light behaving like waves; i.e., interference patterns.

  8. Keep two slits. Shoot one photon through one of them. Photo paper reveals wave pattern consistent with photon going through BOTH HOLES.



Light is a particle that behaves like a wave. There is uncertainty and randomness involved in whether it goes through one, the other or both slits. This uncertainty has a measurable impact on the world. Welcome to quantum mechanics and uncertainty.


A tenuous link back to the subject of creativity

In order to be creative, we have a
process. Nature might be beautiful, and we love looking at babies, but we're not talking about that kind of creativity here. Just like light has to get from "Point A" to "Point B," so we want to start with nothing and end up with a poem or a marketing campaign or a painting or a curriculum.

Often, we'd rather shortcut than "narrate a process."  We'd rather know "where we are" (especially after we get there) than "how to get there." In Heisenbergian terms, we much prefer location to momentum. Which is understandable, as location requires only one measurement -- "where am I?" -- which is, often, done on the fly and anecdotally. Whereas momentum involves mass and velocity measurements, which require you to know weight (and the gravity of the environment), speed and direction. Crap! That's three-times as many measurements, and you can't just fake those out by saying, "Hell, I'm right here, ain't I?" the way you can with location.


Many of us assume that "creative" people get where they are going through "natural" processes. The most common word I've encountered for that is "talent." My brother, the actor, will tell you that talent only gets you so far. Talent is, in its way, a "given" issue in the creativity equation, like location. You're born with a certain amount. It is like the gravity of the planet or the atomic weight of your particular element, which determines your mass. Can't do anything with it. If you rely solely on talent, you're probably hosed. Luck might come into play, too... but if you want to base the outcome of your marketing campaign or child's musical career on luck, go buy lottery tickets or visit Vegas. Creativity and luck have nothing to do with each other in my opinion.


Actors often speak about "the craft." This is the part of acting that actors work on. The best of them work on their craft all the time. They go to classes, do exercises, think about acting when they're on the train, observe all kinds of people in various environments, practice lines with friends and family. They improve their creative abilities. They effect a change in the velocity of their careers. If talent is mass, then the only way to change your career's momentum is to go faster or change direction -- both aspects of velocity. Those are things you control. Those are process elements.


Is there an equation for creative success?

Does this mean that one process -- one pre-set series of forms -- will turn everyone who goes through the motions into a best-selling writer or famous actor? Of course not. Because the one-slit experiment only really works in a completely dark room, with a single proton. It's one of those physics things that shows of a weird-ity of nature, but doesn't occur in the real world often or at all. In nature, there are billions and skillions of protons flying around, all mashing into each other a gazillions times a second, all interfering with each other.


So... your processes will still be very "uncertain," no matter how hard you try to refine them. They will be influenced by your genes (your innate "talent"), your upbringing, the other people involved in teaching you the process, the folks with whom you engage in the process, the timing relative to other events in your life, how concentrated you are, your reasons for doing it, etc. You can give two very similar people the same simple "creativity exercise" and they'll come out with very different responses. You can give two actors who resemble each other remarkably the same script, and they'll perform it in unique ways.


We are innately dismissive of creative product that allows for little or no unique personality in the equation. We, in fact, derride it as "formulaic." Movies and books that take tired, old clichés and run them up and down the same tired, old streets. We've been here before, we've seen it again and again. In some sense, we might even say that these derivative works aren't even really creative. They are a "creation," in the sense that something has been "made," but then again, something is often made when I take my dog for a stroll in the park. But I don't refer to it as creativity.


The physics metaphor continues... when we view or read a work that is "formulaic," we often say, "I know exactly where this is going." We've evaluated the creative momentum of the piece and determined its final destination pretty accurately.


Does this mean that we need a bit of randomness in order to really enjoy a creative work? Or at least, if not randomness, newness? I think many of us would certainly argue that originality is one important aspect of artistic creativity. Merely copying a great work of art may be an expression of craftsmanship, but not of creativity. Nothing new has been made, so there is no real creation.

So... to be creative, maybe we need to be like the universe. We need the element of randomness, or uncertainty. But I'd also argue that, just like the universe, there are also rules that help us get to where we are going. Total randomness will produce only noise. Just because something is new, doesn't make it worth looking at. Just ask my dog.

Where does that leave us? I think we need a "Heisenberg's (or Havens?) Principle for Creative Uncertainty." An understanding that there is or should be a balance between location -- those things that are set, required and necessary -- and momentum -- those things that can be worked on and changed. We need, for example, to hire "talented" people. But we then need to train them. We need to recognize and take advantage of naturally ocurring, spontaneous, serendipitous events and resources in our creative lives... but we then need to leverage the hell out of them.

And when we find ourselves relying too heavily on one side or the other of the equation... we need to kick ourselves in the pants and go looking for more of the other.

