chapter 13 - the making of culture
- to achieve the kind of world we consider human, some people had to dare to break the thrall of tradition. next, they had to find ways of recording those new ideas or procedures that improved on what went on before. finally, they had to find ways of transmitting the new knowledge to the generations to come. those who were involved in this process we call creative. what we call cultures or those parts of our selves that we internalized from the social environment, is their creation
creativity and survival
- to say the same thing in a more upbeat way, in the last few millenia evolution has been transformed from being almost exclusively a matter of mutations in the chemistry of gene of being more and more a matter of changes in meme - in the information that we learn and in turn transmit to others. if the right memes are selected, we survive; otherwise we do not. and those whoselect the knowledge, the values, the beharios that will either leads into a brighter future or to extinction are no longer factors outside ourselves, such as predators or climatic changes. the future is in our hands; the culture we create will determine our fate
- at the same time, it does not tka emuch thought to realize that the main threats to our survival as a species, the very problems we hope creativity will solve, were brought about by yesterday's creative solutions
- even apparently beneficial inventions have unintended negative consequences
- there is a basic law of human ingenuity that we try very hard to ignore: the greater the chances of producing undesirable as well as desirable results
- the power to create has always been linked with the power to destroy
- a similar pattern of initial success leading to eventual failure holds for memes that shape human energy through ideas
- bet even when the fruits of creativity produce no external damages, their very success can sow seeds that are dangerous to the survival of the culture that has adopted them
- the reason why the number of immigrants keeps growing is that they are the only ones left willing to do menial jobs
- neither uncritical acceptance nor wholesale dismissal of human creativity will lead us far. it would be so nice if we could look at culture and determine objectively: this is good, that is bad. but history does not unfold in black and white. each great advance contains within it a new vulnerability. some memes are indispensable today but a hinderance tomorrow. it is as absurd to believe that progress is always desirable as to reject it out of hand.
creativity in the context of human evolution
- the argument so far has tried to establish two points: that creativity is necessary for human suvival in a future where the human species plays a meaningful role and that the results of creativity tend to have undesirable side effects
- if one accepts these conclusions, it follows that human well-being hinges on two factors: the ability to increase creativity and the ability to develop ways to evaluate the impact of new creative ideas. let's focus first on the second requirement
- for all of these reasons, it is useless to expect fields to monitor the own creative ideas in terms of the long-range public good
- the other alternative is for the market to determine the value of novelties. as in many other social processes, our tendency is to trust the wisdom of the marketplace and tacitly to endorse its priorities. but of course by now everyone suspects that the so-called free market is as real as santa claus or the easter bunny
- but even if the free market were a reality, it is doubtful that its decisions would be wise as far as our future well-being is concerned. in the first place, market decisions tend to be oriented to the rpesent. given a choice, consumers choose a product or process that provides an edge right now, with little concern for consequences
- yet, as we have seen earlier, we cannot ignore evolution. the culture that survives to direct the future of the planet will be one that encourages as much creativity as possible but also finds ways to choose novelty on the basis of the future well-being of the whole, not just of the separate fields. what is needed is a self-conscious effort to establish priorities and to use something like an "evolutionary impact analysis" as one of the bases for the social endorsement of new ideas
- a policy of this type should not result in any kind of philistine thought-policing. artists should be encouraged to follow their muse, scientists should be respected for following a hunch wherever it leads them. on the other hand, why expect society to support novelties that are valued within a given field but may harm the commonwealth?
- on the other hand, the probability for dispassionate wisdome is greater among those who have had more, and more varied, experience and who can see theri expertise in a broader context - and these in turn are likely to be older persons. yet our society expects very little from its elders. this might be one important contribution of seniors that will benefit everyone
ways to increase creativity
- now, however, humans have become one of the most powerful, and therefore the most dangerous forces operating on the planets. therefore, if we wish evolution to continue in a way that corresponds with our interests, we must find ways to direct it. and this involves developing mechanisms for monitoring new memes, so that we can reject those that are likely to be harmful in the long run and encourage alternatives that are more promising
- but before selection can begin operating, novelty must be generated. in other words, there have to be new ideas to choose from. so it is now time to turn to the question, what ways are there to increase the frequency of novel ideas worthy of being adopted by the culture? to answer that question, I consider strategies that apply at each of the three levels that define the components of a creative system:
- the person
- the field
- the domain
more creative individuals
- we have seen that central among the traits that define a creative person are two somewhat opposed tendencies: a great deal of curiosity and openness on the one hand, and an almost obsessive perseverance on the other
- in part we don't have the answer because it is not clear to what extent these traits might be genetically controlled. but it is quite possible that a combination of instructions issued from a number of genes might interact to predispose a person to be more or less open
- but biological inheritance is only part of the story, as we discussed before. early background has a significant effect. interest and curiosity tend to be stimulated by positive experiences with family, by a supportive emotional environment, by a rich cultural heritage, by exposure to many opportunities, and by high expectations. in contrast, perseverance seems to develop as a response to a precarious emotion environment, a dysfunctional family, solitude, a feeling of rejection and marginality. most people experience either one or the other of these early environments, but not both of them
- however, creative individuals seem more likely to have been exposed to both circumstances
- but there definitely seems to be an increased likelihood that bimodal early experience is realted to later creativity
- parents and educators should know that a milieu that encourages both solitude and gregariousness may add, even infinitesimally, to the chancesof a child being able to express his or her creativity. children who have not learned to tolerate solitude are especially at risk in terms of never developing enough in-depth involvement in a domain and lacking opportunities to reflect and incubate ideas. on the other hand, children who are too shy and reclusive need selfless intermediaries, such as can Gogh or Kafka had, lest their contributions disappear from the culture.
