This is the full text of the talk “The Monk, the Mushroom, and the MRI: how creativity could save the world”, given at Meeting Minds in Oxford on 20 September. You can download the slides here. I have kept in the slide prompts so you can follow.
When I give talks on the subject of creativity I usually use an extended form of the subtitle, “How creativity could save the world and why it probably won’t” but that somehow didn’t seem to set the right tone for the Friday afternoon of a wonderful weekend like this, so I decided to give the optimistic version.
So, let’s start by talking about human extinction.
Take a look at this table produced by the organisation 80,000 Hours.
It outlines the greatest threats to our survival as a species in the 21st century. These threats between them give a 19% probability that humanity will not survive the 21st century. Only one of these threats, the second smallest, is not a direct result of human action.
Whether it’s climate change, food security, where artificial intelligence will take us, the potential for nuclear annihilation, or the implications of genetic modification and transhumanism, we face a future that could so easily go catastrophically wrong. And yet these so-called wicked problems are so complicated we have very little idea where to even start in tackling them.
And this principle applies in so many areas, and on so many levels, not just the extinction level. Businesses that have survived for hundreds of years face disruption that could wipe them out; anti-establishment populism threatens to overturn political stability and peace, and has contributed to an overturning of scientific consensus that has fuelled climate denial and seen diseases we thought we had eliminated begin to return.
And the one thing we do know with some degree of confidence is that our current way of doing things will not help us find good solutions – after all, those ways of thinking and acting are what got us into this pickle to start with.
We know, in other words, that to help us solve our wicked problems we need creativity. And here, as throughout this talk, I am using the word creativity simply to describe new ways of doing things, new ways of looking at things, most of all new ways of putting things together.
I want to suggest three ways in which we can use creativity to solve the most serious threats we face, and I want to offer some very brief suggestions for each of these:
We need new ideas
We need new ways of communicating those ideas in order to make sure they really happen
We need new institutions, more willing to listen to creative ideas, more able to do things differently.
Each of these is important on its own. But when we say that we need creativity, what we really need is all three, working together. We need new ideas, effectively communicated, and willingly implemented. And you are in the wonderful position of being able to contribute, whether it is to the establishing new ideas, better communication of those ideas, more open institutions to implement them, or all three.
Most of my focus for this talk will be on the first of these. Generating new ideas is the most traditional definition of creativity. It’s also the most fun, and probably the thing that will make the most instant impact in your life.
The secret sauce to creating new ideas is really simple. It has just two parts.
Know lots of things about lots of things. That is, have a lot of raw materials. And then be really good at connecting those bits together.
Incredibly simple. Unfortunately also really really hard.
Before we start, let’s take one more step back and understand what makes those two things hard.
Now of course the main reason why there’s a need for us to be more creative is that at the moment society as a whole is really bad at it. We are really bad at thinking new thoughts. There are lots of reasons for this, but the one I want to focus on now has to do with the way we think about knowledge.
When it comes to learning things, we place inordinate value on how to remember the things we learn, and very little on how to use them. You might say we prioritise memory at the expense of creativity. Or to use a computing analogy, we prioritise ROM over RAM.
Which is quite peculiar, because knowledge, really, is just a tool. Having a great memory is a bit like being a plumber and knowing exactly what tools you have in your box. Which is important. You wouldn’t want to turn up to a blocked drain and spend half an hour going through your van every time because you didn’t know if you had a plunger. On the other hand, if you can’t use any of the tools in your box, you could have the finest high pressure hose imaginable and it would do you no good at all.
So why have we got into this way of thinking? Well, it wasn’t always like this. If we go back to the middle ages, when the art of memory was widely studied and written about, people didn’t have this distinction between memory and creativity. And that’s largely because they were part of the same process, and approached in the same way. To go back to our analogy, it was as if the art of plumbing involved getting to know each of your tools by practice, perfecting your knowledge of what they were and how to use them in one process.
