Monday, March 5, 2012

Creativity and Criticism

When I was an undergraduate studying architecture, there was a professor whose infamy extended beyond his graduate-level studio courses. His revolutionary idea was that he did not believe in the value of studying precedents. He believed that creativity flowed from within him and his creativity was unique to him alone. Attempting to study important historical examples of, say, libraries, prior to designing a library would actually limit his creativity and result in a less than original library design. Consequently, none of his studio classes studied or discussed historical precedents.

At least, that is what we undergraduates believed he believed. We laughed. We dismissed him as crazy. Because OF COURSE it was important to be aware of what came before and outside of YOU.

What I find interesting lately, however, is the way in which I find myself wanting to believe his theory. Many days I want to isolate myself in a bubble; I want to believe in the originality of whatever idea floats into my brain; I want to develop that idea myself while sitting on the floor building block towers with the boys.

Somedays, as I surf through blogs and websites, I feel an enormous disappointment in the Sameness of it all. We're all lacking in creativity. Everything feels like copy-paste or repin. It feels like there's nothing new anywhere. For me, sites like Pinterest and networking concepts such as the 'like' button, reinforce a proliferation of thoughtlessness. Thoughtlessness, because, well, there's not a lot of editing or critiquing or improving going on when we use these tools to express our preferences.

It seems to me that there are two phenomenon at work that are aiding this proliferation of quick opinion over careful consideration.

The first phenomenon is something I'm going to call, Social Networking (Mis)Appropriates Blink. Have you read Blink, by Malcolm Gladwell? It came out in 2005, and actually, it would be pretty difficult to have missed the amount of publicity this book received. Unless, maybe, you were having a baby at the time. Then, I can totally understand. Just in case, I'll catch you up: the premise of the book is that our brains can make quick 'right' decisions (in the BLINK of an eye) by the subconscience processing of data. Gladwell gave authority to the power of intuition in a forceful and convincing way that spoke to the general public. As far as I know, nobody else was doing this before him. And to me, Blink contained the basic principle that many current web networking trends seem to be based on. Don't think, just connect! Tell us what you like! Quickly and intuitively!

The second phenomenon is - well, maybe less of a phenomenon and more of a cultural hurdle - the pressure to only say 'nice' things. There's no way around this one, because we (Americans, and especially women) do this to ourselves. I do it to myself. Well, I think, if I can't put this in nice terms, if I can't use positive words because this cashier's extremely slow pace checking us is making me frustrated, then I should just keep my mouth shut and not say anything.

The problem with this Be a Nice Person, Don't Complain thinking is that, if you don't complain, nothing changes.

And change is what creativity is all about.

If you are willing to run with me on my theory that Blink spawned all these snap judgments tools on the internet, then I need to also tell you that this internet appropriation got it wrong. Gladwell does point out that the ability to make a good-blink-decision comes from years of experience and training. But he doesn't focus on the importance of expertise and training and somehow, I believe, it got lost under the newfound Authority of Intuition.

Let's find an example of how the Blink might have overstated the importance of intuition:

My mother, with years of mothering experience can often intuitively work her way through child's temper tantrum with a speed that I cannot. However, I will carefully dissect the steps proceeding the temper tantrum and more slowly - but also successfully - resolve the problem. Neither one of us made a 'wrong' decision, but my mother's intuition benefited her and made her faster at solving the same problem.

In the above example, I wasn't an expert. But I was a critic. I am often still the critic at mothering. I think about everything. I consider different possibilities. I even complain, because, are you kidding me? I JUST ASKED YOU TO USE THE BATHROOM BEFORE WE GOT IN THE CAR! I whine, I clench my teeth. And eventually, I learn that if the child is dancing around in circles, clutching his crotch, and claims he doesn't need to go, and won't use the bathroom, the secret is: tell him to stand still. Hold his feet still, if you must. And then he gets it.

To me, this process of learning, THIS is what creativity is all about. We can use this same process to design buildings, make jewelry, write blogs or raise children. But it is not a simple and easy thing. It takes time. It takes personal investment. And I think that in this regard, maybe that graduate professor was right: just looking at precedents might not be so helpful. Most of us certainly have no business doing it quickly by clicking on a button. We don't exercise our creativity when we hit a 'like' or 'repin' button. We don't learn and we certainly don't create! That's just following the herd! It's thoughtless! And it's just adding more sameness to the big old ocean of internet sameness. And it's looking, really, really Same out there, friends.

So here's what I propose:
1) If we find something we like on the internet to reference, let's be specific, let's comment about WHY we like it.
2) Likewise, if there's something that can be made/done better about it, let's say that TOO. I think we all know how to be constructive.
(3) And if we don't know how to be constructive, let's start practicing.)

Creativity is a slow process, but it teaches us to think when we have to take our time. It teaches us to think when we make mistakes or acknowledge mistakes. It's a process that will be unique to each and everyone of us. If we could just trust a little more in ourselves; if we could just let ourselves be wrong and messy and un-marketed by the 'like' button, we'd be so much more interesting and thoughtful. And maybe someday we'll be truly worthy of intuitively clicking the 'like' button.

What do you think?


Shalini said...

I do agree that in some ways the internet spawns sameness, but in other ways it does just the opposite of that--it spawns very slight changes that over time create huge changes in a landscape. (Like, say, dooce being a big-time mommyblogger, spurring thousands of other mommybloggers, spawning very different sorts of writing. (Dooce spawns, say, Amalah, which spawns, say, Her Bad Mother, which spawns, say, a feminist blogger which spawns a political blogger, and SO ON). Uh, did I make a point? I'm not sure.

Pregnantly Plump said...

I kind of agree, but more out of lack of knowledge about pinning and facebook. I feel like those sites are nothing but time sucks and invitations to feel jealous of others.

Ann Wyse said...

Shalini - I like the description of the internet slowly (relatively, right?) creating big changes in the landscape. I'm still thinking ocean analogy, here. Like the shoreline is changing.

That seems accurate. There are huge changes brought about by the internet.

But there's still this huge, huge part of the ocean (internet) that is nowhere near land. It acts intuitively, but NOT AT ALL intentionally, and it will never, ever see the land.

This area of the ocean, this seemingly endless, landless part of the ocean is the part that I sometimes find HIGHLY DEPRESSING.

Out here, I'm always hopeful for a volcano.

Simply Bike said...

I love this post, and I totally agree with you here. But I'm also guilty as charged. Some days, I find it so much easier to be a passive participent, mindlessly clicking "like" and "pin" and not investing too much thought or effort in egaging with whatever it is that I happen to be looking at or reading online.

I don't know that there is a way to opt out of this type of engaging with the internet, but I think it's so valuable to be aware of this and to think about it and point it out. I'll probably be extremely self-conscious for the rest of the day when clicking "like, like, like" but in all honestly, I'll still do it. Especially this evening, when tired, braindead, and just looking for easy entertainment.