Saturday, October 8, 2005

The Tinker and the Price of Gas


At 39 years old, I'm in my 7th career. If you count being a student for 16 years as a career, it would be my 8th. Here's the quick overview:  Arts & crafts counsellor/director at a day camp;  high-school English teacher;  PC technician / Novell network admin / software tutor / database admin;  cellular telephony -- technical writing;  cellular telephony -- marketing; legal marketing; library services marketing. This doesn't count lots of piddly-ante stuff I've done in-between jobs and on top of the "real jobs." Food service, a brief forray into sales, etc. This is all stuff I've done enough to feel comfortable saying "Yeah, I've done that." It also doesn't count being a writer, even though many of those jobs other than "technical writer" require lots of writing, and even though that's what I went to school for, and even though I've been published a bit and even occasionally paid for writing. It also doesn't count my vast criminal enterprises, for obvious reasons.

I was told, at the age of 25, when talking with one of the HR cats at Cellular One, that the average number of major career / industry shifts for people in our era is four. At that time I was on my fourth... Well, third, since the Arts & Crafts thing was a summer job, and didn't really count. But still. To be on #3 or #4 at the age of 25 meant that I was already pretty much guaranteed of being well past four during my professional career.

And now gas is $3 a gallon.

What's the connection?

In all the places I've worked, in all the industries I've seen, with all the agencies and vendors I've worked, there is one constant driver of success, happiness and long-term value. One that transcends retail marketing vs. B2B, service sector activities vs. products, project planning vs. process planning, management vs. labor, old-economy vs. new, bricks vs. clicks... everything. Everywhere. There is one constant fuel that never fails to grant power to its wielder in measures greater than any other resource:


It's a constantly misused and abused term. On the one hand, bandied about casually like something that can be brought into being at a staff meeting if you just put enough spongy, brightly-colored squeeze balls on the table and let people use scented markers on the big flip charts. On the other, it is often said that some people are "simply not creative." That creativity is inherent. A gift. A trait. Like the color of your eyes or being really tall.

Both of those angles on the subject -- casual and congenital creativity -- are crap.

Creativity is a study and a craft. Yes, the practice of it in certain ways can certainly be related to intelligence or artistic abilities. But just like learning to read, use a computer, hit a baseball, sing, swim, garden or whistle through a blade of grass, creativity is a skill -- a set of skills -- that can be learned.

And now, more than ever, we need to be learning and teaching and focusing on those skills.

Why? Because we have entered something that I called, in an article I wrote in 2004, "The Age of Content." The highest economic value today is now placed on the ability to engage in "knowledge activities." And the product of knowledge activities is content. Some examples of knowledge activites include:

  • News: all kinds, depending on what you value

  • Sports: both the playing of sports and the viewing and the news of it

  • Music: lyrics, songs, arrangements, covers, concerts, recordings

  • Art: all kinds; from the fine arts to industrial design to advertising to performance

  • Opinion: essays, letters to the editor, blogs

  • Spectacle: the circus, reality TV, game shows, magic, politics

  • Stories: dramatic or comedic, on film, in books and plays or on TV

  • Character: the details and actions of personalities in fiction or the public eye

  • Consultative services: doctors, lawyers, accountants, lobbyists, publicists, marketers

  • Metadata & Reference: Ontologies, tagging, links, blogrolls, lists, descriptions, friends-files, IMgroups, social ganging, wikis

I'm going to get some strong arguments against some of the above categories, and that's cool. Lots of folks are going to say that I'm confusing "service" functions with "knowledge" functions. I disagree. For example you won't find waiters or dry cleaners on the above list. Although you would find chefs that invent new recipes or create interesting new dining spaces, and entrepeneurs who figure out ways to make dry cleaning easier on the environment.

Just "doing" something doesn't make you a knowledge worker. Being able to effect a change in the minds or lives of your customers / audience through the application of your knowledge in your sphere of understanding does. In many cases the change only occurs in the mind of the customers themselves, or because of changes they decide make based on your work.

In short, for knowledge work, the mind is often some combination of the map, the transportation, the toolbox, the store, the delivery mechanism and the marketing playpen. Often it is all of the above.

Take, for example, lawyers. Most of the work they do is mental. "The law" does not exist in the real world. It is symbolic. There is no "box of law." There are words on paper and on computers. They talk. They send email and faxes and reams of paper. They go to court and talk more. They take depositions. More talk. But in the end... money changes hands, rights are granted or taken away, people go to jail and sometimes live or die. It's a pure knowledge profession. The consequences are felt in the real world, but the craft is content.

