Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Gregory Bateson

The analogy of the acrobat

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The healthy system…may be compared to an acrobat on a high wire. To maintain the ongoing truth of his basic premise (“I am on the wire”), he must be free to move from one position of instability to another, i.e., certain variables such as the position of his arms and the rate of movement of his arms must have great flexibility, which he uses to maintain the stability of other more fundamental and general characteristics. If his arms are fixed or paralyzed (isolated from communication), he must fall…Note, in passing, that the analogy of the acrobat can be applied at a higher level. During the period when the acrobat is learning to move his arms in an appropriate way, it is necessary to have a safety net under him, i.e., precisely to give him the freedom to fall off the wire.

Gregory Bateson, Steps to an Ecology of Mind

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May 27, 2018 at 7:30 am

The foundations of novelty

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Yesterday, I was leafing through the journalist Charles Duhigg’s recent book Smarter, Faster, Better when my eye was caught by a discussion of a study conducted several years ago by two professors at Northwestern University. It dealt with the importance of unexpected combinations in creative thinking, which is a subject that is dear to my heart, and they emerged with some fascinating conclusions. Duhigg writes:

The researchers—Brian Uzzi and Ben Jones—decided to focus on an activity they were deeply familiar with: writing and publishing academic papers…They could estimate a paper’s originality by analyzing the sources authors had cited in their endnotes…Almost all of the creative papers had at least one thing in common: They were usually combinations of previously known ideas mixed together in new ways. In fact, on average, ninety percent of what was in the most “creative” manuscripts had already been published elsewhere—and had already been picked over by thousands of other scientists. However, in the creative papers, those conventional concepts were applied to questions in manners no one had considered before. “Our analysis of 17.9 million papers spanning all scientific fields suggests that science follows a nearly universal pattern,” Uzzi and Jones wrote. “The highest-impact science is primarily grounded in exceptionally conventional combinations of prior work yet simultaneously features an intrusion of unusual combinations.” It was this combination of ideas, rather than the ideas themselves, that typically made a paper so creative and important.

As Uzzi later explained in an interview with Duhigg: “A paper that combines work by Newton and Einstein is conventional. That combination has happened thousands of times. But a paper that combines Einstein and Wang Chong, the Chinese philosopher, that’s much more likely to be creative, because it’s such an unusual pairing.”

The late Arthur Koestler called this phenomenon “bisociation,” and its appearance here inspired me to look up the original paper, “How Atypical Combinations of Scientific Ideas Are Related to Impact.” Its most intriguing insight—which Duhigg mentions only in passing—is that not all combinations are equally useful. As you might expect, the study found that the majority of published scientific papers draw on a conventional set of sources, with most of their references occurring within a predictable subset of journals. Yet a novel combination of references in itself isn’t any guarantee of originality or importance. In fact, papers that have “high tail novelty” alone are actually less likely to be widely cited than papers that don’t stray far from conventional wisdom. The best combination, it seems, is a core of conventional work spiced up with a few unusual ingredients. An article on their research in the magazine of the Kellogg School of Management makes this point more explicit:

What’s interesting,” says Uzzi, “is most of the work done is conventional. And some of the work is truly novel. And the chances of either one of those classifications of papers being hits is about the same.” Only about five percent of research papers that draw from only very novel or only very conventional sources were among the most highly cited papers in the database. But there was a third category of research that had nearly twice the likelihood of making it big: papers that relied mostly on conventional combinations of sources but also included a small subset of highly novel ones. “It isn’t all about novelty or conventionality. It’s about both,” explains Jones, who was somewhat surprised by this result…“You want to be grounded in something that’s well understood and yet be adding in the piece that’s truly unusual. And if you do those two things [and] stretch yourself in both directions, then you radically increase your probability of hitting a home run.”

