Monthly Archives: September 2010

Picking at the Glue and Possibilities for Innovation

In his novel So Yesterday, Scott Westerfeld explores questions about innovation, about how the new can come into society, and about how the next cool thing can become yesterday’s news in the steady advance of consumer culture. The book deals mostly with fashion and the role of Innovators, Trendsetters, and Early Adopters, those who invent or introduce the new, those who can see and understand the new, and those who are eager to try out what’s new. The book also introduces “Jammers,” those who want to jam up our conventional ways of seeing things so more people will be more creative—to free people to make their own choices and think for themselves.

As the book’s teenage protagonists, Hunter and Jen, track down some of these “Jammers,” referred to as the “anti-client,” the appearance of cobblestones through worn-out asphalt spurs a discussion of innovation and the French Revolution.

I smiled—she was getting used to my wandering brain—and pointed at the bumpy surface. “The hoi polloi were pissed off everywhere back in the old days, but the revolution succeeded only in France, because the cobblestones in Paris weren’t stuck down very well. An angry mob could take on the king’s soldiers just by pulling up the street. Imagine a hundred peasants lobbing those at you […] Your fancy uniform, your musket, none of it’s worth much in a hail of rocks the size of a fist. But in cities where the cobblestones were stuck down better, the angry mob couldn’t do anything. No revolution.”

Jen thought for a few seconds, then gave cobblestones the Nod. “So the hoi polloi could get rid of the aristocrats just because of a flaw in the glue, one that was right under their feet.”

“Yeah,” I said. All it took was some Innovator to say, ‘Yo, let’s pick up these cobblestones and throw them.’ And that was the end of society.” […]

“Hunter, do you ever feel like there’s some problem with the glue these days? Like maybe if anyone figured out what to throw and who to throw it at, everything would fall apart pretty quickly?”

“All the time.”

“Me too.” We were crossing a worn patch of Hudson Street, and Jen swung a shoe at the top of a cobblestone. It was solidly submerged in sunbaked tar and didn’t budge. “So, that’s the anti-client’s mission, isn’t it? Ungluing things? Maybe they’ve figured out what to throw.”

“Maybe.” I shaded my eyes with one hand and squinted at the next street sign, then at the numbers. […] “But more likely they’re just throwing everything they can.” (160-161)

Now don’t get me wrong, the Interactivity Foundation is not out to start a revolution. We’re not claiming to play the role of “Jammers” or “Innovators.” We’re not interested in changing the political scene or breaking down anything. But we are interested in helping more people, everyday people, to be more innovative, to think of more possibilities for our society. We are interested in helping people to make discoveries, to look at things in new ways, to think about how things could be different. And one way this can happen is if people start poking at beliefs or practices that we think are fixed.

In short, we want people to pick at the glue, to see what might come loose, so we don’t just take for granted that the way things are is the way things have to be. A lot of assumptions about our society, our conventional notions, are like those cobblestones underfoot. We don’t think about them, we just walk on them and assume they can’t be budged. Too often we treat current notions and current policies as fixed in stone. In the Interactivity Foundation’s Discussion Projects we intentionally kick at those stones and pick at the glue that holds them in place. We want people to explore those basic assumptions, to question those presuppositions or commonplace notions. The point isn’t to reject them necessarily or cast them aside (nor to throw them at something or someone!). The point is to think about whether we can see them in new ways and whether, by doing so, we might generate new discoveries about other ways to put things together, other ways to guide our actions as a society.

So pick at the glue. See what might come loose. And if you can loosen up the seemingly fixed ways we think about our society, then try to think of different ways you might put them back together. Try to think of different things we might put in their place. Try to envision different ways for our society to be. We’re not asking you to start a revolution or change the world. But you just might discover some useful innovations for your fellow citizens to explore. As Hunter remarks at the end of Westerfeld’s novel, you never know how far that might lead:

So you ask the question: What can the Jammers do, anyway? Won’t they just fizzle like any other fad, fail like a million other revolutions, wind up useless and bitter, like an orphaned pile of pet rocks in the closet? Or can a small group of well-organized and charismatic Innovators really change the world?

Maybe they can.

By my reading of history, that’s the way it’s happened every time. (224-225)

–Jeff Prudhomme

Cross posted at the Interactivity Foundation’s Perspectives Blog

If An Idea Does Not Sound Absurd, Then There’s No Hope For It

“If an idea does not sound absurd, then there’s no hope for it.”—Albert Einstein

I recently came across these words from Albert Einstein in the context of an interview on the topic “Does Science Fiction Predict the Future of Journalism?”. The interviewee, Loren Ghiglione, a professor of journalism at Northwestern University, pointed out that writers of science fiction (or “speculative fiction”) have actually done a pretty good job of foreseeing future technological developments. In fact, in their imaginative projections of the future, on such things as the miniaturization of technology, they’ve often done better than scholarly futurists.

We often tend to think that the future will flow as a linear development of the past and present. If this were so, then best way to project future possibilities would be to study the current state of affairs. Ghiglione reminds us that the future does not simply emerge as an incremental and linear development from the present. As he says of Einstein’s words,

“I love that quote because I think it talks to this notion of the future is likely to be counterfactual and not built on what has just happened.”

This means that if we are thinking into the future and projecting future possibilities, this will not primarily be a matter of studying the way things are or have been. This activity can’t be restricted to a matter of knowledge. Rather, it is a matter of creative or imaginative thinking. To do this, to think into the future, we need to engage the power of our imagination. And when we do so, we need to keep in mind that the future may not flow on the same trajectory as the present.

The goal of an Interactivity Foundation Sanctuary Project isn’t exactly to offer predictions of the future. Nor are we concerned with making accurate projections of the future. But we are engaged in something similar—exploring and developing contrasting visions of future possibilities for a democratic society. To participate in this kind of exploration and development is to engage our creative powers to imagine and construct alternative possibilities for the future. And to do this well, it is good to keep in mind that many of the possibilities we explore may seem, at least at first blush, to be absurd.

In the course of a Sanctuary Project, we need to create space for ideas that seem to be on the wrong track, ideas that don’t seem to flow from the status quo, and even ideas that just seem far-fetched or downright crazy. As Einstein and Ghiglione remind us, the apparent absurdity of these ideas doesn’t necessarily mean they are useless for us to think about. For all we know, they may even end up being the way the future actually develops. As countless film and cartoon characters have told us, “that’s so crazy, it just might work!”

Of course, this invocation of our imaginative powers doesn’t mean that knowledge gets tossed out the window. In every Sanctuary Project, the participants will need some time to think about how these contrasting possibilities might unfold in the real world. There has to be some contact with reality—even if the reality of our human situation might change by the policy choices we might make, by taking divergent paths into the future. But the participants need to remember not to hem themselves in by restricting themselves to the linear development of current realities. We all need to remember that “if at first an idea does not sound absurd, then there’s no hope for it.”

–Jeff Prudhomme

Cross posted at the Interactivity Foundation’s Perspectives Blog .