WHERE IDEAS COME FROM

David Lance Goines

16 Sep 1997

You have to kiss a lot of frogs in order to find a prince. - American Folk Saying

Ideas seem to come from a number of sources. A big one is stimulus diffusion, which is roughly described as the transfer of ideas and technologies via cross-cultural influence. The interesting thing about stimulus diffusion is that the most important ideas seem to be the result of poor communication, misunderstandings and the rough tailoring of somebody else's notions to a new and different milieu.

A good illustration of this is the introduction of vowels by the Greeks to the Phoenician alphabet. So far as can be determined, the vowels result from a simple misunderstanding of the sounds and functions of several unpronounceable (to the Greeks) Semitic consonants.

Half-seeing or half-hearing something can lead to a completely different interpretation than if you had been paying full attention. Sometimes you can't pay full attention because you can't understand what's going on; this is what leads children to their often bizarre interpretations of ordinary things. It's no accident that most innovations are made by young people, to whom new ways of looking at things are a normal part of daily life.

A second place where ideas come from is in response to the demands of the marketplace. The Kremer prize was offered to the first man-powered flight that fulfilled certain rigid requirements. The Kremer prize, therefore, can be said to have created the demand that led to a technological breakthrough.

On August 23, 1977, Paul MacCready, an aeronautical engineer from Pasadena California, and one of many contestants who responded to the challenge, was awarded the Kremer prize for creating the first successful human-powered aircraft. The Gossamer Condor was flown over the required three mile, figure-eight course by Brian Allen. The Gossamer Albatross (created by the same team as the Condor) crossed the Dover channel in 1979.

Not to be discounted is pleasure in introducing change for its own sake. Change, per se, is highly valued in the world of pure ideas. Advertising, for example, is in constant flux. First, there is the perception that people get bored with the same old ads and need a constant barrage of new ones to stimulate their jaded perceptions. Second, and probably more significant, is that designers and art directors themselves value innovation and change. Deliberate or accidental misuse of an idea or technology can also lead to something new.

Avon's Skin-So-Soft moisturizer has been discovered by consumers to be a really good insect repellent. Peanut butter is effective for removing bubble gum from hair. Dawn dish washing detergent is good for de-greasing animals that have been harmed in oil spills.

In these cases, though the product itself is not new, the application to which consumers have put it is new; thus the product becomes, in effect, a new product.

It might seem that the task of thinking is to find new solutions to old problems. The history of intellectual and technological progress, however, inclines me to think that once a question is asked, a solution will arise, sooner or later. Therefore the ability to ask questions is of more value than an ability to provide answers.

THE BIG IDEAS

The first big idea was agriculture. This is the one that moves humanity from tiny groups of hunter-gatherers into large concentrations of highly interdependent, social creatures.

Agriculture was invented, on and off, more than once in human history, but basically caught on permanently about eleven thousand years ago. The consequences of agriculture were:

Out of these five, which seem to have developed as the result of the population explosion that followed the abundance and regular supply of food that agriculture promoted, record keeping evolved by around the year 3,000 BC into writing.

The alphabet and metallurgy arose around the second millennium BC. The alphabet was invented in Palestine or Syria, probably between 1800 and 1650 BC. Monotheism, too, arose with or at about the time of the water-empire pharaoh Akhenaten (c. 1375 BC), (3) finds its champion in the Old Testament Moses, and takes root with the Near-Eastern nomadic peoples after being violently rejected by the Egyptians.

Of the institutions resulting from the invention of agriculture, at least two of them can be classed as negative. That is, they provide an impediment to the development of further ideas. These two offenders are slavery and war.

As the Roman Empire waned, and with it certain formal aspects of slavery, there began a flowering of technological development, particularly in the Near East, the results of which were transmitted to Europe through trade and the Crusades. The three most significant developments were alchemy, later developing into chemistry; medicine, the apotheosis of which is drugs and antibiotics; and the eventual invention in the West of printing by moveable type.

Alchemy, chemistry and medicine are all related, and all owe a great debt to the Indian concept of zero as a place-holder (458 AD) without which numbers are useful only as simple counting devices. The Scientific Method, which is prediction instead of explanation, depends on numbers as an abstract system of thought.

The idea of Romantic Love, the roots of which lie in chivalry, is entwined in the development of Medieval feudalism. (4) The fullest expression of Romantic Love--pure adoration unsullied by physical consummation-is found in the High Middle Ages. It may stem from Maryology, which is in turn the worship of the Universal Mother, which is in turn, the worship and love for one's own mother. Perhaps the most abstract of all pure ideas, it rivals the concept of One God.

