A slow triangulation

Authors: Jonathan Grudin
Posted: Tue, June 04, 2013 - 10:47:16

In the mid-18th century:

"Does Britannia, when she sleeps, dream? Is America her dream? - in which all that cannot pass in the metropolitan Wakefulness is allow'd Expression away in the restless Slumber of these Provinces, and on West-ward, wherever 'tis not yet mapp'd, nor written down, nor ever, by the majority of Mankind, seen,- serving as a very Rubbish-Tip for subjunctive Hopes, for all that may yet be true,-Earthly Paradise, Fountain of Youth, Realms of Prester John, Christ's Kingdom, ever behind the sunset, safe till the next Territory to the West be seen and recorded, measur'd and tied in, back into the Net-Work of Points already known, that slowly triangulates its Way into the Continent, changing all from subjunctive to declarative, reducing Possibilities to Simplicities that serve the ends of Governments,- winning away from the realm of the Sacred, its borderlands one by one, and assuming them into the bare mortal World that is our home, and our Despair."  —Thomas Pynchon, Mason & Dixon

Geography and monopoly

Everywhere we look, geography and monopoly align: in ecology, linguistics, economics, cuisine, and, I will suggest, our conceptions of innovation and creativity. And with transportation and digital technologies breaking down geographic boundaries, creating the long-anticipated global village, the potential range of monopoly is extended. Diversity is almost paradoxically more visible and more threatened.

In ecology, the competitive exclusion principle holds that one species will achieve control over a niche. However, physical barriers—oceans, mountains, deserts, jungles—enable different species to evolve in similar niches. When a barrier comes down—a land bridge forms, specimens hitch rides on floating logs, ships, or planes—competition ensues, and only one species survives.

Which country has the most languages? If you don’t know, you won’t guess. Papua New Guinea, most experts agree, with about 800 distinct languages. Isolated by jungles, mountains, and bellicosity, linguistic inventiveness flourished in each valley. The runner-up, Malaysia, is an archipelago. As transportation and communication technologies overcame geographic barriers, linguistic diversity dropped. As the planet’s population doubled and tripled, the number of languages was halved! Every week or two another language disappears. Surviving languages evolve more slowly than in the past, inventiveness curtailed by grammar books, teachers, and copy editors everywhere.

Geographic isolation also facilitates economic monopoly. Farmers lured to the American west by a railroad company were dependent on the railroad to reach markets, so the robber barons could charge “all the traffic will bear.” Isolated mining communities had only the company store, which set prices that effectively enslaved the laborers. Big government evolved to control such monopolists, but the geographic metaphor endures: Warren Buffet looks for businesses with a “moat,” a non-geographic barrier to competition that enables them to raise prices and increase profits.

Monopolies are a natural development. One species occupies a niche. When an isolated culture contacted “the outside world,” adopting a dominant language was a path to extensive cultural, medical, industrial, and scientific lore.

Monopolies can be efficient, but there are downsides. Innovation may decline—less competition and natural selection, less diversity. Economic regulation might help—when its profit was controlled, AT&T set up Bell Labs. The company had largely overcome U.S. competitors but was contained by the oceans. Other countries developed telephone systems. Eventually AT&T was broken up, the oceans were crossed, innovation and competition ensued, and the less efficient evolve or disappear. With fewer global players remaining, we move toward a new monopoly, as happens when isolated and relatively static species and cultures come into contact.

Although some intrepid critters made it over mountains or floated across oceans, geographic barriers generally came down in geologic time until Homo sapiens arrived. Today those barriers are effectively gone. We have achieved the global village. It is great of course, but the consequences of the true disappearance of frontiers is only starting to be understood. When I was growing up in a small village in the Midwest, a tension existed between the individual and the community—I had limited privacy but tangible benefits. Today, we don’t know the other global villagers intruding on our privacy and the benefits are usually less tangible. As Pynchon noted with mild foreboding, our dreams are disrupted more deeply than we know.