When it came to memory, this meant constructing vast multisensory systems in your mind not just to help you store information (in the way that we might now think of the modern equivalent of those early memory palaces as a glorified recall system) but to help you use it. In particular you would construct these systems so that you could put your thoughts and ideas together to form compelling speeches and arguments – memory and creativity were interleaved parts of the discipline of rhetoric.
And the greatest exponent of all when it came to this art was a monk called Ramon Llull.
This is one of his “memory wheels”. You can see it looks like a set of cogs and gears, and that’s exactly what it was. It was designed not just to help you learn the elements of a great argument, but to flex and shuffle them and find new ways of connecting them. This wonderful imaginative art saw knowledge as something essentially fluid, unfixed, ours to summon and manipulate at will.
As this statement by a curator of Llull’s work puts it rather well, for Llull “all knowledge is networked.” Which is exactly how I would describe my own mental filing system.
And it is that perspective on it we have lost as a society. Instead of a network or matrix in which every point is connected to potentially infinite other points, each fact has a particular place.
Take a look at these illustrations of the way we might lay out knowledge today, a mind map and a list divided up by category rather as we might categorise things into species and genus. Each fact is isolated at the end of a branch.
These tools help us to learn things by putting those things in their “correct place”. They fix things.
Anchor them. Isolate them at the end of a genus-species line like an obscure category of metaphysical fiction in an Amazon shopping recommendation. Every trick these techniques employ to help you remember a thing simultaneously hinders you from imagining that thing from existing anywhere but its “proper place”.
You simultaneously learn the thing and learn not to be able to use it.
And we have forgotten the main reason we do it this way. In the 16th century taxonomy became a battle for people’s souls. The Puritans were already suspicious of the imagination. They thought it was too powerful, that it could summon things into being. And because one of the things people imagined in order to help them remember were astrological charts, the art of memory soon got associated with the art of demon conjuring – one of the most famous memory artists of the 16th century, Giordano Bruno, who came to Oxford to speak about his art in 1583, was eventually burned for his troubles.
Fortunately for them those early Puritans had an alternative method to hand thanks to a man called Peter Ramus, who advocated learning by creating endlessly subdivided lists of words. And that was that. Many of those Puritans went to America, and their verbal, list-based taxonomies travelled with them, until now everything from the naming of plants to our library catalogues to the breadcrumbs that track our progress through Amazon is based on them.
So, I want to encourage you to start your creative journey by getting back to that earlier way of thinking about knowledge. And the first thing I want you to do is this.
Don’t think about knowledge as the sum of all the things you know thing you know.
Instead, think of knowledge as the product of all the things you know.
This is also an incredibly powerful way to motivate your mind to want to keep learning. Think of the difference like this.
Suppose you know 10 things. If knowledge is everything you know added together, what do you gain by learning 1 more thing? You increase your knowledge by 10%. And every new thing you learn increases your knowledge by less and less as a percentage as a whole. The motivation to learn decreases as you know more. But if knowledge is everything you know multiplied together, then the 1 more thing you learn doesn’t increase your knowledge by 10% but by more than 10 times, more than 1000%. And the more you know, the more each new thing you learn increases your knowledge. And the greater your mind’s motivation for learning even more becomes.
OK, so we’ve understood that we need to think of knowledge as “how we use things” not “how we remember things”. Now we’ve got that out of the way we can remember that it really is important to learn things, lots of things. There’s also a creative benefit to having a real breadth of knowledge over and above the fact you just have more possible connections. A study of innovation by Tim Harford found something that when we think about it isn’t really surprising. Most innovation in any field comes from people new to the field. The reason he gives for this is straightforward – those people haven’t yet learned what the rules say they shouldn’t do.
So let’s take a brief look at how to increase the breadth of our knowledge.