The latter half of the nineteenth century is distinguished by the development of ideas concerning themselves with "The proper study of mankind." They are forms of History, concerning themselves with the long view - as with the work of Charles Darwin (Evolution); Heinrich Schliemann (Archaeology); and Sir James G. Frazier (Anthropology); as well as the big view: Karl Marx (Communism) and, in the Twentieth Century, Einstein's Theory of Relativity. Around the turn of the century, we get the small view: Sigmund Freud develops Psychoanalysis, and his disciple Jung follows with Psychotherapy.

THOUGHTFUL IDEAS

Broadly speaking, thinking can be divided into two classes: thinking and not-thinking. Thinking can be considered a positive act, as it makes further thinking or actions easier. Not-thinking can be considered a negative act, as it inhibits thought and action. Ideas can be considered within the context of recurrence within a temporal and geographical frame. The alphabet, for example, could have been invented any time after the invention of agriculture, anywhere in the world. The McCormick reaper, which is an invention dependent on much narrower criteria such as adequate metallurgy, population pressure, and a high order of manufacturing, could have been invented anytime between, say, 1825 and 1900. For the sake of this argument, ideas will be ranked in order of frequency, from commonest to rarest. That is, by how often they have been invented.
  1. Of making obvious what was previously invisible. The discovery of penicillin by Alexander Fleming (1881-1955) is a good example.
  2. Minimalism: paring away inessentials to arrive at some sort of center.
  3. Tricks, twists and angles: examples can be found in competent clothing and fashion design, applied design and advertising.
  4. Putting together two ideas to make a third; making a useful improvement on an already existing idea. Examples abound: the Colt revolver gathers many pre-existing concepts into a new device.
  5. An idea which, although good, either requires a significant further development or is not suited to the needs or capacity of the culture in which it is produced. Examples of this are the piston and cylinder, invented by Ctesibius of Alexandria in circa the third century BC, which he put to use pumping water; and the inventions of his compatriot Hero, who harnessed steam power to produce mechanical motion. Another is the digital computer, the principles of which were developed by Charles Babbage and Lady Ada Lovelace c. 1833.
  6. An idea that is produced complete and intact, upon which no substantial improvement is necessary for a long time, despite the changes which it generates within the culture. Examples are the invention of perspective in circa 1425 by Filippo di Ser Brunellesco (1377-1446), improved upon by Leon Battista Alberti (1404-1472) in 1435; printing by moveable type (Johan Gutenberg, circa 1450), and the invention of lithography by Alois Senefelder in 1798. The alphabet and monotheism are outstanding examples of this class, having endured essentially unchanged since their invention.
  7. Ideas that are seminal, though they have been invented repeatedly. The best illustration is the invention of writing: Mesopotamian, circa 3100 BC and Mayan, circa 600 BC) and perhaps three times if the Chinese system (circa 2200-1400 BC) proves original. Counting time from a fixed point (calendars) is another. Monotheism, invented perhaps by the Pharaoh Akhenaten and popularized by Moses (c. 1450-1275 BC) may be another. Both these ideas are so simple that they can be explained quickly and easily to almost anyone. This does not, of course, mean that they caught on immediately. Change in any one area stimulates change in all areas. (6) The Copernican revolution will serve to illustrate. When society is in turmoil, the individuals within it also experience unrest and disorientation. If they accept change in one area, they become able to accept change in any other area, as well. Conversely, a static situation promotes a conservative resistance to change, which, in turn makes people less likely to look for different ways of doing things. Complacency and satisfaction with the way things are seem to be the enemy of creative thinking. As people and cultures grow older, they keep on doing things the way they have always done them, no matter how cumbersome or inconvenient. They vigorously resist any kind of change at all, no matter how much better it might be. Change entails risk, and risk implies the chance of loss. Loss is not what old people who have little to gain and a lot to lose are interested in. Fortunately, in each generation of people there is always a new group of people who have not much stake in the system, not much to lose, and not much sympathy with those who are afraid of change. Thus, it is usually left to the young and disenfranchised to introduce change.

