From the monthly archives:

April 2009

Disposable Culture

by Matt Blair on April 29, 2009

in Meaning,Perception,Publishing

As I was working on the next piece in the surplus series, I found the following quote in an article by Michael Pollan:

“But even with more than half of the 10 billion bushels of corn produced annually being fed to animals, there is plenty left over. So companies like A.D.M., Cargill and ConAgra have figured ingenious new ways to dispose of it, turning it into everything from ethanol to Vitamin C and biodegradable plastics.”

I’m highlighting other aspects of the quote in my next post, but in this one, the word I want to point out is dispose.

If you are a hungry person, corn has intrinsic value. It has nutrition, and your hunger is telling you that you need nutrition. Corn doesn’t lose value and become something that a society needs to “dispose of” until there is far more supply than demand.

Faith -- by The Cure

Faith -- by The Cure

I was recently going through old records (the musical kind, not the financial statement-kind) that I have in storage, thinking about selling some of them. The Cure’s “Faith” came out in 1981, and though it is still one of my favorite records, I don’t necessarily need the physical object in my house anymore.

It’s old enough that I figured a collector might be interested in it, until my thumb felt something at the lower right corner of the sleeve: a precise cut, about 1 cm into the cardboard.

It had been remaindered before I bought it.

You’ve probably encountered cassettes or CDs or DVDs that have a cut in the plastic container, or books that have ink from a marker across the bottom of the pages, and are selling for a third of the original price.

Remaindered Books

Remaindered Books

At some moment in the past, there were 20,000 too many units sitting in someone’s warehouse.  Their solution? Mark it down, and sell it off as cultural scrap. It was an inventory management decision, a change in accounting status at a particular time in the life of that physical expression of an idea.

Such intentional damage is a minor humiliation compared to the common practice in the book publishing world of pulping unsold copies.

Price and Value

Physical surplus makes culture seem cheap.  It creates an illusion of valuelessness.

The price of a particular cultural product is only a comment on that product at a specific moment, and not an indicator of the real value of the ideas the product conveys.

Not long after the vibrations caused by vinyl grooves have been dutifully transcribed by iTunes and saved on my phone, I won’t remember that the sleeve of that Cure album was cut — that someone somewhere years ago thought it was only worth half of what it was the day before.

As I listen, I’ll remember what it has always meant to me, regardless of scarcity or surplus.

Price is often a false or ephemeral indicator of  true, long-term value.

Want a more corporeal example?

Paper is relatively cheap.  Paper masks are relatively cheap.  What is the value of a paper mask that keeps someone from getting sick?

Related: This article is part of a series on creative surplus.

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In the initial post in this series, I implied that ‘Big Agribusiness’ generates an over-abundance “that feels like progress, but doesn’t actually solve the problems we set out to solve.”

With 6.5 billion people on the planet, and a significant percentage hungry each day, isn’t any method of increasing crop yields a good thing?  I’ll leave the farm policy debates for other venues.

I made the connection because of the emphasis on efficiency and hyper-productivity in modern industrial agriculture, an emphasis that has been implicitly transferred to other areas of life.

Efficiency is positive when it describes the amount of the sun’s energy a solar panel converts, or how quickly a pain reliever takes effect.

In human activities, efficiency is a kind of surplus of skill and know-how. Once you understand how to do one thing well, it’s easy to do it over and over again. Others acquire the same skills, learning to do it the same way. Efficiency can become a habit, and habits are often maintained long after they are relevant or helpful.

When a process becomes facile and automatic, and the inputs are in good supply, the result is monoculture.

Think of Andy Warhol’s decadent portraiture phase, when his Factory was cranking out prints for every movie star or royal that could write him a big enough check.

Which do we value more: his cow wallpaper and mylar floating pillows, or the dozens of images of unknown European duchesses?

Efficiency and idiosyncrasy are foes. What one person sees as inefficiency, another person treasures as culture.

Decisions based on quantity and efficiency lead to qualitatively different outcomes.

Heirloom Tomatoes (photo: mercedesfromtheeighties)

Heirloom Tomatoes (photo: mercedesfromtheeighties)

In your own ‘idea’ farming, do you want to produce 70,000 copies of the same tomato?  Or do you want to grow heirloom tomatoes and several varieties of basil, for a mid-summer tasting party with good friends?

Sure, the second option might be more work, require more study and carry a greater risk of failure. But which one makes your mouth water?

The sample plate of heirlooms from Capay Organics

Note: This post is the fourth in a loose and evolving series on creative surplus. So far, I’ve asked if we can have Too Many Ideas, pondered the process of choosing our work, and explored plankton blooms and creative dead zones. Update: the full list of articles is available here.