- similarly, a certain flexibility about gender roles is likely to help
- each one of us has particular strengths and predispositions that make us sensitive to some dimension of reality more than another. but again, early exposure and opportunity to engage in a particular domain isessential to developing the inherited potential
- above all else, it helps to become involved in a domain early. the role of the parent was limited to providing opportunities, taking seriously the child's interest after it showed itself. if the parents had been more directive, it is unlikely that the child's involvement would have progressed very far
- so while specializing in a particular domain can wait until late adolescence, an intense involvement in some domain might be necessary if a person is to become creative. without developing a skill he or she is confident in, without having the experience of acquiring a knowledge base, a young person may never get up enough nerve to change the status quo
- yet it is important to keep in mind that most breakthroughs are based on linking information that usually is not thought of as related. integration, synthesis both across and within domains, is the norm rather than the exception
- even when not directly integrated in one's work, other domains contribute to the overall mental life of creative individuals to a degree that belies the stereotype of the sterile, narrowly trained specialist
- this breadth, this interest that overflows the limits of a given domain, in one of the most important qualities that current schooling and sociaization are in danger of stamping out. if nothing else, this study should renew out determination that narrow specialization shall not prevail. it is not only had for the soul but also reduces the likelihood of making creative contributions that will enrich the culture
what the field contributes
- the point is not that external opportunities determine a person's creativity. the claim is more modest, but still extremely important: no matter how gifted a person is, he or she has no chance to achieve anything creative unless the right conditions are provided by the field
- in terms of what we have learned from this study, it is possible to single out seven major elements in the social milieu that help make creative contributions possible:
- some of these are direct responsibilities of the field, others depend on the broader social system
- a society that can match effectively opportunities for training with the potentials of children has an impact on the frequency of creative ideas its memebers produce. on the whole, however, trying to save by cutting opportunities for learning is one of the most benighted solutions a society can adopt
- expecting high performance is a necessary stimulus for outstanding achievement and hence for creativity. high expectation should start within the family, continue in the peer group, in the school, and in the community at learge. having high expectations is not a comfortable thing
- of course, excessive or unrealistic expectations do more harm than good. in our study, parents and mentors usually conveyed their faith in the young creator's abilities indirectly, almost taking excellence for granted, rather than nagging, pushing, or insisting
- presumably it is best when not only the family and teh school but also the entire community and society expect high performance of a young person.
- resources are crucial for creativity to develop, but their role is ambiguous. it is true that having access to the best examples of the past helps, and so does being able to afford the necessary materials. yet too many resources also have a deadening effect on creativity. when everything is comfortable and better than anywhere else, the desire for novelty turns to thrills and entertainment instead of trying to solve basic problems
- certainly, if we wish to encourage creativity, we have to make sure that material and itnellectual resources are widely abailable to all talented and interested members of society. yet we should realize that a certain amount of hardship, of challenge, might have a positive effect on their motivation
- at some point in their careers, potentially creative people have to be recognized by an older member of the field. if this does not happen, it is likely that motivation will erode with time, and the younger person will not get the training and the opportunities necessary to make a contributio. the mentor's main role is to validate the identity of the younger person and to encourage him or her to continue working in the domain. the guidance of an older practitioner is important also because there are hundreds of ideas, contacts, and procedures that one will not read in books or hear in classes but that are essential to learn if one hopes to attract the attention an the approval of one's colleagues. some of this information is substansive, some is more practical, but all of it may be necessary if one's ideas are to be noticed as creative
- training, expectations, resources, and recognition are to no avail, however, if the young person has no hope of using his or her skills in a productive career
- after hope, one alsoneeds to have real opportunities to act in the domain
- the problem is especially severe in fields that require long and specialized training and then suddenly run out of opportunities
- it is true that there are many instances of creative individuals who seem to make their own opportunities
- finally,rewards - both intrinsic and extrinsic - help the flowering of creativity
- money give relief from worries, from drudgery, and makes more time abailable for one's real work. it also enlarges the scope of opportunities
- similarly, public recognition and acclaim are certainly not necessary to truely creative persons, yet they are not rejected either
- intrinsic rewards also can help or hinder talented person's commitment to a domain. there are time when a dull disciplinebecomes suddenly exciting, or when a the reverse happens
- intrinsic motivation can be easily stifled. boring schools, insensitive mentoring, rigid work environments, too many pressures and bureaucratic requirements can turn an exciting intellectual adventure into a chore and extinguish the sparks of creativity
- but many will argue that nothing the field can do will make a difference. a creative person is precisely the one who despite all obstacles prevails. this equation may be true, but its converse is not. there is no evidence that training and reward do no increase creative contributions
- in my view of the situation, if the systems model of creativity is accurate, then it follows that creativity can be enhanced just as much by changing the field - by making it more sensitive and supportive of new ideas - as by producing a greater number of creative individuals. better training, higher expectations, more accurate recognition, a greater availability for opportunities, and stranger rewards are among the conditions that facilitate the production and the assimilation of potentially useful new ideas
contributions of the domain
- it is less clear what the role of the domain could be. does the way information is coded and preserved have anything to do with how easy or difficult it is to make a creative change in a discipline?