There is also another class of human activity, which can be called:

THOUGHTLESS IDEAS

or the class of negative ideas. By frequency, they are:

  1. Inattention; not learning from experience.
  2. Carelessness, laziness, not doing a good job. (The Hubble Telescope embarrassment will stand as a prime illustration of this for some time to come.)
  3. Not thinking something out all the way; not foreseeing the result of an action. (Rent Control; the Welfare System) Negative ideas 1) through 3) are generally accompanied by pride (hubris) and arrogance, which blind people to their errors, stop up their ears and turn off their brains.
  4. Letting someone else do the thinking for you; accepting received wisdom (Women's social inequality in a post-industrial environment is a good illustration; Religious tenets are a prime class of received wisdom that is not to be questioned).
  5. Cultural immaturity; manifested in such things as racial prejudice, slavery and war. Cultural immaturity is a kind of big-time bad manners. A nice phrase for it would be cultural blind spots.

All great ideas have been obvious to the prepared mind, and utterly invisible, though perfectly comprehensible after the fact, to the unprepared recipent. How long did people gripe and joke about standing in lines in banks before some unsung genius eliminated the problem by consolidating the lines into one, feeding people in an orderly, fair manner to the next available teller? In 1968, the Chemical Bank of New York introduced a single queue winding back and forth between stanchions, feeding customers on a first-come-first-serve to the next available teller. In that same year, Halyville, Alabama, population 5000, was the first community to designate the telephone numbers 9-1-1 for all emergency calls. Why did it take so long? By what means can the mind be prepared to see that which is immediately under its nose? By learning to see, of course, but to see what is really there, rather than what we think is there, or would rather was there, or have been told is there.

Corporate cowardice-CYA (Cover Your Ass)-stifles creative thought. An example of decision making by corporate cowardice is the position enjoyed by IBM computers within the business community: International Business Machines made its reputation by providing well-made, dependable business machines. Its excellent service and innovative design made it the best choice for typewriters, which was the contact that most business people had with the company. When computers hit the market, IBM chose to go with big mainframes, neglecting the burgeoning PC until market forces compelled participation. Despite major contributions, by 1980 the IBM PC was no better than any other PC system, and for many applications, worse than quite a few. Customer service was average, and the machines were built neither better nor worse than the others. They did, however, cost about three times as much. IBM's reputation was still strong, and despite the realities, the only safe corporate choice was IBM.. All systems have flaws, go down, and create problems: but, if the buyer has bought IBM, he can at least say, "I bought the best." If he has bought a less well known brand, and it has problems, he has no excuse and may be penalized. IBM thus, despite its mediocre performance and high price, is still the safe choice in a large business environment.

What takes the place of genuine creativity within a corporate environment is often no more than meaningless action: I am surprised at the frequency with which a new CEO begins his reign by commanding a redesign of the corporate identity program, eradicating in the manner of the despotic Pharaohs all traces of his predecessor and, as a byproduct, dynamiting generations of corporate identity and public recognition. Thus, the flying horse trademark was replaced by a soulless red-and-blue word "Mobil"; the calligraphic "Ford" became a tiresome Helvetica monolith (and back again when the party-in-power was again replaced).

An exception to the general rule of corporate stifling of creativity may be when a powerful, creative individual forges and retains an influential position within a corporation, keeping the trust and confidence of his superiors. The best example I know of is that of Charles "Boss" Kettering of General Motors, whose design group kept GM far in front of domestic and international competition throughout his long tenure. In 1912, he developed the electric starter for Cadillac, and in 1949 the V-8 engine design made its appearance in the Cadillac and Oldsmobile 88. In 1950, Cadillac placed 10th and 11th in the 24-hour Le Mans auto race. With the loss of Kettering and others like him, in the ensuing years GM pissed away its lead and in the 1970s surrendered its preeminence to foreign competition.

The Japanese Nintendo corporation, which in the early 1980s entered a moribund industry only to attain complete domination by the early 1990s, counters corporate mediocrity by an oddly revolutionary method. The R&D groups are given complete freedom, and the marketing department has no communication with R&D. The president, Mr. Yamauchi, said, "The marketing department would look at what is popular and tell the designers to make more of the same. If you work that way, nothing new and fresh comes out." Becoming physically strong is done by physical exercise; learning to think is done by thinking; learning to be creative is done by creating; you start out slow and work up to whatever potential you have. There is no royal road, no shortcut, no trick. The longer you have gone without exercise, thinking, creating, the harder it is to start and the longer it will take to get good at it.

A GYMNASIUM FOR THE MIND

So, what can you do to keep your brain working? Here are a few suggestions: Foster your curiosity: keep a dictionary close at hand. If you don't understand a word, look it up. Ask questions and research the answers: Why is the sky blue? Why is the letter "A" shaped like that? Why can you see through glass? Why is your reflection in a mirror reversed left for right but not top for bottom?