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We are conditioned to think of abundance as a good thing, but there are instances when abundance is toxic. We need water to live. Yet if we have only water, and no air, we drown.

Blooms around the Mississippi Delta

Blooms around the Mississippi Delta

Eutrophication provides a more nuanced example: Eutrophic comes from the Greek for ‘good food’. We need food as well as water, and if we are lucky, we have access to good food.

But good food isn’t always so good if there is too much of it. In a eutrophic lake, for example, nutrients are so abundant that algae bloom out of control. Water quality declines, and so does oxygen content. Many larger plants and animals in the lake die.

Abundance at the bottom of the food chain overwhelms the resources needed by the more complex and evolved species above, and the result is a so-called ‘dead zone’.

What’s the primary cause of these lethal blooms? Runoff from farms, filled with chemical fertilizers, which enters creeks and rivers, and changes the nutrient balance of nearby bodies of water — lakes, seas and oceans.

NASA map of plankton blooms along the northern coast of the Gulf of Mexico

Plankton blooms, northern coast of the Gulf of Mexico (NASA)

Could the same scenario play out in our creative process?

Ideas, of course, are a key ingredient of creative output, but can an over-abundance of ideas cause ‘creative dead zones’ that don’t support more refined idea-making and complex expressions of thought?

A Pipe or a Web?

Words like ‘blocked’ and ‘unblocking’ imply that creativity is a linear process: that on the way from A to B, there is something in the middle of the road which must be surmounted or blown up or routed around.  Or maybe it’s like a pipe, with a blockage in one section: clear the blockage, or replace that section of pipe, and ideas will flow again.

In my experience, creativity is a web of interconnected relationships and processes, with different ideas at different stages of development — an ecosystem of ideas. It’s multi-dimensional, and striking a balance between all the disparate parts is essential for the whole system to flourish.

In such a model, brainstorming represents a proliferation in one phase of the life cycle of ideas, which may have a positive or negative influence on the health of the entire ecosystem. There is no single measure of how many ideas are ‘too many’ or ‘too few’ without looking at the context.

I’m not advocating a lack of ideas, just suggesting that dumping the equivalent of chemical fertilizers into our brains can cause an ‘idea bloom’ that throws the entire system into dysfunction and decline.

Your creative ecosystem can break down in many ways. What if the predators — the critics and the naysayers — are over-abundant, and devour simpler forms of life before they can reproduce and evolve? I’ll discuss that in a future post.

Re-balancing Your Ecosystem

If your own creative process resembles a dead zone, what’s the solution?

Dead zones are not permanent, according to an article in Scientific American:

“Only a few dead zones have ever recovered, such as the Black Sea, which rebounded quickly in the 1990s with the collapse of the Soviet Union and a massive reduction in fertilizer runoff from fields in Russia and Ukraine.”

And surely it’s easier to heal our own ecosystem of ideas than rehabilitate an entire sea!

In the case of the Black Sea, the recovery of the ecosystem was an unintended side effect of political and economic disruption — not exactly the kind of external triggers we hope for, or can afford to wait for when our creative process is unbalanced. Instead, by being sensitive to the imbalances, we can intentionally make adjustments, before the situation is critical.

If idea fertilizers are creating a surplus that threatens to have a negative impact, a return to organic processes — a focus on hand-crafted and carefully cultivated ideas — is one possible way to restore the balance.

If there is a surplus in one part of your creative process that is negatively affecting the whole, what changes could you make so that your ecosystem of ideas will thrive again?

This post is the third in a loose and evolving series on creative surplus. Last week, I introduced the potential ‘problems’ of having too many ideas and also pondered the process of choosing our work when there are so many worthy projects and ideas to explore. I’ll add links to subsequent posts in the series here as I publish them. UPDATE: I’ve added a new post on inefficiency and culture.

Related: The full list of articles in the creative surplus series is available here.

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I’ve been mulling over Zoë Westhof’s recent post Midnight Blogging from the Bathroom: Do We Have to Choose?

Here is her framing of her key question:

“The dilemma it leads me to is this: I cannot decide if I want to devote myself to supporting creative endeavors or to supporting deep-rooted social issues. When it comes down to it, I adore giving my attention to both. So my question is this: Do we have to choose?

Should we be creative, or should we save the world?

What if the only way to save the world is to be more creative?

The Big Problems

The most profound problems we face as a global society are complex, hard-to-understand, and require ‘non-linear’ solutions. Small solutions fail as we scale them up to the size of the need.

For example, how do I reduce my carbon footprint? I know how to do that. How do we get nation-states to do the same in a coordinated and effective way? That’s hard.

How do we prevent one pregnant HIV-positive mother from passing the virus on to her child? We know the answer to that. How do we prevent 20 million mothers in the next five years from passing the virus on to their children? We don’t know the answers to that yet — financially, socially or logistically. It’s still too big for us.