First, learning is essentially a dialogue – between what you already know and the new stuff you’re picking up. It’s a kind of dialogue that is essentially an iterative process,
constantly shifting in perspective between the macro and the micro scale, asking alternately where a new piece of knowledge sits within your much wider conceptual framework and how your wider frameworks must be tweaked in the light of new knowledge. This continual zooming in and out, which is rather like television’s first psychedelic special effects, is an incredibly effective way both to learn, and to learn from what you learn, so again we’re getting a multiplier effect on our knowledge rather than an additive effect.
Second, play around with learning totally new stuff. There’s a really fabulous TED talk by Josh Kaufman in which he suggests you can get really quite good at anything in 20 hours of deep study. Which is a long way from Gladwell’s 10,000 hours to achieve mastery. And again, when it comes to multipliers and impact, those 20 hour bursts can be incredibly powerful.
A technique I use to make it more fun and more intentional is to learn about 2 things at the same time, and connect them up as I go.
This was one such exercise – I decided to learn about dugongs and bismuth. It turns out they’re not only both really fascinating, beautiful things but they have some interesting connections, such as the very narrow temperature parameters necessary for their optimal environment. It was through this exercise that I first became fascinated with seagrass,
an amazing plant that not only protects coasts from erosion but provides one of the world’s most biodiverse ecosystems, in particular acting as nursery environment for marine species, and is also up to 35 times quicker than rainforest at carbon sequestration.
I’d also recommend a wonderful site called Curiosity.com if you don’t already know it. It’s a site where you can spend 20 minutes a day learning cool things about something completely random. Sign up and every day they’ll send you something new to learn.
So that’s learning things. Now I want to talk about three ways to make it easier to make connections between those things. The first involves essentially making your knowledge like Velcro, giving it hooks that dangle around looking for things to connect to.
It works by giving us a way to overcome one of our brain’s natural shortcut-making mechanisms.
Take the kind of question you might get asked in a standard creative thinking test.
“What would you get if you crossed a dog with a skyscraper?”
Our brain tends to present us with an image of a particular dog and a particular skyscraper. It does this particularly with what we might call concrete, or imageable, ideas – just like “dog” and “skyscraper.” So now the question has become “What happens if I cross my childhood pet with The Shard?” And that isn’t very helpful. It’s very hard to move past those images.
The way to get around this is to try to break those concrete ideas down into more abstract ones, which are less likely to create these blockages. These include all of their associations, personal, cultural, historical as well as physical. These properties are the hooks of the velcro. The more of these hooks you can set, the more connections you will be able to find with other objects.
So when we think of “dog” we break that idea down into its properties –
having four legs, eating meat, that dogs are known for their friendship of humans, for giving their Latin name variously to puncturing teeth (canines) and a group of islands (The Canaries). And we do the same with skyscrapers.
And when we do that we start to see that some of the properties have some similarities,
and those similarities are the conceptual bridges that help us to start coming up with ideas that link the ideas together.
Obviously, this is something we can’t do all the time – we need shortcuts to be able to do anything at all beyond sitting getting distracted by listing the cultural associations of dogs all day. On the other hand the risk of spending too little time being distracted may be greater than that of spending too much.
The second thing we need to do is also about switching off very useful once but not so useful if you want to be creative bits of our brain.
And this is where the MRI part of this talk’s title comes in.
It turns out the main barrier to creativity any of us who have tried to teach it have encountered has a basis in neuroscience. I call it the “awkward bum shuffle”, the nervous feeling people get because coming up with original, potentially out-there ideas really isn’t them.
Siuyan Liu, one of the leading neuroscientists of creativity, put it rather differently after conducting experiments on freestyle rappers. He said:
“Lyrical improvisation appears to be characterized by altered relationships between regions coupling intention and action, in which conventional executive control may be bypassed and motor control directed by cingulate motor mechanisms. “
It’s essentially the same thing.
The most famous set of experiments on this phenomenon was carried out by Charles Limb, who worked with jazz musicians. He put them in an fMRI machine and gave them a keyboard and told them to start improvising, and when they did their brains looked like this.