the accessibility of information
- often intellectual or power elites hide their knowlege on purpose, to keep to themselves the advantages that go with the information. to accomplish this they develop arcane languages, mysterious symbols, and secret codes that are meaningless to those not initiated into the guild
- some of this desire for exclusive control of knowledge survives. and even those who have the most selfless and democratic views about the information they control often unwittingluy make what they know inaccessible by using a language, a style, or a method of exposition that a layperson cannot understand. sometimes such obscurantism is inevitable, but often it is an unneccessary habit left over from the past, or a shortcut that makes one's thoughts more accessible to the initiated while putting them out of anyone else's reach
- linguistic obfuscation is only one means by which domains become isolate. the more general problem is that each domain is becoming increasingly specialized not only in its vocabulary but also in the ceonceptual organization of its rules and procedures.
- it is also true, however, that some recent technological advances help trends moving in the opposite direction.
the organization of knowledge
- whether it is easy or difficult to recognize novelty in a domain depends in large part on how the memes and the rules of the domain are organized.
- similarly, it should be easier to tell whether a new way of doing things is better than the old in mathematics, which is an extremely coherent domain; it would be slightly more difficult in physics, and even more so in biology and economics; it would be most difficult in the other social sciences and philosophy, which are not as tightly connected by an internal network of laws. when the domain is not strictly integrated by logical rules, it is difficult for the field to judge whether novelty is valuable, and thus whether it should be included in the domain.
- domains wax and wane in their ability to generate novelty.
- a domain generates novelty only when there is a convergence between an instability within it and the mind of a person who is able to cope with the problem. therefore, even the most creative persons usually contribute only a few, sometimes only one, great new idea - the one they were prepared for, the one for which the timing was right.
- sometimes the domain is changed buy a new way of thinking, by better measrements, or by new instruments that allow better observation. usually all of these are inolved.
- the organization of knowledge is especially important when it comes to passing it down to the next generation. to be creative, a person must first understand the domain. if the knowledge in the domain is nearly incomprehensible, few young people will bother learning it, and thus the chances of creative innovations will be less. but sometimes there are equally valid conflicting claims about how knowledge should be transmitted.
- if there is more than one right way to pass o knowledge, there are many more wrong ways of doing. whenever the information is untrue, illogical, superficial, redundant, disconnected, confusing, or - especially - dull, the chances of its getting across to students is diminished, and so is the likelihood of a creative response
flow and learning
- the origins of culture can easily be explained by necessity. technology, science, even the arts were defensive adaptations our ancestors discovered to improve their chances of survival, or in oder to increase their comfort.
- these primitive reasons for having a culture are still operative. we are motivated to learn, to become experts, to innovate and strike out in new directions in large part because to do so promises very real material advantages. we no longer compete, as our ancestors did, primarily in terms of physical prowess or simple skills.
- with time, other reasons for creating culture have emerged, and in many ways they are now more important, at least for some people some of the time, than the ancient reasons based on competitions and material advantage. operating within a domain can become rewarding in and of itself
- so one obvious way to enhance creativity is to bring as much as possible of the flow experience into the various domains. it is exhilarating to build a culture - to be an artist, a scientist, a thinker, or a doer. all too often, however, the joy of discovery fails to be communicated to young people, who turn isntead to passive entertainment. but consuming culture is never as rewarding as producing it. if it were only possible to transmit the excitement of the people we interviewed to the next generation, there is no doubt that creativity would blossom.