The Algorithmic Butterfly

Having snagged a signed copy at his talk earlier in the week, I have spent my commutes reading Tim Harford’s Messy. It has been what I can only call “disconcerting”. It has felt as though Tim has crawled inside my head, extracted each of my techniques, systems, and inner infrastructures, and assigned them to different figures from the creative field.

The second, third, and fourth things I thought were – hmm, I’m going to have to do some serious creating to make my writing about creativity more original (but cool challenge); ouch, I should have known some of that (but yay, gaps to fill!); and, I guess that explains why I seem to do OK at creativity tests. On further reflection, in the moment before the “how dare you blow your trumpet” feelings hit, I did allow myself an “It’s pretty cool that I seem to have intuited my way to the best methods of doing stuff rather than, as I always figured, royally screwing myself over with self-sabotage at every turn.”

Let me take three things Tim talks about as illustrations

Iterative Algorithms

Suppose you are looking for the highest point on a globe in a limited amount of time, and you can take only individual readings at a time. How would you do it? The algorithm you would devise, we are told, would begin with widely spaced random positions, pick the most promising and then scatter around them, and iterate inwards thusly. It’s one of those techniques that is so self-evident you do it without thinking about it (we’re taught it in maths of course when we do trial and error, and in arithmetic, it’s a fairly useful way of calculating square and cube roots).

One of the projects I am working on a lot at the moment is campaigning on mental health issues

One of the projects I am working on a lot at the moment is campaigning on mental health issues

I actually approach Torrance test type questions of the kind we get in the Creative Thinking World Championships in exactly this way as a deliberate strategy. My master memory map or whatever you want to call the sum of all your knowledge, is basically divided up into Knowledge Continents, and within each continent there are countries, and so on. So there is Science (breaking into History of Science, Human Science, Physical Sciences, etc, which then narrow all the way to the likes of different strains of poppy hybrids or subduction zones of the world), Culture, Sport, History, Geography and so on. Whenever I am faced with a creative puzzle (say, uses for a burst balloon), I will touch down on every continent and see what’s there and whether it feels promising. If it does, I’ll look on a country by country basis and so on. That way I’ll never be trapped in one terrain that might be the one burst balloons instantly conjure up (there are only so many ways you could celebrate National Eeyore Day, after all). I will always take myself on a whirlwind tour of Australian History and Neuroscience, maybe dipping in for a moment in Designland to consider Brutalist architecture and wallpaper printmaking and ultimately really doubling down on microscopy (the different shapes of balloon burst marks would make excellent taxonomical tools for classifying the countless hitherto unknown protozoa that may be found in the sediment of our deepest ocean trenches).

Another, unconnected but cross-pollinating, project relates to open access

Another, unconnected but cross-pollinating, project relates to open access

Oblique Strategies

Harford talks a lot about Brian Eno, which is not surprising because Eno is one of the most absurdly and diversely creative forces of the late 20th century and beyond. One of Eno’s key techniques for pushing himself and other people out a creative rut is his Oblique Strategies cards, a deck of cards that he will draw at random that each contains simple but very peculiar phrases to direct one’s thoughts elsewhere. It is basically a way to harness the creative power of disruption by finding a way to create fruitful disruptions on demand.

Again, forced disruption is a technique I use all the time when looking for ways out of creative dead ends. I even use cards in pretty much this way to facilitate this disruption, and the system I am beginning to work on to map, enable, and record the brain’s creative memory – improving on the two-dimensional associations of the mind map – is card-based, using a three card system where one of the cards represents an operation that constitutes a means of associating.

And of course, I'm still writing. Though *what* I write changes daily.

And of course, I’m still writing. Though *what* I write changes daily.

Rolling maul

The rolling maul is a term I borrowed from Rugby Union that I have used now for many years to describe the way I like to work creatively, being part of movements and collaborations and projects and endeavours. A rolling maul is essentially a mass of bodies that move up the pitch. People join it, and they fall off it, so that over the course of the progress of the body of bodies, it will rarely retain the same make-up for long. But it is still recognisably the same thing, defined by a single purpose – carrying the ball up the field.

This, it seems, is something pretty much akin to the way many of the best collaborations work – both from the perspective of the collaborator (who works most efficiently by joining in a succession of fruitful relationships with people whose expertise may lie in areas often dissimilar to their own) and of the project at hand (where teams and individuals from disparate areas are brought together for a specific purpose).

If I look back at the groups of which I have been a part (groups where I have forged very close working relationships, and where I have been at the heart of activities), what characterises them is their markedly different constituencies. There have been bridge teams, the world of powerlifting, politics and activism, and within the literary sphere Year Zero, eight cuts, the performance poetry scene, the Alliance of Independent Authors among others. Interestingly, I have always seen this way of doing things – join a group related to an area that’s new to me (and if there is no group then start my own), very quickly work my way to its centre by feverishly participating, volunteering, and “being gobby”, drive things forward, then move on to the next thing – as a fundamental weakness of mine. And, more even than that, a character flaw. It showed, I always felt, a kind of flippancy in my approach to my creativity and a disrespect to others. It boiled down, as I saw it, to the fact that whether we were talking about people or creativity, I was unable to do it “right”.

Tim Harford explains that disparate groups often make the best decisions even if they rub each other up doing so. Year Zero Writers was certainly a rollercoaster but we produced truly magnificent things.

Tim Harford explains that disparate groups often make the best decisions even if they rub each other up doing so. Year Zero Writers was certainly a rollercoaster but we produced truly magnificent things.

It turns out that many of the other ways of being I have always adopted are also there in the playbook – having more than one project on the go at any one time, in often unrelated areas, and using them as ways of reinvigorating each other, for example; or flitting endlessly from field to field (or, as I call it, being unable to write a sequel to that thriller because I’m busy doing poetry).

As I said at the beginning, this has been an eye-opening experience. But it also gives me a challenge. Though I am not yet 100% sure what the challenge is. To make the best use possible of the knowledge that I have unwittingly developed a toolbox that could serve me well? To attempt to explain how I do things the way I do? To find a way of making techniques that are evidently well-worn actually fresh? Almost certainly a little of each of them as the weeks go by here.

For now, though, I feel a little less guilty at having quite so many balls in the air.




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