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Networked Knowledge and Combinatorial Creati…

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Networked Knowledge and
Combinatorial Creativity

Why creativity is like LEGO, or what Richard
Dawkins has to do with Susan Sontag and Gandhi.

BY M A RI A P O P OVA

In May, I had the pleasure
of speaking at the
wonderful Creative
Mornings free lecture
series masterminded by
my studiomate Tina of
Swiss Miss fame. I spoke about Networked
Knowledge and Combinatorial Creativity,
something at the heart of Brain Pickings and of
increasing importance as we face our present

information reality. The talk is now available
online — full (approximate) transcript below,
enhanced with images and links to all materials
referenced in the talk.

TRANSCRIPT

These are pages from the most famous florilegium. Adam Gopnik writes in The New Yorker: Our minds were altered less by books than by index slips.” The florilegium is commonly considered one of the earliest recorded examples of remix culture. essentially mashing up selected passages and connecting dots from existing texts to illuminate a specific topic or doctrine or idea. the value not just of information itself but also of information architecture. recognizing not only the absolute vale of content but also its relational value. not just of content but also of content curation. . In talking about these medieval manuscripts. The word comes from the Latin for “flower” and “gather. Florilegia were compilations of excerpts from other writings. Which is interesting. completed by Thomas of Ireland in the 14th century.

what beautiful.000. runs up to him and pleads with him to draw her portrait. “$5. The lady is taken aback. A few minutes later. Picasso looks up and. Picasso is sitting in the park. and asks how much she owes him. outraged.” says Picasso. He’s in a good mood. she gushes about how wonderfully it captures the very essence of her character. and asks how that’s even possible given it only took him 5 minutes. without .You may have heard this anecdote. recognizes him. he hands her the portrait. madam. A woman walks by. beautiful work it is. sketching. so he agrees and starts sketching. The lady is ecstatic.

” Here’s the same sentiment from iconic designer Paula Scher on the creation of the famous Citi logo: (You’ll see. it took me my whole life.) Both of these stories captures something we all . madam. says: “No. a number of QR codes – these link to the content being mentioned.missing a beat. so you can read the full article or watch the full interview later. by the way.

skill and insight that we gather over the course of our lives and recombining them into incredible new creations. and that we create by taking existing pieces of inspiration.understand on a deep intuitive level. and combinatorial creativity. like dot-connecting of the florilegium. This is what I want to talk about today. that nothing is entirely original. knowledge. which is the essence of what Picasso and Paula Scher . but our creative egos sort of don’t really want to accept: And that is the idea that creativity is combinatorial. networked knowledge. that everything builds on what came before.

to combine and recombine these pieces and build new castles. .describe. The more of these building blocks we have. to cross-pollinate ideas from a wealth of disciplines. and the more diverse their shapes and colors. we have to be able to connect countless dots. the more interesting our castles will become. Because if we only have one color and one shape. Kind of LEGOs. The idea that in order for us to truly create and contribute to the world. it greatly limits how much we can create. even within our one area of expertise.

Einstein famously attributed some of his greatest physics breakthroughs to his violin breaks. which he believed connected different parts of his brain in new ways. And iconic novelist Vladimir Nabokov was a .

In the past century alone. And he believed this scholarly obsession is what helped him develop his deep passion for detail and precision. it’s been iterated and reiterated. which is what made his writing so crisp and vivid. In 1952. of course. This concept of combinatorial creativity and the cross-pollination of disciplines. in just about every cultural discipline. isn’t new.secret lepidopterist — he collected and studied butterflies religiously. iconic designer Alvin Lustig wrote in an essay: . over and over and over again.

In 1964. often imperceptible experiences that slowly accumulate to form a sum total of choices and decisions. I have found that all positions men take in their beliefs are profoundly influenced by thousands of small. in neighboring brains. . foreign brains. They interact with each other and with other mental forces in the same brain. neuropsychologist Roger Sperry drew an analogy between neurons and ideas: Ideas cause ideas and help evolve new ideas. and thanks to global communication. in far distant.

In 1970. French molecular biologist Jacques Monod proposed what he called the “abstract kingdom” — a conceptual place analogous to the biosphere. recombine. Monod said ideas have “spreading power” and propagate “infectivity” — we see this today with the language of “viral” ideas. populated by ideas that propagate much like organisms do in the natural world. they too can fuse. Like them. segregate their content. . they tend to perpetuate their structure and to breed. Monod wrote: Ideas have retained some of the properties of organisms.

so memes propagate themselves in the meme pool by leaping from brain to brain via a process which.In 1976. Richard Dawkins. coined the word “meme” for a similar concept: Examples of memes are tunes. can be called imitation. Because it makes me . in the broad sense. in his iconic book The Selfish Gene. which by the way I highly recommend. And I like this last part. Just as genes propagate themselves in the gene pool by leaping from body to body via sperms or eggs. ways of making pots or of building arches. catch-phrases. ideas. clothes fashions.

and to borrow other people’s hunches and combine them with our hunches and turn them into something new. “Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.” But in the context of this domino effect of ideas.think about the cliche we’ve all heard a million times. . it seems imitation might well be the sincerest form of ideation. In 2010 Steven Johnson writes in his excellent Where Good Ideas Come From: The great driver of scientific and technological innovation [in the last 600 years has been] the increase in our ability to reach out and exchange ideas with other people.

from it synthesize insight. we toss them into our mental reservoir… . And then we take these ideas.I like to think of it this way: We take information. which in turn germinates ideas. ours and those of others.