Practice being creative: write, paint, draw, play a musical instrument, sing. It doesn't matter how good you are. You'll get better, and you'll exercise your brain and body and make them stronger.

Question received wisdom: if something seems wrong to you, or even a bit odd, don't just accept it. When in the mid-1960's women tried to get jobs as toll-takers on the Golden Gate bridge they were told that the work was not open to women. When they asked why, it immediately became obvious that there was no reason on God's green earth why a woman couldn't stick her hand out and get money put into it, same as a man. The restriction disappeared the very instant someone questioned it.

Do things that are unaccustomed and difficult: learn to type on a rational keyboard system (Dvorak); learn a new language; listen to and try to learn to enjoy music that you don't like and don't understand, such as jazz; if you already appreciate jazz, try classical; if you already like classical, try punk, concrete music or R & B; it doesn't matter what you do as long as you're doing something. If you were to exercise your body by lifting weights, or running, or doing aerobics, it is not because in real life you will be called upon to run, lift barbells or jump around like a lunatic, it is because you are making yourself more capable of performing other tasks entirely, or merely more likely to live longer and get sick less frequently. The exercise is the immediate, but not the long-term goal.

Remember the dreamers and visionaries. Do not make fun of things that are strange and weird to you. Mockery is a way of isolating yourself from the new, the strange and the potentially fruitful. Not all dreamers and crazies are valid; in fact, most of them are simply nuts. But, by rejecting all eccentricity, all oddity, you also reject the very thing you're looking for.

footnotes:

(1) Early in the Bronze Age, between 3500 BC and 3100 BC cities emerged in Sumeria and large scale trade flourished.

(2) The earliest known records date from 8,500 BC They take the form of small, clay tokens, some clearly representational and others abstract. Considered overall, the system had some 15 major classes of tokens, further divided into some 200 subclasses on the basis of size, markings or shape. Each had a meaning of its own.

(3) Husband of Nefertete, father of Tutankhamun. Akhenaten's new religion barely survived his death.

(4) The roots of Feudalism are, in turn, in the breakdown of the Roman bureaucratic structure and decay of slavery. Feudalism is dependent on the clear relationship between superior and inferior; that relationship being one of duty, both to specific although often abstract or idealized individuals, as well as to oneself-also in an abstract sense. The concepts of chivalry, central to which is an ideal of duty regardless of reward, communicate well into romance and romantic attachments. An early illustration of the ideal of feudal duty is to be found in The Song of Roland.

(5) The development of speech is dependent on the ability to make speech-like sounds. Homo Neanderthalensis, (150,000 to 30,000 years ago) an apparent dead-end in human development, did not have a larynx like that of Homo Sapiens. The Cro-magnon larynx makes possible sophisticated, well-articulated speech. In short, we talk because we can, and a dog does not talk because it cannot.

(6) "Change in one field decreases the hold of stereotypes in others. Stereotypes are most readily discarded during periods of general ferment." - Thomas S. Kuhn, The Copernican Revolution: Planetary Astronomy in the Development of Western Thought, Harvard, Cambridge University Press, 1957.

Possible box:

APPLYING THE BIG IDEA

Hieroglyphics and ideograms take decades to learn. Using the acrophonic alphabet, an intelligent person can be taught principles in a few hours enabling him to read and write his own language. In 1821 we were provided with an incontrovertible instance of what we suppose happened around the year 2000 BC. It further provides us with a striking instance of stimulus diffusion. The American Indian, Sequoia, known as George Guess, served as a volunteer in the United States Army during the Creek Wars of 1813-14. He understood some English, but he did not speak it. Although illiterate, he recognized that the White Man communicated silently over distance and time by means of writing. He reasoned that this powerful tool would be of use to his people. Since he had no idea how the White Man's writing worked, except that it represented sounds in some way, he had to invent a principle for his new system. The one that occurred to him was the syllabic principle. Randomly picking 85 characters from a child's primer, which Sequoia owned but could not read, and assigning to them basic sounds in his own tongue, he contrived an acrophonic syllabary. For example, the value of H is mi and the value of S is du. Sequoia found that he could teach any Cherokee to read and write in a few days, and within a few months the Cherokee people were writing letters to one another. The present day Cherokee syllabary is based on the original Caslon types which were then current.

3/17/99

BACK TO LISTINGS

LAST ARTICLE | NEXT ARTICLE