This point is technically present in Duhigg’s book, but it’s easy to miss, and it strikes me as the real takeaway here. Innovation doesn’t happen when you combine ideas haphazardly, but when you incorporate novel insights into a more conventional foundation. I’ve noticed this pattern in my own work. When I first started writing science fiction, my favorite method for generating ideas was to browse through a stack of science magazines and pick two or three articles at random, trusting that I would find a connection between them if I looked hard enough. My early novelette “The Last Resort,” for instance, was a combination of articles about lake eruptions, snowmaking, and the snake pits of Manitoba. “The Boneless One,” which was my first really good story, did the same with bioluminescence, octopus intelligence, and an expedition to catalog genetic material in the ocean. It was a reliable trick, and it served me well over the course of half a dozen stories. Around the time that I wrote “Stonebrood,” however, followed by “The Proving Ground” and my upcoming story “The Spires,” I began to get tired of that process, and I tried a different approach. These days, I usually start with one big subject or setting that I’d like to explore—wilderness firefighting, climate change in the Marshall Islands, bush piloting in Alaska. From there, I’ll look for an unusual angle that ties back into the main theme, often by searching the archives of science magazines until I come up with a promising hook. Instead of choosing a few random ideas and treating them equally, in other words, I start with a central premise that feels like it would make a good story and then look for unexpected offshoots. In some ways, this approach is riskier, since it that initial hunch is wrong, it’s easier to follow it into a dead end. But the results seem better. In the past, some of my stories, like “The Voices,” have had visible seams. The ones that I’m writing now are more of a piece, but they haven’t lost their ability to surprise me along the way, which is the main reason that I write them at all.

Obviously, this is a very minor example, and it probably isn’t all that interesting to anyone but me. But the notion that we should proceed by adding novelty to an established foundation, rather than by combining ideas purely at random, is a valuable one. It’s similar to the familiar principle that it’s hard to do interesting work across multiple disciplines until you’ve mastered one field well, both because of the habits of thinking that it teaches and the body of information that it provides. It was partly for this reason that Charles Darwin spent years studying barnacles, or cirripedes, as the scientist Thomas Henry Huxley observed:

The great danger which besets all men of large speculative faculty is the temptation to deal with the accepted statements of facts in natural science, as if they were not only correct, but exhaustive; as if they might be dealt with deductively, in the same way as propositions in Euclid may be dealt with. In reality, every such statement, however true it may be, is true only relatively to the means of observation and the point of view of those who have enunciated it. So far it may be depended upon. But whether it will bear every speculative conclusion that may be logically deduced from it is quite another question…The value of the Cirripede monograph lies not merely in the fact that it is a very admirable piece of work, and constituted a great addition to positive knowledge, but still more in the circumstance that it was a piece of critical self-discipline, the effect of which manifested itself in everything [Darwin] wrote afterwards, and saved him from endless errors of detail.

What the barnacles taught Darwin, in Huxley’s words, was “the speculative strain” that certain ideas would bear, and this applies as much to individual projects as to the work of a lifetime. Random combination can be a valuable tool, but it needs to be the right kind of randomness. Creativity, as Gregory Bateson wonderfully put it, often consists of “a raid on the random.” But like most raids, it’s more likely to succeed when it starts from a position of strength.

Quote of the Day

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The hardest saying in the bible is that of St. Paul, addressing the Galatians: “God is not mocked,” and this saying applies to the relationship between man and his ecology. It is of no use to plead that a particular sin of pollution or exploitation was only a little one or that it was unintentional or that it was committed with the best intentions. Or that “If I didn’t, somebody else would have.” The processes of ecology are not mocked.

Gregory Bateson, Steps to an Ecology of Mind

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December 12, 2017 at 7:30 am

The Book of Changes

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The I Ching

If there’s a single theme to which I’ve repeatedly returned for the five years and more I’ve been writing this blog, it’s the importance of randomness in the creative process. I’ve always tried to systematically incorporate elements of chance into my work, in a large part because I’m temperamentally the opposite: I’m an architect, not a gardener, and nearly everything I’ve written—fiction and nonfiction alike—has been planned, outlined, and structured within an inch of its life. I adopted this approach as a kind of survival strategy: I figured out early in my career that I had a better chance of finishing a project, rather than abandoning it halfway through, if I had a blueprint to follow. And that’s still true. But the fact that I’ve always been a fundamentally rational writer has led me to think about creative randomness and serendipity to a greater extent, I suspect, than many of those who naturally take a more intuitive approach. An author who begins a story without a clear end point in mind, apart from a willingness to follow the narrative wherever it leads, doesn’t need to consciously worry about randomness: it’s baked into the process from the beginning. But because I’m predisposed to lay everything out before I type the first sentence, I’ve tried to be diligent about keeping that fertilizing aspect of chance alive.

