In conversation with... Scott Gould and Andrew Pickering
It was a Talking Heads album cover that contained the rhetorical question “Where do good ideas come from?”
Technology, and the increasing socialisation of communications technology, supposedly allows us to create, develop, refine and deliver ideas in ways and speeds that have never been the case before. From niche startups to scientific breakthroughs, the power of the idea is becoming increasingly met by the power of silicon.
For this “In conversation with...”, Imperica visited the beautiful surroundings of Reed Hall, part of the University of Exeter. Talking about ideas and the socio-technological flow of them, are Scott Gould, and Professor Andrew Pickering.
How can the systems and processes that we now have, from a social and technology perspective, help to foster and generate ideas? Is it easier than ever, to take an idea and make it happen?
SG: It's easier to get access to ideas today, that's certainly true. A great example is TED; you watch a talk, and get inspired. It doesn't really matter which one you watch - they're so inspiring that you want to actualise their idea in your life.
Ideas are easier to get hold of. They are everywhere we go. TV is full of ideas; the idea of creating is really all over the place. Last night, I was watching Duncan Bannatyne. This was Gordon Ramsay's ambit with restraurants, now it's seaside resorts. Ideas are everywhere.
What has not changed, or perhaps I'm still not decided on, is whether it's easier to make ideas happen. Actualising ideas is the real problem.
We 're drowning in content. Today, the average person concerns way more than people would, 50 years ago.
Apparently it's 80 Terabytes.
We consume far more than people ever have before, particularly if you are that innovative, early-adopting, social media-using business person. There's more than you ever could have wanted, available to you.
Everything that you need, in order to make an idea happen, is also freely available, in terms of resources, learning, help: it's all out there. To a certain degree, it's always been the case that if you wanted to make it happen, you could make it happen. I love that Churchill quote: "A wise man makes more opportunities than he gets."
But, today, the proliferation of content that we have creates a false self-confidence in people. Just because they think that because they know something, in terms of head knowledge, they can therefore do it. What we then find is that people have massive expectations of themselves. My wife is reading a book at the moment called The Narcissism Epidemic. We are in the age of entitlement: people grow up, and believe that they are entitled to everything. You look at the typical teenager; they believe that they deserve to be famous. When I was a kid, I wanted to be a scientist. Now it's famous: the number one profession that kids want to be. So many kids believe that they are gifted; I take on loads of interns and train them up. When they arrive, they genuinely believe that they are brilliant at something. When they apply, it's very rare that they have experience, but they quote the fact that they've got so many A-grades, and that makes them good. TV does magnify, but it does seem that today, people think that they're better than most, and consider themselves to be better than anyone before them. The mantra of "follow your heart and make it happen", the culture of making your dreams come true... anyone can make their dreams come true. All of these things are being said a lot more than they have been, historically.
We have loads of content. We have loads of motivation. All of this creates a false self-confidence. I will argue that it's harder to make ideas happen now, because of that. The more engrained you are in that world, the more your perception shifts and becomes dangerous.
Every day there's a new Internet consultant who wants to tell you about social media. Every day there's someone on Twitter that wants to tell you about it. Every day there are more people reading books which have been around since the 1970s - Direct Marketing, Self-Development, Affiliate Marketing - there are experts everywhere you go, and anybody can have the image of being an expert in a few seconds. That's the danger of social media: you can look great, but it doesn't make you great. Just because you know these things and have all of this content, it's the same as being in a garage doesn't make you a car.
So, it's easier than ever to build a facade of expertise?
I would definitely say that that's true. No-one has to meet you. It is all a "virtual front". You can make it, and it's not expensive to make. Every day, you've got 10 people giving you ways to be better at Twitter; in other words, 10 people telling you to improve your virtual front.
Therefore, the Internet being "the great leveller" is an equally cursed and blessed proposition.
Yes, it is. For some people, it makes them. A lot of it is being down to being at the right place at the right time.
Which has been the case for ever.
Completely. Two years ago, I was starting a consultancy which, initially, had no clients. Now, the majority of people using social media to sell, is doing this.
As you say, it's very easy to do.
Yes. No-one's really very accountable.