In art. But there is plenty of evidence for this ecosystem of influences and inspirations. Nina Paley photographed archaeological artifacts from the Metropolitan Museum of Art and animated them to illustrate her point: All creativity builds upon something that existed .…where they sit and sort of just float around until one day they float into just the right alignment to click into a new idea. at least not in the sense of being built from scratch. There’s a lot of resistance in the creative ego to that idea. Now. implicit to this idea of combinatorial creativity is the admission is that nothing is truly original. and that can be hard.

of course. . Just recently. The Joy of Sex. this brilliant Joy of Cycling poster for the Transport of London made the rounds. In design — there’s a Flickr set called Similarities that exposes examples of graphic design that borrows heavily from older work. on illustrations from Alex Comfort’s iconic 1972 manual. In animation — in his visual essay entitled Versions. It’s based.before and every work of art is essentially a derivative work. Oliver Laric explores the reappropriation of images by looking at how Disney recycles animation.

Here’s a short excerpt from Part 2. that drives the point home with one of the world’s most celebrated examples of creativity in entertainment. the mother of all remix culture studies.And of course. Kirby Ferguson’s excellent 4 part series. and many of these principles are hailed as revolutionary. But at their core lies something ancient. Everything Is A Remix. as a sign of the times. in which he explores influences across just about every genre and art medium. I believe creativity itself is the original . There’s so much buzz and excitement about the open-source movement today.

.open-source code. It’s that we’re essentially curious. Just look at little kids – this hunger to know the world is deep in our species’ DNA. once said: Our number one value isn’t in any of the skills we have. Curiosity is one of the most fundamental human drivers. Jim Coudal. one of my big creative and curatorial heroes. So what enables this derivative creativity and cross-pollination of ideas is a rich pool of mental resources to derive from. And I believe the two main mechanisms of how we fill that pool are curiosity…and choice.

and ultimately. Here’s Susan Sontag. one of my absolute favorite authors and minds: . where we choose to allocate our time and energy. Harvard’s Clay Christensen writes: Your decisions about allocating your personal time. Choice is how we tame and channel and direct our curiosity. and talent ultimately shape your life’s strategy. energy.But curiosity without direction can be a taxing and ultimately unproductive endeavor. what we choose to pay attention to.

and our choice of where to focus our awareness. is the role of information curators: They are our curiosity sherpas. who lead us to things we didn’t know we were . Do stuff. Be clenched. Much of Buddhist philosophy centers around this same idea. So that. curious. this balance between what’s being phrased as “intention” and “attention” – our intentional curiosity about knowledge and growth. Stay eager. It makes you eager. Not waiting for inspiration’s shove or society’s kiss on your forehead. Pay attention. I think. It connects you with others. what to pay attention to. It’s all about paying attention. Attention is vitality.

in a culture of exponentially increasing overload. But we don’t have the same ethical principles for sources of discovery. video. and different media. human synapses if you will.interested in until we. then information discovery is a form of creative labor in and of itself. So if information discovery plays such a central role in how we fuel our creativity and thus in our creative output. and they become a part of our networked knowledge and another LEGO piece in our combinatorial creativity. image. We have clearly defined systems for what’s right or wrong in terms of crediting creative products across text. Until we pay attention to them — because someone whose taste and opinion we trust points us to them. until we are. from image rights to literary citations. And yet our current code of ethics for respecting and crediting this kind of labor is completely inadequate. it’s through these nodes in the information ecosystem. well. and we integrate them with our existing pool of resources. these human sensemakers. And yet. that this very text or image .

and it’s as true of suicide bombers as it is of the greatest artists and poets: And that is the desire to matter in the world. And for publishers and curators. . that our creative and intellectual labor is of value to the world.or video finds its way into our mental pool of resources. So when we choose to take that recognition away. to be seen. Whether we call it link love or the via crediting. it’s not about “getting traffic” or “monetization” or any of those dreadful SEO terms. it’s much easier than doing a proper literary citation or clearing image rights. giving credit online is incredibly simple. and yet there’s precious little of it online. It’s about something much more deeply human. to know that our existence makes a difference. we’re essentially robbing someone of their creative labor. the same thing that I believe underpins every human aspiration and action. and perpetrating another form of piracy. to not acknowledge content curation or information discovery or whatever we call this.

pondering the future . I think. that the amount of work that went into florilegia in the Middle Ages made them the most lavish and expensive books to produce at the time. And I have to wonder. when did we lose this sort of creative meritocracy in how we treat dot-connecting content curation and today’s culture? When did we stop valuing the enormous amount of effort and time and thought that goes into culling and connecting ideas that shape humanity’s creative and intellectual direction? Here’s Kevin Kelly. brilliant man. futurist and Wired founder and brilliant.It’s quite telling.

We live at a time when we have a rare opportunity to make up the rules. We’ll come to understand that no work. ecosystems of intertwingled parts. and to codify that respect. and indoctrinate it and integrate it with our cultural framework. with how we think about creativity and intellectual property and human labor. true and beautiful things are networks. or a timeline of a concept. related entities and similar works. or a networked map of influence for any notion in the library. scholars and fans.of the book: Over the next century. A reader will be able to generate a social graph of an idea. aided by computational algorithms. stands alone. because they . So it’s my hope that we’ll find a way to respect these human synapses of networked knowledge and enablers of combinatorial creativity. but that all good. will knit together the books of the world into a single networked literature. no idea.

our words become our actions. I love these words from Gandhi: Our thoughts become our words. And this. I believe. it comes down to choice: The normative models we choose today will shape how much our culture will value this form of creative labor tomorrow. To set the standards and the norms and the honorable way of doing things. our actions become our character.haven’t been invented yet. Again. our character becomes our destiny. is our responsibility as publishers and curators and consumers of information. .

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