In short, all the activity was in the motor parts of their brain, and none of it in the executive parts – they were so fluid at improvising because they had turned off the part of their brain that is, in essence, our self-censor.
What I have tried to do is create a game that enlists the dopamine system to help this process along. Which brings us to mushrooms. Because what better thing to name such a game after than the mycelium,
the root network from which mushrooms grow. A mycelium in the state of Oregon is the largest living organism in the world, and also possibly the oldest. It is is around 9000 years old, covers an area of three and a half square miles, and is the stuff of utter nightmares. Basically, the perfect metaphor for the creative brain.
The game – which, I should point out makes a really good present and which I will be selling on the Blackwell’s stall afterwards for £10 – works like this. You have two decks of cards.
From the first you draw one of 16 challenging ways of connecting objects
here we have “After the zombie apocalypse, you can choose to save blank or blank. Explain your choice” You then draw two further cards from the second deck
to produce a question, here “After the zombie apocalypse, you can choose to save an oil well or a violin. Explain your choice” You then have 5 minutes to generate as many ideas as possible.
Scoring the game is very simple. The more people who come up with an idea, the fewer points that idea scores. You’re basically delivering a dopamine hit every time you come up with an outrageous idea, in the hope the brain will find it increasingly easier to make truly original connections.
The third way of finding new connections I call “taking an idea for a walk.”
Let me explain how it works using one of the classic creative thinking problems. How many uses can you think of for a paperclip?
How would you go about thinking of things? The danger is that you will feel like a writer confronted with an empty page, and you will end up with nothing.
If you’re slightly more used to problem solving, you might take your cue from what a paperclip looks like. So you might think of a whole load of things that look like a paperclip – a diving board, a coat hook, a heating element and so on, and devise new uses by listing those and adding to each “for ants”.
The approach I want to suggest is to go through, systematically, each part of your knowledge, and for each one figure out whether there is any way a paperclip could be useful.
It’s a very simple idea. But to be able to make the most of it, you need to be able to access every different part of your knowledge bank quickly and fluidly.
This is one reason (alongside all kinds of fun game play) I devised the Mycelium drafting table,
which, in theory, divides the whole of human knowledge into 100 headings.
So, to go back to our paperclip example, I might start at the top left of the drafting table with “deserts” – a paperclip might act as a heat transfer element in a solar panel, or you could put it under the ground at the desert’s edge and encourage roots to grow around it so as to avoid soil erosion and desert encroachment. Eventually your “idea journey” will go through headings like business (we all know the book “One Red Paperclip”, fashion (punk revival for office managers), education (the different lengths of metal might make it useful for performing calculations), fish (prosthetic for an angler fish who’s lost its lure), and the law (might we introduce a “paperclip standard” dictating that all openings in drinks cans have to be the size of a standard paperclip or more?) – and so on.
Without this systematic approach, we might not have come up with any of those ideas because we would be left without a clear place to start.
That’s all great, and we’re ready to blaze our world-changing trail with all kinds of wonderful ideas about how to adapt underutilised stationery items to better the private lives of ants.
But that is not enough.
There is a very simple reason for this. The best ideas, the ones most likely to solve the world’s problems are the least likely to be implemented. Not because the world is malicious. Not even because it’s particularly ignorant.
By and large most institutions and individuals know they need to try to address our most pressing problems. Again, very few people apart from a few hedge fund managers – openly at least – look at looming disaster and shout “bring it on”. But the people in the best position to empower those with possible answers are inevitably, those same people and institutions whose assumptions and conceptual frameworks caused the problems – despite their best intentions.
So those who adopt creative approaches to problems, ones that might work, will always have their ideas overlooked. It can’t be otherwise – they are breaking the rules of “how it’s done”! So they will be able to pursue them only despite and never because of, the institutions and individuals whose job it is ostensibly to nurture and enable possible solutions.