AP: You're not really talking about people in general, when you refer to people saying that they're better than everybody else, and wanting to be famous. You're talking about a small fraction of the population. Technology has conjured up a community of virtual poseurs.
Do you think that this is a recent phenomenon?
Well, the Internet never used to exist. But that was your point [Scott], that it's easy to try to look important on the web. I don't really see the connection between this and the question of ideas. I live in a world of ideas. What you're referring to, is ideas for websites.
Has technology made it easier to shape and generate ideas?
You're right that the web provides more resources.
Has that changed that way in which things happen from a professorial perspective?
On one level, yes. If I'm reading an article which cites a paper, and I think that the paper looks interesting. In the old days, I would have had to walk over to the library, and see if the journal is there. It makes a big difference to know that I can just get it from the web.
It goes back to Scott's original point: that access to ideas, is quicker and easier than ever.
AP: But why are we saying ideas? We mean information.
SG: Perhaps I'm sweeping the brush quite broadly, when I mean "everyone". But, in terms of the echo chamber of social media users, and people who use it to talk about themselves and their business, ideas are a big thing. A lot of the writers today, like Seth Godin for instance, who are quickly quotable, are not perhaps the most academic... but ideas are their currency. They may not have the academic insight and destructuralisation of those words as you do, and the word "idea" is thrown around, to mean a lot of different things. It's good talking to you, as I do realise that I'm communciating using words that aren't particularly accurate.
My wife finished her dissertation at University, a couple of years ago. From the time that I was at college and wrote my essays, and I had to put references in - using books from the library, or buy...
You had to get them.
I had to get them. From that time, until three years later when my wife wrote her dissertation, I was amazed at how many references to Wikipedia were inside it. She got a first, and got a lot of books out. But, if the fact that I don't have to go and find the book because it's all online, has it created a mental laziness amongst us and your students? The very act of finding the book would make us value its contents a bit more, and the fact that information is now so freely available, do we place less value on it?
AP: One of the problems of teaching today is asking students to write an essay, and not just to find the books, but display thought. You're likely to get a couple of paragraphs straight off Wikipedia. It's not just that information is cheap, but it's completely obviating thought. We call it cheating, of course, and a lot of variations of that happen.
There's cheating and there's citation. It's easier than ever to generate citations, because you have access to this amazing body of knowledge, and obviously Wikipedia is a very good example of that - as long as it is accurate. So, there is a condition that is reasonably well assumed.
Does it devalue the learning experience, and the understanding of concepts in a student's work?
AP: Yes, it does. I was writing a book chapter a couple of years ago, on Aldous Huxley. I didn't know much about him. I looked on Wikipedia, and it told me everything that I needed to know. For trivial information, it's just fantastic, but it's shallow knowledge. So, if I was trying to find out about something that I was really interested in, I would never look on the web, except that it makes it possible for me to download scholarly articles.
What you're talking about are some characteristics of an intellectual world that has been brought into existence by the web, and didn't exist before. So, it's very easy to look like an expert. That's an interesting facet about the web, that those kinds of people are multiplying.
There's a debased education where you can always find an essay on X on the web somewhere, you can hand it in to your professor, and there's a chance that you will get away with it. There's a debasement of academic, intellectual work associated with the web. If you want to associate that with the word "ideas", that then makes it possible to get a University education without having any idea.
“There's a debasement of academic, intellectual work associated with the web.”
Professor Andrew Pickering
SG: That is true. Graduates that come to me, don't have an idea. For me, that's down to their lack of practical experience. But, I always used to assume that being a graduate meant that there was some sort of intellectual rigour about you. But, a lot of people that come out... they're vacant. They have learnt to churn out information like their minds are machines. We don't know how to learn.
But, we are debasing the access to information. There's a slackness and a laziness. The reality is that we are facing is that I'm 26 years old, and use Wikipedia to find out about most things. If Wikipedia is wrong, then I'm wrong, but we have come to accept a certain degree of error. We have come to accept that we are happy to have this information quickly, and accept that it might be erroneous, rather than spending longer to find information that is 100% reliable - although it's someone's account. We are going to get more of that - fast food, fast information. It's not nutritious, it doesn't have the value that allows you to think.
