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.