Creative Ignorance

The other day, I was in a discussion about whether computers can be creative. Personally, I thought the answer was a big “duh, yes”, if only because programs (often even my own) often do things that surprise me, but at least I managed to shift the conversation toward the question of “what is creativity? How will you recognize it when a computer achieves it?” And along the way, I noticed a couple of things about creativity.

For one thing, the perception of creativity can depend on the audience’s ignorance. Years ago, I wrote a custom email filter for my boss, because none of the commonly-used ones could easily do what he wanted (like filter on the number of people in the “To:” and “Cc:” lines). When I showed it to him, he thought it was the most amazing thing ever, that we should write a paper about it, and send it in to a research journal. I told him that this was too trivial, and that I couldn’t in good conscience call it groundbreaking or innovative, and that I’d be embarrassed to send it to a research journal.

In short, my boss thought my code was innovative because he knew far less than I did about the state of mail filters. And to this day, whenever I see a statue or painting or something and think, “Oh, that’s cleverly cool! I never would’ve thought of that”, I immediately have second thoughts along the lines of “Yes, but that’s because you don’t hang out with artists and go to galleries and such. The person who did this probably just took five or six ideas that were floating around the technisphere and tweaked them.”

A lot of the proposed definitions of “creativity” circled around the general idea of “using a tool in a new or unexpected way”. And it occurred to me that you don’t need intelligence to be creative in this way. If you don’t know what a tool is for, you won’t be burdened with preconceived ideas of how you ought to use it. In fact, that’s how natural selection works: it has no intelligence whatsoever, and doesn’t know that wings are “for” protecting eggs, and doesn’t punish those individuals that manage to use them for gliding or flying.

Of course, if you’re an adult human, then you’re intelligent (at least compared to natural selection or a bacterium), so this type of creativity is harder. But you can use first sight.

In Terry Pratchett’s A Hat Full of Sky, Tiffany Aching is said to have “first sight and second thoughts”. First sight is the ability to see what’s actually in front of you, rather than what you think is there.

There’s an old story about a student who was asked on a test to measure the height of a building with a barometer that I’m sure you’re all familiar with. Because the problem specified the use of a barometer, clearly the instructor expected students to use the barometer for the thing that barometers are supposed to be used for, namely measure air pressure.

The student’s smartass answers seem creative (oh, come on, admit it: you thought it was cool, the first time you heard the story) is that he ignores the fact that barometers are for measuring air pressure, and sees its other properties: it has mass, so it can be swung like a pendulum; it has length, so it can be used to count off units of height; it has value, so it can be offered as a bribe.

Outside of the world of contrived puzzles, first sight can also be useful, because it lets you stop asking “what is this for?” and start asking “what can I do with this?”. That last question, in turn, breaks down into sub-questions like “what tools do I have?”, “what properties do they have?”, and “how does this property help me solve my problem?”

For instance, spreadsheets are nominally for tabulating data, aggregating sums and averages of interesting numbers, and like that. But people have noticed that hey, Excel does arithmetic, so why not use it as a calculator? I’ve also worked with people who noticed that hey, it lays things out in neat columns, so why not use it as a to-do list?

When technology advances, old tools sometimes become cheap enough to do simple tasks. Car phones have existed for a long time, but if you grew up in the 1960s, you probably decided that they were just fancy toys that rich people used to flaunt their wealth. But in the 1990s, they became cheap enough that anyone could have one. So if you were running a business in the 90s and were expecting people to use pay phones to stay in touch with the office while they were traveling, you were going to have your lunch eaten by the people who had looked at the field the way it was, not the way you imagined it, and realized that they could just give all their salespeople and field techs cell phones.

On a grander scale, the Internet was originally set up for government researchers to share data, and as a nuclear-war-resistant means of communication for the military. It certainly wan’t built to help you find friends from High School or coordinate popular uprisings in the Middle East. That part came from people looking at the thing for what it was, and ignoring &mdash: or often ignorant of — what it was supposed to be for.

What’s interesting about this, I think, is that you don’t need to be a genius to be creative. In fact, you don’t even need intelligence at all. A lot of creationists look at the complexity of biological systems and can think only in terms of a superior intellect putting the pieces together to achieve a goal.

But if I’m right, then it’s possible to be creative simply by being to stupid to know what’s impossible. Creativity can be what Dennett called a crane, rather than a skyhook.