It is for this reason I talk about creativity being condemned by a Cassandra curse.
Those with the most creative ideas, like the prophet of ancient Troy, are destined always to tell the truth and never to be believed.
Indeed, if I were to tell you the story of a young woman speaking out with every breath of her body in the midst of a dying civilization, warning them of the simple truth of their imminent demise and the equally simple steps they could take to avoid it, while they laugh at, pillory, or ignore her in equal measure, you would be hard pressed to know if I was describing Cassandra. Or Greta Thunberg. Or, come to that, Malala. Or Emma Gonzalez. You might say one of the institutional behaviours we most need to change is our endless dismissal of brilliant young women.
In order to understand a little more about why we ignore the most creative ideas, and how we can get out of such an incredibly damaging habit, I want to consider two biases baked in to the way we make decisions.
The first is the Local Maximum Problem.
This has to do with the way we think we should solve problems. We are very good at making small changes, and seeing if they work. If they do, we make more small changes, until nothing we try leads to any further improvement.
This is a great way of finding what we might call the “local maximum”, a “good” solution to a problem. But if the “best” solution, the “overall maximum” is somewhere else entirely, making tiny changes will never help us find it. We need to make occasional very big changes. But we are very bad at doing that.
Indeed, it’s one of the ways in which scientists who work on such things struggle to model evolution. How do you programme in just the right amount of randomness, of big leaps in amongst the small steps, to model an evolutionary progress that doesn’t just lead to fragile dead ends but has the flexibility and resilience for the levels of progress necessary for complex intelligent life to emerge?
For institutions trying to solve wicked problems, this kind of procedure seems utterly impossible – there is no wholesale investment in random projects, no lottery for research grants, no sticking a pin in a pool of applicants for research posts or a list of applicants for panels at think tanks. Failure to introduce even this tiny element of randomness is essentially to bet everything on whatever slope we find ourself on being a nursery slope of the highest hill anywhere – even though we know it also has a cliff we will all fall down if we keep fumbling around and we have bet on the wrong hill.
If the local maximum problem limits the ways we can tackle challenges, then the next bias limits the ways in which we can even talk about them.
It is a very simple idea from political science called the Overton Window.
It notes that for any political question, there are many possible answers, and that these come from many different points across a vast spectrum. But only a very few of those possible answers has any chance of being adopted, because we can only ever talk about things that lie on a very small part of the possible spectrum, the so-called Overton window.
The only answers we will ever choose to a problem are those which lie somewhere in that window. In the middle are the things you will hear people say in the street, and see written in newspapers. At the very edge of the window are the kind of ideas you might find in viral memes.
But you see the problem. The behaviours and ideas at the centre of the window, the ones we take for granted, our norms, are the ones that have paved the way to the cliff we are in danger of walking over. Any answer that will pull us away from the cliff edge is likely to be so far away from the window of acceptable conversation it will never be considered.
So what are we to do about this? How do we nudge the window so that those with the power to implement solutions to the world’s problems might listen to the solutions most likely to actually solve them?
The way we usually go about shifting the window of opinion can best be described like this.
People want new ideas, but not too new. They want ideas that will feel new enough to be exciting but not new enough to challenge the system – that is to say, not new enough to actually work. The famous designer Raymond Loewy called this kind of approach “most advance yet acceptable”. And it is great for doing the kind of things Loewy and his followers did, like designing a new model saloon car,
or improving the performance of your national cycling team.
And we see its insidious effect in politics, as behaviours and ideas at the very edge of what might be considered radical are normalised over time.
But this method won’t do for solving wicked problems, where the answers most likely to succeed have to go way beyond what is “acceptable” to the current system.
In order to make our solutions “acceptable” we end up draining them of the creativity that gave them a hope of working. In short, some problems are so urgent we can’t keep nudging the window; and if we always bring ideas within the window to get them heard there is a danger even we will eventually settle from this eviscerated version of an original idea, too exhausted from the constant nudging and too distanced from the original creativity by our daily proximity to and embroilment in the framework which created the problem we need to solve.