So, we are turning information into fast food.
There's a book called The McDonaldisation of Society, and we are finding that it is happening. We get our information quickly; Jamie Oliver says that you don't just eat food, you should taste it. It doesn't seem like we are "tasting" the information. This is something that you could say has been going on for a long time. Everybody has that one teacher that helped them to learn how to "taste". How to learn, as opposed to just hear.
I have a big gripe with events, where you just sit and listen. That's not learning, you learn by doing. So, if an event was interested in its attendees, it wouldn't have you listening, it would have you talking, because you learn by talking. But, we have ego. We have the way that it's always been done, with our abnormal focus on content. I'm not a university graduate... I didn't do that.
Your earlier point was about graduates coming out with more of a techncial approach to knowledge - that they have undertaken a task rather than understood an idea. How do you feel about the quality of graduates, in terms of the technical level of expertise that's there?
Since I was 15, when I started in business, I've been hacking away. It probably shouldn't be done that way, but it's been done. I've hacked my way. At the moment, I'm writing a book on social. I don't know how to properly reference things, so I'm using Delicious. I'm hacking my way through it. If I meet a journalist that quotes people and checks their sources... I don't do anything like that, and we're seeing an age of people that just won't do that. They won't quote or cite, they won't do it properly. They won't have that clarity, that precision. Even now, talking, Andy has pointed out that my words have been unfocussed.
AP: I didn't say that.
SG: Well, that's what I'm hearing.
AP: You sound very articulate.
SG: But, in the words that I'm using: "community". What does "community" mean? And, that's increasing. At times when I'm talking to people, I think "My word. I wish that I had gone through that training." I'm a passionate Christian, and someone recently was quoting phrases, and I didn't have a clue what they meant. I thought that it was about believing in Jesus, but... it made me feel inferior, even though I am a pastor, and very much involved in the running of the Church. These people are using concepts that I haven't got a clue about.
It's a really interesting example; you're referring to a different experience, but the same kind of challenge between an intellectual and spiritual, deep personal knowledge, awareness and belief... and the technical ability to cite and quote.
Are we seeing a shift from intellectual rigour to the more technical display of "doing things"?
AP: During my lifetime, the number of young people that go through university has increased enormously. When I was an undergraduate, it was 10% of the population. Now, the target is 50%. That change implies a change in what university education, is. So, if you pick the cleverest 10% and tell them to sit around for three years, they can very probably go deeply into something. I studied Physics. If you just pick half of the population and say that "We'll give you an education", then education is going to be something else. The ratio of students to teaching is much higher, so you can't give people that kind of personal attention and engagement.
Education itself has been reconceived since Mrs. Thatcher's day. Now, it is seen as a way to fit people into the economy – to produce useful cogs for the industrial machine. Learning for itself is not a priority of the Government. So, higher education becomes industrialised, and produces an industrial product.
SG: The irony in that, is that we're a knowledge economy – we're not even in an industrial economy. And, yet, you're right, the industrialised approach, turning out people who then become knowledge workers...
AP: It's an industrialised conception of knowledge... not for its own sake, but “useful knowledge”. Physics isn't all that useful, but engineering is. I don't think that's anything to do with the Internet, but the Internet feeds into this trend that already exists. The same goes for research; funding is made increasingly conditional on producing useful knowledge. How are “users” going to benefit from this knowledge?
Are we therefore moving to more of a results-driven approach to knowledge, which is “I know this, can I have my certificate” - a degree demonstrates amount of techincal knowledge and expertise?
AP: Yes. The majority of students at any university, would not say that they are there for the beauty of learning.
SG: Many graduates that I know, end up becoming waiters. They get a job that is nothing to do with their degree - even some that are really gifted and curious. One of the things that concerns me is that even in our church, we have a lot of international students. Many come to do one of two courses: business or accounting. I always have fun with the business students; I say “How's business?” to which they respond “When I've finished and I start a business, I'll let you know”. For many, their aim is not to start a business, but to go into business. They don't really know what business is, and I try to help them realise that business is active, alive, and it's not always what the textbooks say. It's concerning, because going back to the original point, access to ideas is far greater, but making it happen is far rarer. Making things happen seems to be a rare trait.