Creativity and innovation

There's nothing you can know that isn't known
Nothing you can see that isn't shown
—John Lennon, “All You Need Is Love”

For most of our existence as a species, geographic isolation afforded monopoly protection to inventors, artists, and writers, just as it did to languages and species. An invention that was novel in the cave or town was valuable even if it had previously been invented in a thousand other places across the planet. Word traveled slowly if at all. If your neighbors used it, you were in business. Similarly, the most creative poet, songwriter, or storyteller in a village was appreciated, as was the best healer, strongest athlete, and most skilled hunter or gatherer.

In the 17th and 18th centuries, as population became more concentrated, patents and copyrights in the modern sense were devised to bestow a limited-duration monopoly. They originally had a limited geographic range, applying to a nation or even a single city. Today, the monopoly bestowed by patents and copyrights to reward innovation is often global.

Not anymore. The Internet and YouTube can help inventors but on balance are not their friend. The best local storyteller vies with storytellers everywhere. An inventor vies with inventors everywhere. We have access to everything for inspiration, but when one of our six billion potential competitors beats us to the punch, our achievement becomes yesterday’s news.

Creativity is defined in different ways, but in the sense of inventiveness, technology has rendered creativity more difficult and less important with each passing year. When writing supplanted word of mouth for passing down knowledge, we competed with dead people. Today we compete with billions of others to be first or best. If you don’t invent and market it fast, someone else will.

Things will be invented, because people are inventive. We may be naturally selected for inventiveness. Resourceful and creative individuals improved the odds of a small, isolated community thriving.

Obsession with creativity

Paradoxically, as originality declined in significance, our interest in it grew. In an entertaining interview, Austin Kleon notes that the concept of originality is “kind of an invention of the nineteenth century,” when geographic barriers to communication crumbled rapidly. People may have realized that local inventiveness mattered less and looked more broadly. With less personal acquaintance, the inventor and the process of invention were dissociated. But originality was less prevalent than they imagined. In The Act of Creation, Arthur Koestler documents advances of the 19th and 20th centuries that were credited to individuals, which were “in the air,” widely discussed before someone received the credit.

Now the final barriers are down and handwringing about declining creativity is everywhere. Issues of Fast Company regularly trumpet the methods of “creative people.” NSF initiated a CreativIT program. Amazon lists over 50,000 books with “creative” or “creativity” in the title. Discussions of education often focus on fostering creativity. It seems an unconscious response to the increased difficulty of being truly original. A good idea occurs to me, and with a search engine I can probably find it already enunciated several times over. Bad ideas too. If we do not realize that technology has shifted the playing field, we will conclude that we have lost something—but what we lost was the perception of originality.

The obsession with creativity has consequences. Graduate students in my field are often inclined (or pushed) to build a novel system. What is novel when they start is often less so when they finish given the endeavors of hundreds of thousands of other students, garage startups, and industrial teams trained at good places. This can lead to a frantic search to identify something that can be claimed to be original in the research and in some cases, anxiety and depression.

Avoid competing with 6 billion people

We tend to associate creativity with novel invention. Some cultures place more value on synthesis, on combining familiar elements in beneficial new ways. Each piece was perhaps “not invented here,” but the composite was. Useful synthesis will be mindful, despite having no novel element. The value of synthesizing disparate familiar items is recognized in literature, with its famously small number of core themes. A nice illustration of this concludes an elegant interview with Kenneth Goldsmith on “uncreative writing,” in which he says some of what I write here. (Having found the interview after completing a draft, I have not followed his humorous prescription for plagiarism, perhaps a topic for another post.)

If despite this cautionary note you (or your advisor or employer) insist on undertaking something that appears to be novel, don’t assume it will turn out that way. Due diligence in looking for antecedents is good—and a search engine covers more ground more quickly than when library stacks were involved—but don’t wait to get started with the project. Constantly monitor the broader context and be ready to react when something similar appears. A savvy manager told me that she is less likely to ask employment-seeking students what was original in their work than to ask how they adjusted to external changes that came along as they were on their journey.

Posted in: on Tue, June 04, 2013 - 10:47:16

Jonathan Grudin

Jonathan Grudin is a principal researcher in the Natural Interaction Group at Microsoft Research.
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