Fortunately, this is the “everything might just be OK, maybe there are answers” version of the talk. I want to suggest that it is possible to have our most creative ideas implemented. We just need to find new ways of communicating our ideas.
Our hope lies in the paradigm shift, and specifically in the role of anomalies within that mechanism.
A paradigm is a complete way of looking at the world. It is faulty paradigms which have given rise to our worst problems, and the same faulty paradigms that stop us solving them.
For our creative ideas to be implemented, we need those people who have the power to implement them to adopt a new paradigm. To do that we need to understand how paradigms shift. This is a very simple process. It starts by noticing anomalies.
Anomalies are things which the current system cannot explain. When we see enough of them, we realise it is not enough to try to find a way of explaining them in the existing paradigm, we need a new paradigm which explains them completely.
Nothing illustrates this better than the story of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. What is important for us is how Alice enters Wonderland.
One day she sees a white rabbit, dressed as a human and looking at its watch, saying to itself “I’m late.” Now that’s something that is clearly impossible. There was something so curious, so startling, so unusual about the white rabbit that Alice followed it, not just down the street but down a rabbit hole into a different world where the human-like figure of a white rabbit with a watch made perfect sense.
What we need to do is to make our creative ideas like the white rabbit. We need to create anomalies that draw attention to our ideas, anomalies that are so original, so unusual, so startling and most of all so curious, that people will follow them, and be drawn into the world where they make perfect sense – the new paradigm.
A very good example, one we see around us every day, is graffiti.
This graffiti is from the Southbank Undercroft in London. When we see graffiti we often struggle to “understand” it. Sometimes we dismiss it as vandalism. Sometimes we see it only as a symptom – of a society where people have nothing else to do; of rage and frustration with no other outlet; as a middle finger raised against the establishment.
Even the more considered approaches miss the point. It is often considered “cute” or “exotic” or “fascinating.”
And we miss something completely – that maybe these scratches, these marks that break the surface of “our” world, are no more statements against “our” culture than “our” regency facades and tailored suits are a middle finger lifted against “theirs”.
What we discover when graffiti, like this at the Southbank, is so intriguing that instead of trying to understand it we enter into its world, is that it’s actually just a regular part of someone else’s world –
in this case the community of skateboarders who make this space their own.
In fact the Southbank skateboard community is the very best example of communicating ideas differently, without compromising their creativity. In 2010 this space was threatened with destruction by the theatre which occupies the space above it. The theatre offered to build a skate park a few hundred metres away. They had no way of understanding why this would be devastating to the skating community. Their paradigm simply could not imagine it. The skaters staged a quite brilliant campaign. They filmed videos about the history of their community in that space. They invited people from the theatre’s board to meet them, to experience their passion, the depth and richness of their culture. In the end the space was saved and those on both sides came to appreciate the how valuable each other’s culture was, how each was using their space in their own way to experience something unique and historic and beautiful and important.
Of course, it would be best if we didn’t have to find difficult, time-consuming ways to convince institutions to act on creative ideas. It would be best of all if institutions were really good at implementing ideas that came from outside their own narrow experience. Which brings me to my final point.
We need institutions that find it easier to implement creative solutions. Many of you have a key role in shaping the institutions of the present and the future. If you want them to be part of a powerful engine driving change for the better by finding and nurturing creative solutions to our greatest problems, there are so many things you can do.