We can make big problems little through cooperation, attrition and persistence, but sustaining those efforts requires creative and non-linear approaches.

Personal Choices

In a sense, this question of choosing is a personal version of a classic political question: how can a society spend a cent on space exploration or some other long-term investment when there is a single person hungry?

It is a moral riddle with many unsatisfactory answers. The most satisfactory answer for me: we invest in basic research in the hope that it will help us learn something that will dramatically reduce hunger in the future, and we balance that with what we can do to help our fellow citizens today, in this moment.

When we make this societal dilemma personal, when we place the goal of long-term progress on one shoulder, and instant relief on the other, we may wilt under the pressure, and not achieve either one. While a sense of duty and obligation can be motivating, and keep us from inertia and apathy, too much can tear us apart.

Choosing is excruciating for the curious mind. There is so much to know, so much to learn, so much that needs to be done.

Do we personally have to choose?  In a given moment, for a specific period of time, I think the answer is yes. There is no reason you can’t lean from one side to the other over your lifetime, as your skills and opportunities allow.  But in terms of effectiveness, if you constantly feel the tug of all the other undone things, will you be able to do your best work in a particular moment?

Do we want a scientist, on the verge of a breakthrough in discovering an HIV vaccine, to feel an obligation to stop researching, leave the lab and spend a month working in a soup kitchen? And do we want someone who genuinely enjoys running a soup kitchen to leave that critical job to study biology so that they might know enough to do vaccine research in five or ten years, even if they don’t feel they have an aptitude for it?

This dilemma is a variation of the ‘too many ideas’ theme I started exploring in my last post. In this case, the problem is too many worthwhile projects and needs. I’ll be returning to the exploration of ‘too many ideas’ in the next few posts. I wanted to respond to Zoë’s post first, while it was fresh in my mind.

Your Role

We each have a role to play. Creative exploration can help us find it.

What if your role in solving a particular problem is not navigating the complexities of international law, but helping a legal expert think more creatively?

If you are writing about the creative process, maybe there is a lawyer somewhere reading your work, and it gives her a new insight into how to approach a tricky human rights advocacy issue? Would that make your writing human rights-focused, or still ‘just’ creative? Maybe it is both?

You can’t know the effect of the ideas you share. You can do your best to craft your ideas, and share them widely.

Sowing Seeds

For the past few years, Mercy Corps has used a quote by Gandhi: “Be the change you want to see in the world.”

I’d like to suggest a slightly altered version: Seed the change you want to see in the world.

To me, the verb ‘be’ implies an immediate and localized effect: by embodying our values, we change those around us, who, in turn, change those around them.

The word ‘seed’ reminds us that results take time. Different seeds take root in different seasons. We don’t have to limit ourselves to one kind of seed. When we fling the seeds of our ideas far and wide, they can spread beyond our reach, out of our sight.

We cultivate those seeds, whatever they may be, because that’s what we do best.

And we sow the seeds of our beliefs, with no assurances we’ll be there for the reaping.

Related: This article is part of a series on creative surplus.

Update: A hat-tip to Sunday Oliver for pointing out the difficulty of ‘sewing’ seeds, and reminding me the correct spelling is ‘sowing’ seeds. I tend to think aurally, and the homophones always trip me up. (And yes, I did mean aurally, and not its homophone orally!)

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Too Many Ideas?

by Matt Blair on April 13, 2009

in Life Cycle of Ideas,Process and Workflow

In my last exercise, I wrote about how the ‘initial edit‘ can be used to deliberately control the volume and pace of the creative process. To avoid overloading your creative system, you decide to be choosy about which fish you keep, and throw the rest back.

This approach runs counter to the zeitgeist of the productivity blogosphere, which tends to celebrate the idea of ‘ubiquitous capture’. If your goal is to capture ideas everywhere, does it follow that you should capture everything?

For David Allen, creator of the Getting Things Done system (aka GTD), collecting everything (he calls it a “mind sweep”) is the first of five stages of mastering workflow. In his view, de-cluttering your head will free you of all the nagging thoughts that haven’t been scheduled or handled or delegated or archived, and give you a sense of clarity and focus that will help you…get things done!

The idea makes sense to me in theory, but in my own experiments with Allen’s methods, the results are mixed.

To be fair to David Allen and GTD fans, I know there is more to GTD than the collection phase. I’m not questioning whether capturing ideas is an important part of the creative process or a successful workflow. I am asking whether quantity or completeness of inputs is a determining factor in the quality of output. Bear with me…

To entirely empty your head takes time: you transcribe pages and pages of thoughts, research tips, diagrams, ‘action items’, etc. and maybe your mind is clearer for a moment or two.

