Category: Other people’s wisdom

Of hedgehogs and foxes

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People talk. More than ever. We have reached an era in which people redistribute other people’s thinking and build their reputation on it…. They are running around saying super smart things like “Make is the new think” – and make nothing. It’s like talk is the new make… We just sit there, all agitated and willing, and throw around a whole lot of “we should”.”

So wrote Folker Wrage, in a recent article aptly entitled ‘Shut up and play your guitar: Why creativity needs to take over’.

I must confess it gave me a sleepless night (we planners are good at talking after all) and it put me in mind of the famous 1953 essay ‘The Hedgehog and the Fox’ by the philosopher and political theorist Isaiah Berlin.

(I know. But work with me here).

In it he ponders a line from the Greek poet Archilochus: “The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing.”

Berlin argued that these words mark one of the deepest differences which divide human beings.

As he wrote:

There exists a great chasm between those, on one side, who relate everything to a single central vision, one system, less or more coherent or articulate, in terms of which they understand, think and feel – a single, universal, organising principle in terms of which alone all that they are and say has significance – and, on the other side, those who pursue many ends, often unrelated and even contradictory… These last lead lives, perform acts and entertain ideas that are centrifugal rather than centripetal; their thought is scattered or diffused, moving on many levels, seizing upon the essence of a vast variety of experiences and objects for what they are in themselves, without, consciously or unconsciously, seeking to fit them into, or exclude them from, any one unchanging, all-embracing, sometimes self-contradictory and incomplete, at times fanatical, unitary inner vision. The first kind of intellectual and artistic personality belongs to the hedgehogs, the second to the foxes.”

Not only is there a lot of talk, but it strikes me that there is also an ever greater number of hedgehogs in our business these days, insisting that creativity to be related to a single central vision, to one system.

Perhaps this is merely symptomatic of the unending plenitude of creative choices available to us.

And we do need guidance.

We do need to develop our understanding.

After all unshackled from the old constraints imposed by medium, we can, theoretically, make whatever we want.

And we do most certainly need to overcome resistance, ignorance, and the Luddite tendency.

But, let it be said, hedgehogs are not friends of creativity.

In their desire for coherence and tidiness, in their desire to be right, to be in charge, to be seen as advant-garde, to build up their personal brand, or to sell their services and specialism… they demand that creativity bow down and subjugate itself to their vision, their ideology, their rules.

They wring diversity out of creativity.

They’re more interested in legislating than making.

They would have creativity be a prêt-à-porter business, not a bespoke service.

They chase the coat trains of fashion.

Brands must be social / mobile / always on / lightweight interactions / content producers / participative / agile / in the now / media channels / interactive… the list of things we are told we “have” to do goes on and on and on.

So here’s a thought that may strike some (particularly hedgehogs) as somewhat novel.

The more you talk – the more you tell people what they “should” do – the more you betray the fact that you have next to no idea of how creativity happens.

You suck the oxygen of possibility, serendipity and madness from the room.

You shrink the palette to monochrome.

You chase away the instinct for risk.

You stifle the willingness to fail.

You hurry what must take time.

This is not a request to shut the fuck up.

Not entirely, at least.

By all means point to possibilities.

By all means expand the space in which to play.

By all means fan the glimmers of potential.

“Could” is a great word.

This is is not about encouraging the infantalization of creative minds.

Nor is this an argument in favour of reason, and strategy, exiting the room.

But creativity is a fragile endeavour.

And it cannot be legislated, mandated, or hectored into existence.

At least not if you want something remarkable.

The great poet Ted Hughes wrote about this brilliantly in his 1957 poem ‘The Thought Fox’:

Thought Fox.001

“Brilliantly, concentratedly, coming about its own business” we must let an idea approach us.

And be gentle.

And patient.

For as Jeremy Bullmore once wrote:

Advertising is, or should be, all about ideas, wheezes, hypotheses and improvisations: why don’t we…? what about…? let’s try…… Good advertising makes difficult things happen – and almost everything that’s going to be suggested, at least in its initial expression, will be patently flawed.”

And as such, it needs oxygen, space, and time.

It needs to expand and explore before it is crafted and refined.

It must know that failure carries no penalty.

And if we struggle to put our faith in some purposeful and well-timed chaos, we are frankly, struggling to put our faith in creativity.

The future of our industry depends on having more foxes.

On those who pursue many ends, often unrelated and even contradictory.

Not more hedgehogs.

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 Sources

Jeremy Bullmore, Campaign, 1st October 2010

Folker Wrage, ‘Shut up and play your guitar: Why creativity needs to take over

 

The case against perpetual progress

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For so many in the techno-elite, even those who don’t entirely subscribe to the unlimited optimism of the Singularity, the notion of perpetual progress is somehow taken for granted.  As a former classicist turned technologist, I’ve always lived with the shadow of the fall of Rome, the failure of its intellectual culture, and the stasis that gripped the Western world for the better part of a thousand years…

History teaches us that conservative, backward-looking movements often arise under conditions of economic stress. As the world faces problems ranging from climate change to the demographic cliff of ageing populations, it’s wise to image widely divergent futures.

Yes, we may find technological solutions that propel us into new golden age of robots, collective intelligence, and an economy built around ‘the creative class’. But it’s at least as probable that as we fail to find those solutions quickly enough, the world falls into apathy, disbelief in science and progress, and after a melancholy decline, a new dark age.

Civilisations do fail. We have never yet seen one that hasn’t. The difference is that the torch of the past has always passed to another region of the world. But we’ve now for the first time, got a single global civilisation. If it fails, we all fail together.”

Tim O’Reilly, ‘The rise of anti-intellectualism and the end of progress’, in John Brockman, ed., What Should We Be Worried About?