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Creative Cogs

Creative Cogs
Published on Apr 12, 2023.

The way we teach children today is almost directly opposed to the way we would teach if we wanted to develop creativity. What we teach is not the ability for the imagination to soar – for it to open the windows and fly – but muscle memory in the brain to repeat a rote set of steps. We are not trained to become artists. We are trained to become algorithms.

It’s fair to ask why we should care about creativity. What have paintings done to alleviate poverty? The fair answer to that question is “not much.” The dramatic rise in material standards of living and the virtual abolishing of poverty for large swaths of the world is not due to art. It is due to science and engineering and finance. The “hard” subjects, not the soft.

Ok – but how have these disciplines done this miracle? Well, a defender of the status quo may say, it’s because of the free flow of information and ideas promoted by the free market, which deploys capital more efficiently and effectively.

Ok – but why does that work? Were we just not able to get the right things to the right places before? We didn’t have all of the ideas. We weren’t rewarding people for having ideas before, and we weren’t giving them a way to distribute their ideas to others.

Ideas. Ideas drove the Industrial Revolution, and they drive progress still. An idea is the quantum unit of human progress, and the generation of new ideas is the fuel that pushes history forward.

How are new ideas generated? This is a study in and of itself, but the short answer is trial and error. We try new things, we see what works, and we modify the things that fail. The things we decide to try come from the mysterious part of our mind called the imagination. It is the home of our creativity.

The creative muscle of the mind operates very different than the rational one. My own experiences, as I expect many others, backs this up. When I do math or code, which I do most of the day, there are a series of steps I take. If pushed, I can explain, with reason, why I did each and what the results were. But when I write, as I’m doing now, I can’t reason my way to the next word. Trust me, I’ve tried and it’s the fastest way to reach writer’s block. The words just seem to come, of their own accord.

The distinction is not as clear-cut as I’m making it to be. Push me hard enough, ask me why I did this or that with math & code, and I’ll ultimately justify it with intuition. “I just felt like that was going to be a better, more likely approach.” Intuition, like imagination, cannot always be put into words. But it is there that the similarities end. Intuition, like reason, strives to a Right Answer of some sort. It’s just a different means of getting there. In fact, there’s an argument to be made that it’s just reason in a different form, one made through layers upon layers of conscious trial and error, until the subconscious, full now of memories of these trials, could take over the job itself in its own, mystical way.

Imagination is a different beast altogether. There is no real way to train the subconscious to do it, by repeated application through the conscious surface. Its source is the subconscious. It comes freely to children, the sleepy, and the inebriated. It disappears in the office cubicle.

Imagination is full of color and energy of its own making. But, like a beautiful web of delicate silk, it collapses at the slightest pressure, at any effort to command it, or dictate to it. It is its own free creative, and when tried to be put into the cage of purpose and directionality, it disappears.

This magical thing is the source of creativity, of all the new ideas that have, one after another, improved human civilization. The industrialization of the world owes much to the creative freedom it gave to millions of people for the first time. The printing press made books available – raw material to fuel creativity.

Creativity does not operate in a vacuum, like we so commonly think. It does not generate new ideas out of thin air, but rather through a palette of existing ideas we already have. It combined them, swirls them together, like a kid playing with condiments, to see what comes out.

A population deprived is deprived of the raw material required for creativity. That was the vast majority of humanity through the vast majority of history, basically until the printing press kicked off an exponential growth curve of human creativity.

The Scientific Revolution, which preceded the Industrial one and laid the grounder it, was a revolution of creativity, drawing on the new technology of the book. Had Isaac Newton lived just a few centuries earlier, his book Principia Mathematica would have been written by hand, with a very small number of copies, read by a tiny number of literate people. But by the 17th century, when he was alive, many copies could be made cheaply with Gutenberg’s little invention, and his ideas spread rapidly through Europe and, later, the world.

Even the Industrial Revolution moved forward on the generation of new ideas. The steam engine was hacked together by a man in a 19th century garage. The same with the telegraph, and the light bulb. These were all inventions driven by the imagination, not the things we teach in schools today as “practical skills”.

What happened? How did we go from the skills that powered the Newtons and Edisons to one that churns out Excel monkeys and PowerPoint bros?

What happened was the corporation. At the tail end of the Industrial Revolution, there was an emergence of giant companies – larger than any the world had ever seen. They grew on economies of scale, which had been developing in recent years.

The nature of the inventor changed as well. It was no longer sufficient to perfect new ideas and capture the prize of a patent. There was a profit to be made, and it was the industrialists who spread the technology who were better-known, and better-remembered than its inventors. The Carnegies and the Rockefellers and the Campbells, not the Durands.

And what these corporations needed were workers. They approached the construction of their own organizations with the same techniques with which they built bridges. Standardized parts, arranged in particular order, each with its now role in the overall pattern. If one failed, it should be able to swap in for a new one, to drop into the same role. Cogs, in a giant corporate machine.

You cannot standardize creativity. You can’t predict its productivity based on its inputs. It’s volatile. As an artist or writer will tell you. On some days, it just flows. On other days, the tap is dry, no matter how hard you twist the faucet.

You can’t necessarily measure or validate it either. If you’re hiring for a job, and you have two candidates before you, one with a work history in all sorts of industries who claims to have the creativity to solve your problems, and the other who has done the exact same job before, which one do you hire? Almost everyone hires eh guy who did the job before. It’s safe, and it’s predictable – two things you care about a lot when you’re managing a system of moving parts as complex as a company.

Schools became the factory to churn out safe, predictable hires. Over the course of the next 50 years, the purpose of education changed from nurturing a human being to getting a job.

Remember how education developed, way back when, before the printing press and the Industrial Revolution. Way before modern society, there was still education. There was education even before the advent of agriculture. It happened informally, through the telling of stories by elders to youngsters around a fire at night.

The purpose of the stories was to pass down knowledge in the form of values. Some of this knowledge was practical – about the seasons, told through stories in the stars. Some was about how to live life – how to be a good human being. The stories prepared the young for the community they would one day be in charge of. One day, they would be the elders, in charge of decisions, passing on the same stories to the next generation.

If education is the transmission of knowledge, stories were the first, and longest-lived, form of it. This is how human communities raised their young around the world, through all sorts of cultures. Until the modern need for capable workers came around.

Stories were meant to infiltrate your soul, to shape your personality, to nurture you as a human being. The functional purpose of education was the continuance of the community – of its norms and beliefs, tis practices and traditions, that had carried it for generations. Stories were a form of indoctrination, to indoctrinate the young individual into the fold of their community.

Modern education has retained the ability to indoctrinate – the young, after all, are impressionable – but the community it prepares them for is no longer the natural organic ones that humans developed under. Instead, it’s the manufactured community of the corporation. And to enter it, you don’t just need the practical skills it requires. You need the values – submission to authority, conformity to a cult of leaders – that it demands.