I took on an intern, and during the interview, I asked him “what business have you done?” and very often people say “We did this project” at which point I say “no, outside... what have you done?” So this guy says “I'm not really meant to tell you this, but I sell sweets at school.” He's 15, and makes 100% markup. I had so much respect for him, because he's doing something.
We're challenging some generally-accepted beliefs here, and the first is that we're in a knowledge economy. The second is that it's easier to make ideas tangible. Even though there's an environment where it can be done, very few people do it.
SG: I would agree with that.
AP: The words are interesting. I would say that an example of an idea is Einstein's Special Theory of Relativity: a big idea. Making the idea happen is carrying it off – persuading people.
Are we entering a period where it becomes more difficult to get “big ideas” understood throughout society, because of the glut of content that we have?
AP: You could say that where does the idea of evolution come from? Darwin had to sail around the Galapagos Islands, and do the hard work. Now we have to trawl enormous databases, to find regularity. So, there's a very different mode of knowledge generation, which is becoming important, which might well devalue the creativity that you might associate with Darwin or Einstein, in favour of automated knowledge production and procedure.
So, facts have a greater currency than perceptions, assumptions, and a more creative approach to thought.
AP: If we're talking about the fact that the Internet makes a lot of information available, them it's terabytes of information, that was unprocessable in the old-fashioned way of thinking.
A friend of mine used to have a graph, which showed the amount of data used to establish a theory over time. In the scientific revolution of 300 years ago, you might have 100 data points; you could say that was what Newton was working from. This curve goes up and takes off in about 1960, which is when universities got their hands on electronic computing, and the data points go up to something like 10,000. You can't do that with a book. You produce a different kind of knowledge if you trying to make sense out of incomprehensibly large databases.
Does that foster a greater understanding of the world around us, increasingly from a “hard data” perspective, rather than one that is creative and artistic?
SG: A lot of social technology thinkers talk about the end of the age of content, and the beginning of the age of curation.
AW: That's true.
SG: Those who will be distinctive, will be those who can curate exist content in a meaningful way. A year ago, I said on my blog that content is worthless. Clarity is really what I want to talk about... I want to talk about understanding something. With the idea of curation, I am standing on the shoulders of giants. I'm taking their collective learning, and am able to make a meaningful new way of understanding this. We have so much content, but we need to get better at curation. That's a social trend.
AW. Managing large databases and making them visible is an important and useful activity; that's what Google does for you. I was reading the headlines in the New York Times this morning – there was an article about curation being a problem. If you put something about yourself on the web, it never goes away. There's the famous case of the girl wearing a pirate's hat, with a drink in her hand; she can't get a job as a teacher, and can't get rid of this image. The information doesn't go away. The problem is the opposite of curation – it's getting rid of things.
SG: That opens up a whole new can of worms. It's funny that they cite that case, as for most people it doesn't affect them, but I think that it will.
AW: The claim in the article is that some vast percentrage of recruiters check these sources before people are offered jobs.
In terms of the impact of technology and content on the processes of generating, testing and refining ideas – which events in history would help us to shape that? We are, supposedly, in this great age of access to information.
AW: People argue as to whether the invention of the printed book revolutionised knowlege. You can make arguments that it was, because it helps you to accumulate knowledge, and check different sources. People have tried to make the argument that the Internet is another revolution. I don't think that it is, but various phenomena, as we have discussed, came along with the Internet, that didn't exist before.
I've been writing about strange art forms lately, and have just written a book about the history of cybernetics. These strange art forms, in particular, are where people collaborate with technology, in an interactive and productive way. I wrote about Gordon Pask, who built the Musicolour in the 1950s. It turned a musical performance into a light show, but the connection between the two wasn't linear. If you continue playing the same notes, the machine would get bored, so that encouraged the performer to try something different – to wake up the machine. So, the Musicolour encouraged a certain type of creativity in the performer, and vice versa.
I then became interested in generative art. Instead of composing a piece of music, the act of composition is more about setting a machine in motion. You're downloading some of the creativity into the machine. I find that kind of relationship, between technology and creativity, exciting to think about.
