“The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function.”
~ F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Crack-Up (1936)
At the end of last year, I briefly questioned our fascination with making things. For some reason, I was feeling uneasy. A flurry of conversation on Twitter ensued and later our friend @willsh followed up with a post of his own reflecting anew on the topic.
Just so we’re clear, we’re big advocates of making and experimenting, not just talking or thinking. And if we’re even half-coping with the maelstrom of change out there, it’s because we’re getting comfortable with the idea of perpetual learning. That may sound hideously exhausting, but it’s responsible for keeping us sane: it’s a blessed relief when you realise your job is to act on patterns and opportunities as they warp and wend around you, instead of sending yourself quietly mad searching for a linear, tried and tested path to knowledge.
And yet.. we need to stop and draw breath from time to time. There are a few reasons for this, some of which, sure, we’re all familiar with:
1. To paraphrase some of the UK’s very smartest planners who shared their New Year’s resolutions for 2011, we all need a little daily contemplation. The steeper the curve on change, the more we need a little time to digest; work out what’s a fad versus what’s really interesting.
2. We’ve reached a point where we’re consuming at such a speed, boiling the ocean dry and leaving no stone unturned… chewing our way through so many terabytes of data in our rush to DO, that we’re not letting embryonic ideas and sub-cultures develop in their own sweet time. To borrow from the author William Gibson, “picking ideas before they’re ripe” has become a habit. The cultural impact of this is something we should be a little more worried about than, say, having too many tabs open. As Gibson put it (over a decade ago and far more powerfully than I can):
“Bohemias. Alternative subcultures. They were a crucial aspect of industrial civilization in the previous two centuries. They were where industrial civilization went to dream. A sort of unconscious R&D, exploring alternate societal strategies. Each one would have a dress code, characteristic forms of artistic expression, a substance or substances of choice, and a set of sexual values at odds with those of the culture at large… But they became extinct…. We started picking them before they could ripen. A certain crucial growing period was lost, as marketing evolved and the mechanisms of recommodification became quicker, more rapacious. Authentic subcultures required backwaters, and time, and there are no more backwaters.”
~ William Gibson, All Tomorrow’s Parties (1999)
3. As Umair Haque would have it, it’s not the doing that’s the problem, it’s the fact businesses never stop doing. Instead we’re “dumping Molotov cocktails” on customers, investors and regulators, whilst there are “a trillion low-cost factories who can do it all faster, quicker, and cheaper anyway.” By contrast, he argues, reflection becomes the rocket fuel for experimentation, the lifeblood of high-level innovation.
All of which leads me to think that this is less about seeking balance and more about deliberately allowing two very different speeds to co-exist – two streams, if you will – one fast and furious, the other a protected backwater. Perhaps innovation in future may come in part from Leaving Things Alone For A While**.
**Update: Or, LTAFAW, as it shall henceforth be known. Inspired by ETEWAF (Everything That Ever Was, Available Forever), as described by Patton Oswald in his far more articulate rant on a similar topic here. Thanks to @jamescmitchell for the spot.
To repeat, this is not a tirade against “doing”, nor a wringing of hands over our inability to focus. We’d be the first to declare ourselves in the Shirky/Kelly/Cascio camp (no, we’re not convinced the Internet is making us stupid – as we’ve said here before, let’s just adopt some coping mechanisms like fluid intelligence).
This is instead an essay in favour of multiplicity. Let’s do and learn iteratively and at speed and let’s make sure we give ourselves some space and time to reflect. Most importantly, allowing some ideas and the culture around us to percolate and grow.
For our part, 2011 is going to be about deliberately fostering both.