But now you have a big, intimidating folder sitting on your desk or in your computer, one that you’ll dread opening because it is filled with hundreds of fledgling little ideas that will send you off into a thousand different directions.

You haven’t necessarily solved the problem of mental clutter, you’ve just transmuted it from one form to another, from mind to paper or computer. You might even be tempted to just throw away the whole folder!

The Weight of More Wood

Whether we are starting a new project, or stuck in the middle of one, why do we want to have lots of ideas?

Are we simply clearing our head, or are we generating more ideas because we’ve heard or read that maybe more ideas is the way to get started or get ‘unstuck’?

Ideas are to creativity as wood is to a maker of furniture. Yes, she needs good wood, in ample supply. But she knows that she can’t fix an unbalanced rocking chair by adding more wood to the warehouse.

Sometimes we have a natural surplus of ideas: a certain theme or project triggers a burst of mental activity. I’m not suggesting that be avoided.

Yet I’m skeptical of the “Twelve Ways to have A Thousand Ideas in Twenty Minutes” mindset — I exaggerate, but only slightly — that seems to apply Industrial Age models of productivity to 21st-century idea-making and the creative process.

Thinking of creativity as merely brainstorming and idea-generation is the Big Agribusiness view of creativity: we risk creating an over-abundance that feels like progress, but doesn’t actually solve the problems we set out to solve.

A Boatload of Ideas is Insufficient

A cargo ship filled with wheat can’t relieve a famine without a secure and functioning port, an effective distribution system on the ground, and enough clean water, cooking oil and labor to make it edible.

A famine is a systemic failure that can’t be solved by food, just as a wobbly rocker can’t be helped by piling on more wood.

Sometimes the “more” we need isn’t more raw materials: it’s more time, more attention, more structure, more patience and more craft.

When your creative work and output is disrupted or disappointing, and your supply of nascent ideas is adequate, what other parts of the overall system need refinements to make your ideas into something real?

Related: This article is part of a series on creative surplus.

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It takes an instant to have a thought, a few seconds more to cast it into words or symbols, a few seconds after that to admire it or refute it or disregard it. My mind makes a quick set of clarifications, and then I have a decision: Is this idea a keeper?

I’m in the middle of washing dishes — suds to the elbows.

Rinse off the soap. Turn off the water. Dry my hands. (Ten seconds.)

I fumble for a pen and index card (a second or two) or find a clean page in a notebook (another three seconds) or go to the computer, wake it up, flip to the right window (add ten seconds), then page back through my memory to extract the idea, including all the refinements my subconscious has made while I was preoccupied with the mechanics of my “capture” technology.

I write it, save it, put it somewhere that matters, and that thought is saved — for a little while, anyway.

But what was the cost of all that?  In time and energy? Forty seconds? Ninety seconds? Four minutes? Was it worth it?

Once I’ve scribbled an idea down, has this minor investment created an implied obligation towards this nascent idea: to transcribe it, put it in a system, review it, edit it, and connect it to everything else I’m thinking about at the moment?

Have I made a deposit in the bank of big ideas? Or have I incurred a debt that I’ll have to pay back? Can accumulating ideas leave us with more liabilities than assets?

Can you tell it is tax season by the financial metaphors?

Opportunity Cost

We often have our best ideas in the most inconvenient places or at the most inconvenient times.

Choosing which ones to capture is an editorial act — the initial edit. And this initial edit is the most essential, because each moment we spend on one idea is a moment that can’t be spent on other ideas or other projects, washing the dishes or listening to friends or living our lives.

Time and attention are the rarest ingredients of the creative process. Our use of them deserves the most thought, the most practice, the most consideration, and the most care.

We are finite. We can’t follow every idea to fruition. We have to let some thoughts go.

How do we decide which ones?

Questions

  • How do you decide which ideas to write down or capture and which to let go? Does your approach consciously and deliberately change, depending on what you are working on?  Or is it more circumstantial?
  • Do you find yourself running out of new material to work on?
  • What tools do you use to capture emerging ideas? Do these fit well with your creative process? Are you able to keep up with ideas as you have them?
  • How many ideas or sprouts of ideas do you have laying around on index cards or in notebooks or emails? Do you have a backlog? Do you feel any pressure or obligation to do something with them?

Exercise

  1. Spend a day or two recording absolutely nothing.  When a new thought enters your mind, mull it over, play with it, and then try to remember it without relying on any external “capture” or reminder system.
  2. Spend a day or two trying to capture everything.
  3. On the continuum between those two extremes, what works for you?  When do you feel like you are capturing enough, without flooding your system? Consciously experiment with the balance between trying to keep every idea, and letting some of them go.

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