As Gregory Bateson wrote: “Creative thought must always contain a random component. The exploratory process—the endless trial and error of mental progress—can achieve the new only by embarking upon pathways randomly presented, some of which when tried are somehow selected for survival.” Elsewhere, Bateson is reported to have said to his secretary: “I am going to build a church some day. It will have a holy of holies and a holy of holy of holies, and in that ultimate box will be a random number table.” And the search for productive forms of randomness has been one of the most absorbing parts of my writing life over the last ten years. I’ve written at length here about how I’ve tried most of the usual suspects, like Brian Eno’s Oblique Strategies, and how the most useful repository of random connections I’ve found has been Ted Hughes’s anthology A Choice of Shakespeare’s Verse, which helpfully provides more than two hundred numbered quotations that I pick out of a virtual hat whenever I’m trying to crack a creative problem. I’ve also dabbled with methods associated with divination, which, as a sources of symbols for inspiring unexpected trains of thought, can be genuinely valuable tools. As I once wrote about the tarot:

It’s really a portable machine for generating patterns…It results in a temporary structure—in the form of the cards spread across the table—that can be scrutinized from various angles. At its best, it’s an externalization or extension of your own thoughts: instead of confronting the problem entirely in your own head, you’re putting a version of it down where you can see it, examine it, or even walk away from it.

The Tarot of Marseilles

But there’s one obvious resource that I’ve never been able to use to my own satisfaction: the I Ching. I’ve always been a little surprised by this, since it’s probably the most famous of all oracular texts. I’ve toyed with various translations, notably the Richard Wilhelm edition, and I had a reasonable amount of success with The Portable Dragon by R.G.H. Siu, which pairs the original hexagrams with illuminating quotations from both eastern and western sources. But the results have always left me cold, and it’s taken me a long time to figure out why. I found a helpful clue in a discussion of the subject in Joseph Needham’s Science and Civilisation in China, the legendary seven-volume masterpiece that I was recently delighted to find is available for download at Monoskop. In his section on the I Ching, which he thinks had a negative influence on the history of thought in China, Needham writes:

The elaborated symbolic system of the Book of Changes was almost from the start a mischievous handicap. It tempted those who were interested in Nature to rest in explanations which were no explanations at all. The Book of Changes was a system for pigeon-holing novelty and then doing nothing more about it. Its universal system of symbolism constituted a stupendous filing-system. It led to a stylization of concepts almost analogous to the stylizations which have in some ages occurred in art forms, and which finally prevented painters from looking at Nature at all.

And I think he’s onto something. The I Ching has a way of closing off pathways of thought—unlike the tarot, which opens them up—because it’s almost too comprehensive and organized. The tarot is a mess, but in the best possible way: the patterns it generates are necessarily incomplete, and they require a secondary act of consolidation in the user’s brain. The I Ching feels more like a card catalog. (Needham shrewdly compares it to the bureaucratic organization of much of classical Chinese society, and says: “The Book of Changes might almost be said to have constituted an organization for ‘routing ideas through the right channels to the right departments.'”) And after trying valiantly for years to incorporate it into my writing routine, I set it aside: it seemed to have some of the same freezing effect on my work that Needham identifies in Chinese culture as a whole. This is all very subjective, of course, and it clearly doesn’t apply to everyone: the I Ching played an important role in the careers of such artists as John Cage and Philip K. Dick, and I wouldn’t discourage any writer from at least trying it out. But when I relinquished it at last, it was with something like relief. The central principle of the I Ching is resonance, but for whatever reason, it just never resonated with me. And if a tool doesn’t work, it has to be put away. Because the search for randomness is too important to be left to chance.

The founder’s mutation

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Gillian Anderson on The X-Files

The scientist Max Delbrück never wrote for television—he was a Nobel Prize-winning biophysicist who laid the foundations for the modern discipline of molecular biology—but he understood how it worked. In an interview with the oral history project at CalTech, he famously said:

If you’re too sloppy, then you never get reproducible results, and then you never can draw any conclusions; but if you are just a little sloppy, then when you see something startling, you [can] nail it down…I called it the “Principle of Limited Sloppiness.”