Putting the broken images back together

In the Industrial Age, the assembly line was the most important new invention of value delivery. They had all the pieces... they'd been taking "stuff" out of the ground for a long time and making parts by hand for centuries. But it took Henry Ford to figure out how to really, seriously shave major time off the process of putting those parts together into bigger elements. That was very important. It was creativity writ large on a worldwide, societal, economic and, eventuall, geopolical scale. Neither of the World Wars would have been possible without the assembly line. Hitler's idea of "The Final Solution," too, owed something to the idea of rapid manufacturing processes. We apply these big, sweeping changes across the board in many aspects of our lives. We can't help it.

Putting smaller parts into bigger parts is one decent definition of creativity. And when you're talking about making cars or sewing machines or toys or guns, it makes sense and it's easy to talk about cost per unit and scale economies.

But what about when we talk about knowledge work? How does creativity apply in the Age of Content? How do we put smaller parts together to make bigger parts when all the parts are in our heads?

The problem is, our collective, social, worldwide mental head is still stuck, to a large degree, in the Industrial Age. We still think in terms of push-pull, click-clock. We still think in productivity terms that were invented for cars and bombs and dolls. And the world that came out of those terms and that thought process is the world that gave us the 700,000 casualties of The Battle of Verdun. It gave us the Cold War and the Atom Bomb. It also gave us the Internet and disco and micowave ovens and antibiotics and NASA and yogurt with fruit on the bottom and tongue piercing and Pol Pot and... you get the picture.

The Industrial Revolution fueled a world of enabled insanity on a huge scale. It brought together nations in manners neverbefore possible, in numbers unthinkable just a generation before. The Renaissance and then the birth of modern science in the 18th century had led people in Western Europe to believe that ultimate answers were possible. The general term for this set of thought was Realism, a pre-cursor to the Modernist movement in late 19th century Europe.  The Modernist movement was, in many ways, a reaction to the horror of the two world wars and an attempt to make some kind of sense in a world seeminly gone mad.

Then, of course, the Postmodern movement came along to mash-up Modernism and take into ironic question everything that Modernism stood for. So you now have a choice:

  1. You can look at any subject from one, classical standpoint (Realism)

  2. You can look at it from several, balanced standpoints (Modernism)

  3. You can look at yourself (and everyone else) looking at it and question your (and their) ability to look at it and even your right to look at it because of the inherent problems involved in the process of language and examination (Postmodernism)

  4. You can give up and go home and play Xbox.

My undergraduate degree from Cornell is in English Literature. I studied poetry during the early part of the 20th century, and T.S. Eliot's "The Waste Land" is one of my favorite poems from that period. One of my favorite parts of that poem is:

     …for you know only
     A heap of broken images,
     where the sun beats,
     And the dead tree gives
     No shelter…

That, to me, is the essence of Postmoderism. "A heap of broken images." The sun, which is supposed to illuminate, only beats down -- it causes harm, not growth. The tree -- which should be the source of root images, the trunk of the Golden Boughs -- gives no shelter or comfort. It is dead. All we have to work with is this heap of broken images. Because the world we knew, the classical, sensible, realistic, modern world is gone.

And gas is $3 a gallon.

Well, you know what? Tough shit. I like my heap of broken images. And it's time to stop whining.

We've had almost 90 years since Verdun. And we've had plenty of time to figure out that people aren't cogs in assembly lines. And now we've got this Internet thing and wireless phones and the space shuttle and aquaculture facilities and nuclear power and the Human Genome project and more cool stuff than you can swing a cat at. Kids in Kalamazoo are playing World of Warcraft online with kids in Karachi. GE is outsourcing its legal department to India. It's time to start putting the heap of broken images together again.

Tinkers used to travel from town to town repairing broken tools and household items, sharpening knives and scissors and doing odd jobs. Jacks-of-all trades. They also brought news and stories. That's what this blog will be about. Putting the tools of the Age of Content together, with an emphasis on creativity. Sub-topics might include:

  • Marketing

  • Communications

  • Gaming

  • Memetics

  • Sourcing

  • Technology

  • Communities

  • Metadata / tagging

Who knows what else. Why the "X?" Because I still highly associate myself with GenX. I didn't know I had a generation until I read Matt Rushkoff's "The GenX Reader." I thought I was just a little too young to be a Real Baby Boomer. After plouging through that book, though, I knew, "Yeah. I'm an Xer." You don't hear the term much anymore. The new genz are in the news. The Echo Boomers -- the kids of the Baby Boomers. The Gamer Generation, who are, I guess, GenXers, kinda, but a few years younger or something. One article I read said Boomers stopped being born in 1960 and Gamers started being born in 1970. I was born in 1966. Whoops.

So this is TinkerX. Flux for the Age of Content. "Flux" being that gooey crap you put on metal when you want to solder it together. The stuff that helps aid the creative process. Which is weird, because flux also means "constant or frequent change." Ain't that odd? That when you want to make something stick together, sometimes you have to ensure that parts of it stay more fluid...

Creativity is the fuel. Let's tank up.