- Follow white rabbits. Never lose your curiosity. If you see something remarkable, something that stops you in your tracks, don’t just stand and look; don’t take a picture and share it on Instagram typing “look at this, it’s amazing!” Follow it. See where it might take you. As a mental health campaigner, I often get invited to talk as the event’s “expert by experience” (a delightful phrase that makes it quite clear we couldn’t possibly be experts by anything else. In an experience I share with pretty much anyone else who’s been and expert by experience. I find it fascinating watching the audience. They will be rapt. Some might cry, many will look profoundly moved, some will approach you afterwards and tell you how brave you are. And the keynote (we are never the keynote, of course – our expertise is too specialised for that) will always turn and say “You inspire us.” Recently I have taken to saying what I have previously only thought: “Thank you, what did I inspire you to do?” The point of this isn’t about mental health or advocacy in particular (though I very much advocate that people who make decisions that affect our lives involve us in those decisions and act on what we say). It’s about inertia. We say things like “that’s inspirational” almost as a reflex that means about as much as a like on twitter. Following white rabbits means allowing yourself to be genuinely inspired when you see something remarkable. Inspired to do something – to follow and see where you end up.
- Change the assumptions and criteria you use for empowering people, such as providing funding or mentorship. Look more to the possible benefit than the likely outcome of any project. Before you make your final decision, ask yourselves always “what if this person was right and I was the one who said no?”
- Speak up for the pedants, the people who are difficult in meetings, the ones who go on like a stuck record pointing out inconsistencies between your policy and your practice. Put those people on your decision-making panels and don’t humour them, don’t “listen, nod, reject”, but give them vetoes.
- Create truly diverse panels, projects, teams, workplaces –
if you want ideas that are truly outside the box, instead of taking a whole group of people who think in the same box
and trying to teach them to think differently,
it is far easier to bring together a team of people who each have different boxes
and simply have everyone think inside them. To do this stop trying to hire the person you think best for a role: chances are your idea of “the best” is a key reason your current team’s too homogeneous. Instead, make a list of the few criteria you actually need someone to meet; find ways of testing for them that are truly equitable (so going beyond proxies like qualifications or experience); and once you have a list of people who meet the criteria, forget “picking the one best qualified” among them, and hire for “non-fit”. Ideally, of all the people who want to get where you are going & can get there, pick the outlier in comparison to your existing team.
- And five. Imagine the person with the answer to the world’s most wicked problem walked in your institution’s door. Make a list of all the reasons that would mean you turned them away again. Pin it on your wall. Make that your to do list; your strategy; your mission statement, your goalposts and your milestones; your manifesto. To rub every one of those out till the paper’s blank.
So, what have we done?
In essence we have taken a very simple idea – “creativity can save the world” – and we’ve taken it for a very long walk. I think it’s fair to say that it’s probably getting tired now. Time to let it go home and unwind, to pour it a large mug of cocoa and run it a war, relaxing bath, and before we leave it counting whatever it is creative ideas count instead of sheep – dugongs, maybe – to put on our best Bernard Cribbins voice and tell it a bedtime story.
Aaron Swartz was a computer programmer, pro-democracy activist, and one of the founders of the effective altruism movement, which went on to give birth to organisations like the one we’ve already met, 80,000 hours, which researches which are the most important things we can work on if we want to make the greatest positive contribution to the world. He committed suicide at the age of 26 while facing 30 years in jail for downloading too many scientific articles because he believed that every brilliant mind in the world should have access to the sum of human knowledge irrespective of accidents of birth. By that time he had been shaping the world’s future for the better for a decade and a half. By the age of 14, through W3C, the consortium that curates the World Wide Web, he was offering advice to Tim Berners-Lee on particular difficulties with the semantic web, part of the underlying code of the Web.
The idea of someone who is only just a teenager schooling Tim Bereners-Lee on one of his own specialisms strikes many as a remarkable story. But, as the Electronic Frontier Foundation’s Danny O’Brien commented at Swartz’s memorial, it shouldn’t. “Aaron himself wasn’t the exceptional part of this,” he said. “The exceptional part of this was an institution that allowed someone like Aaron to walk in through its door and before anyone had noticed where he came from or what age he was or what his background was they allowed him to start contributing good work and learning from his peers. An institution is not truly open until somebody you could never even imagine exists walks through the door.”