Which, when you think about it, is also the recipe for constructing a good genre series. When the pilot first airs, you almost never know what the show is going to be about. (This is not to be confused with its premise, which is something else entirely.) All you can really do is explore possibilities, set up story elements, pair up characters, and throw out ideas, most of which turn out to be dead ends, but some of which theoretically lead to useful adaptations. If it’s too random or sloppy, the show will die before it evolves into something more interesting, but it’s only by “embarking on pathways randomly presented,” as Gregory Bateson said, that you have any hope of finding something new. And the mark of a great showrunner is the ability to create the conditions under which this limited sloppiness can gradually pay off, while minimizing the consequences of any mistakes, of which there are bound to be plenty. As Dana Scully once observed: “There are hits and there are misses…and then there are misses.”

As I once wrote at greater length for Salon: “What strikes me now about the first season of The X-Files is how relentlessly it kept reinventing itself, and how willing it seemed to try anything that worked…As time goes on, the show’s formal incoherence starts to look like its greatest asset.” I thought of these words again last night while watching the show’s return, in an episode aptly titled “My Struggle,” which comes more than thirteen years after the conclusion of its original run. I went in with modest hopes—a level of anticipation that would have been very different if a mediocre second movie hadn’t adjusted my expectations downward—and I agree with most critics that the result is undeniably messy, particularly for a show that had well over a decade to think about how its next phase might look. Characters are introduced and never fully developed; entire scenes seem to lead nowhere; much of it feels rushed, as if large chunks of story had been cut at the last minute; and promising ideas, like the implication that Mulder’s brand of paranoid speculation feeds all too neatly into the conspiracies of right-wing nuts like Glenn Beck, are raised without really being addressed. It doesn’t have the clarity and suspense of the best episodes of the show’s classic mythology, like “Piper Maru/Apocrypha,” and much of it feels like it’s simply laying the groundwork for “Founder’s Mutation,” which airs tonight. As a fan, I enjoyed watching the old band get back together, but I have a hunch that a wider audience was left wondering why it was supposed to care.

Gillian Anderson in "Jose Chung's From Outer Space"

Yet this kind of sloppiness was so integral to the original show’s success that we had no reason to expect anything else. Series creator Chris Carter, who wrote and directed the premiere, was never a particularly strong storyteller in his own right, and staff writers and freelancers like Glen Morgan, James Wong, Darin Morgan, and Vince Gilligan were generally responsible for the show’s most memorable moments. But that’s notable and revealing in itself. Carter’s genius, which shouldn’t be underestimated, lay both in conceiving of the show’s premise—which was an unparalleled engine for generating stories—and in managing the whole complicated machine in a way that allowed for its inherent sloppiness to catalyze the work of others. Its first season was a string of increasingly wild one-off experiments that resulted in many of its most useful formulas and ideas, as well as a bunch of episodes that went nowhere and were quickly forgotten. Keeping the whole enterprise moving while scattering seeds that would bear fruit for later writers was what Carter did best, and it worked great when he had twenty or more episodes in which to refine the results. But it doesn’t really work with six. There isn’t enough time. And while I don’t blame Carter for falling back on a tone and approach that worked so well when the show, against all odds, had time to develop it, I do question whether it makes sense in such a limited window. (It’s also instructive to note that the show’s single most significant mutation, in the form of the tonal expansion of Darin Morgan’s “Humbug,” didn’t occur until late in the second season.)

But I wouldn’t necessarily have it any other way, especially because I’ve come to realize that the sloppiness of The X-Files had repercussions in my life far beyond that of the show itself: it’s the primary reason that the original series has influenced my own career as a writer more than just about any other work of art. I’ve published three novels that can best be understood as a veiled love letter to what the show accomplished, as well as another book’s worth of short science fiction that tries to recapture the same magic. Even my fondness for female protagonists can be traced back to Scully. (Just as the Scully effect encouraged a generation of young women to pursue careers in medicine, science, and law enforcement, her example caused me to think intuitively about science fiction and suspense through a woman’s eyes.) And if the series had been tidier, or more reliable, it wouldn’t have seized my imagination to the same extent: a more consistent show would have allowed me to settle for what it had to offer, rather than seeing what I could do with the tools it provided. A “perfect” show tends to close off possibilities beyond what its creator envisioned; a show of limited sloppiness provides its writers and fans with the material for unlimited dreams. In the same interview that I quoted above, Delbrück noted: “I have said…that science is a haven for freaks, that people go into science because they are misfits, and that it is a sheltered place where they can spin their own yarn and have recognition, be tolerated and happy, and have approval for it.” That’s what The X-Files was for me. And it still is—despite, or because of, all its hits and misses.