So, does the concept of creativity, now, underplay the potential of what technology can do?
AP: Technology in this language can be a symmetrical partner, in a certain kind of creativity. For me, creativity is everywhere. It's not that everything stays the same and creativity is a special act. It's more that things are always changing in a creative fashion.
So, the question for me is how might technology intersect with those creative things that happen all the time anyway. The Musicolour is something that you interact with. It instantiates an open-ended conversation in a way that simply writing on a piece of paper, or painting, is not so conversational.
SG: One of the things that I think about, is the idea of “social”. What is [being] social in media? It's knowing when to talk, and when to listen. Social is spreadable media. For me, the big thing with social media, is the media would change, depending on what you gave to it. I would always say that social media and the Internet is a revolution, as it provides media which changes in response to us, on a mass scale.
“I don't think that, in years to come, the Internet and social media will be recognised as two different revolutions.”
However, it's interesting that you talk about the Musicolour. I would call that social media. Media revolutions change the way that we think. Books and the Age of Enlightenment are linked, and we get the idea of reason here. The telegraph means that information comes over the wire.
With social media, no longer is this web of information coming at us, it's coming from us. I don't think that, in years to come, the Internet and social media will be recognised as two different revolutions.
AP: It is an emergent, decentred phenomenon, and you're right to spot the connection between that and Pask. But, I'm sometimes tempted to see the world of UGC as some kind of psychological experiment. It's interesting to see what gets talked about, and what doesn't. I don't have the impression that anything terribly interesting happens on Facebook. If we're talking about creativity and ideas, has anything interesting emerged? Is it just a map of the English-speaking psyche? There is this new phenomenon, but it's really a collective psychological outpouring.
SG: I maintain that it's really relational media. It's place where people relate, talk and chat, consciously and subconsciously. I'm amazed at how many people know things about me, but don't remember where they found out about it – it was buried in their mind when they saw it pop up.
So, where are the great ideas being born? First of all, the whole thing is a great idea. 500 million people are using the same thing; that's amazing. Could you say the same thing about journals? Look at Twitter; through it, I have met people that put things into motion. That caused the idea of Like Minds to become reality, because of that media. So, the idea became a reality in one place, but social media was the channel to which it was happening. Similarly, journals are containers for us to share ideas.
Because access to digital technology is greater than ever before, do you think that just having access devalues the concept of what creativity is?
AP: Karl Marx said that “Religion is the opiate of the masses”, and I think that in entertainment technology, we now have that real opium. A lot of social media has that quality.
SG: It's very addictive.
AP: It seems to me that people are becoming less and less connected with the world that they live in. This is opium that we produce for ourselves. At the same time, what happens to social relationships when so much is lived online? What does it mean to say that you have 500 friends? I think that social relationships among younger generations have a different feel to them, and technology has a lot to do with that. I don't think that it's a lot to do with creativity or ideas.
SG: McLuhan says that a medium does four things, and it's down to that person. Money is not evil in itself, but it can be in the wrong hands. I think that what we're not doing well as a society, is helping people to make sure that technology enhances. People sit at a table and use their phones – they are preferring the digital connection. It's an opium, it debases.
I was watching an interview with Lady Gaga, talking about how she sets her hat on fire during a performance. She said that “It was art”. I think that her definition is very different to mine. If setting your hat on fire is art... I can do that, but then art is subjective. The danger we face is that technology takes away the creativity that is formed from real-world interaction, and it removes depth over volume. We've got a lot of volume right now, we have lots of relationships, few of which are deep. We're getting so volume-based, that we're losing the creativity that comes from depth.
What concerns me is that younger generations have very few real friends. Years ago, you would have lots of acquaintances, but now, everyone is a friend. I ask people “who is the person that you can be really honest with?” and often the response is “No-one”.
We don't need to slow down, we just need to understand.
Scott Gould is the co-founder of Like Minds, a network of innovative thinkers. The next Like Minds conference takes place in October. Professor Andrew Pickering's latest book, The Cybernetic Brain: Sketches of another future, is now available in hardback.