Written by nevalalee

January 25, 2016 at 10:22 am

Quote of the Day

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December 10, 2014 at 7:30 am

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Constructing a shrine to the random

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Gregory Bateson

“I am going to build a church some day,” Gregory Bateson once said. “It will have a holy of holies and a holy of holy of holies, and in that ultimate box will be a random number table.” I’ve shared this quote here before, but I don’t think I’ve ever really dug into its underlying meaning. As Bateson knew, many creative processes originate in raids on the random, and the holy of holies he describes genuinely existed in a number of incarnations. The Urim and Thummim mentioned in the Old Testament were evidently oracle stones that were used to ask questions at important moments: their actual form is still a matter of debate, but it’s likely that they were a bag of small metal discs that were pulled one by one to spell out various permutations of the divine name, each with its own network of meanings. Lots, oracle bones, and divinatory texts have always been treated with ritual care. I’m as left-brained an author as they come, but I always incorporate randomness into the early stages of any writing project, and while these habits are useful in their own right, I’ve also come to see them as a gesture of respect for the unknowable. Whether or not they result in a useful idea is almost beside the point, although they invariably do; it’s more a matter of acknowledging that there are aspects of creativity that can’t be controlled in rational ways.

In fact, I’m starting to believe that every writer needs to maintain a personal shrine to the random. I’m thinking in particular of those portable shrines carried by bullfighters, explorers, and aviators, which can be folded, tucked into a suitcase or bag, and unfolded to be set up in any camp or hotel room. After much trial and error, I’ve found that the ideal vehicle of randomness is a collection of many short, compact units of information of uniform density that can easily be selected by chance. The quintessential example is the I Ching, although I’ve found that it’s a little too vague for my tastes. As I’ve said in other posts, my own favorite oracle is Ted Hughes’s A Choice of Shakespeare’s Verse, a collection of upward of two hundred quotations from the poems and plays, helpfully numbered for convenient consultation. I’ve often thought about doing the same thing with the numbered entries in Christopher Alexander’s A Pattern Language, each of which lays out a design problem and its solution, or Robert Bresson’s Notes for the Cinematographer. (Numbers are useful because they allow you to employ a random number generator to select the one you need, which strikes me as a better approach than simply opening to a random page.)

A Pattern Language

Conceiving of randomness as an end unto itself—especially in how it inspires the mind to come up with unexpected connections and associations—almost redeems such questionable practices as Tarot cards, tea leaves, and astrology, which are useful when they encourage the consulter to apply novel patterns to the situation at hand, rather than slavishly following the response. If this strikes you as too fuzzy, there are plenty of alternatives. I’ve long been a fan of Brian Eno’s Oblique Strategies, and I’ve recently become intrigued by the IDEO Method Cards, which represent a more detailed approach to the same problem. Again, the real value they add is portability, concision, and convenience, as well as material that has gone through a prior stage of refinement. In theory, you could use the Yellow Pages as a source of randomness, too, and while some might argue that this is the way to really whack yourself out of established modes of thinking, I prefer my ore to be slightly more filtered first. (The raw materials don’t need to be words, either: as I’ve mentioned elsewhere, combinations of pictures have been used to stimulate creative thinking, and it’s easy to imagine a similar approach with music, or even with objects in the room you happen to be in now, as Julian Jaynes has done.)

Ultimately, though, the shrine depends on the user. Chance only brings your attention to what is right before your eyes, or reminds you of something you already know, as expressed in an anonymous verse that has been rattling around in my head for years: 

Whenever you are called on to make up your mind
and you’re hampered by not having any,
the way to solve the dilemma you’ll find
is simply by flipping a penny.

Not so that chance will decide the affair
while you’re passively standing there moping
But the moment the penny is up in the air
you suddenly know what you’re hoping.

Randomness works in much the same way, so its source needs to be something you find personally meaningful—which is true of any shrine. So why not build yours today?

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