For too long, the educated class has held an unspoken compact: nerds, you worry about computers and gadgets and Battlestar Galactica; dreamers, you worry about art and experimental thought and the environment and plants and music. And generally speaking, the less these two crowds had to see each other, the happier they tended to be.
This was OK in an era like the 60’s where, for the most part, computing was best reserved for invoices, and fine art had little to do with math. The computer guys were needed to figure out hard implementational problems: how to store all those invoices and be sure the numbers were right, or the math behind making sure a rocket flew straight. Good, tough problems of the era, to be sure, but almost entirely orthogonal to the guys dreaming up the tailfins on the cars and the ads that sold them. Think about the role of geeks in era-pieces like Mad Men and The Right Stuff and you get an idea of how oil-and-water these crowds were.
Fast forward to today, where computers are a creative instrument capable of fine-art quality interaction in multiple media: video, still photography, sound, music, animation, visualization, and even the creation of physical interactions and physical objects. 3D printing, computer controlled robots and art machines, physical art installations of awesome complexity, and autonomous digital art objects are not only possible, but they are accessible to average people who simply want to create. We have truly entered an era where the walls between technical and creative have been razed, however if we fail to realize it and move past them, we may find ourselves constrained by an older notion of what’s possible.
As an example, I’ll take last night’s Ignite Baltimore #1, at which I was proud, honored (and a tad nervous) to be speaker #1. The topics covered were vast and varied, and I’d argue were just the kind of fuel that Baltimore’s creative class needs as input as we set off to solve the challenges of the next 50 years. The topics, in no particular order: public transportation, urban gardening, public spaces, the bible, web apps, agile development, 100 mistakes, cognitive bias, east coast industrial landscapes as art, radio stories, writing vs. speaking, entrepreneurial experience, and much more.
I’d argue that this is the kind of wide ranging liberal arts discussion that most nerds would have opted out of in the past, and that nerds would not be the preferred audience of the dreamers, artists, and poets. The magic of today, however — the true genius of the moment here in 2008 — is that this cross-fertilization is finally starting to happen. And freely and with passion. Why? Because these walls between creativity, art, science, and math, have finally started to wear down — and not just in some university’s interdisciplinary studies department — but in popular culture and conceptions. The mashup is now considered not just a valid art form, but a standard process for solving today’s toughest problems.
Creative thought has achieved primacy. It is now the idea that matters, because when the idea is properly and fully conceived, the design, presentation, and implementation are necessarily correct as well. What do I mean by this? If there is total integration between the processes of ideation and implementation, there is simply no separation between an idea, the thought models that underly it, and its implementation in digital form: they are one.
It used to be that there was a wall between a digital implementation and an idea; a digital implementation would involve “hacks” — making stuff work in spite of memory or display or other limitations — and the computer-enabling “portion” of a solution would be some subset (usually a rather compromised subset) of an overall idea.
Today, object oriented programming and database technology make it possible to model a solution end to end with few compromises; so, in fact, digital implementers become full partners in the design conversation, greatly eliminating waste, and empowering programmers creatively. Agile development practices (involving iteration rather than top-down design) and story-based development (giving non-programmers a “narrative” to follow about the “story” of their solution) make it so there is very little distinction between design, programming, and ideation. They are now effectively the same disciplines.
And this explains why so many have argued that we are entering a new era of the right brain and of the “rise of the creative class.” The fact is if any of this had been possible sooner, it would have happened sooner. Generally speaking, people don’t like being pigeonholed into some tiny specialty, or to have their thinking constrained. We are human; all of our brains have two halves. But for too long, we have all likely underutilized one side or the other.
So, now we are all free; now, united with better tools and better processes, it is time to turn our attention to the hard, human problems of our age: energy, hunger, the environment (built and natural), and meaning, to name a few. And the topics at last night’s Ignite Baltimore were just the right fuel for getting us started thinking about these hard problems.
Kennedy famously said that “we choose to go to the moon… not because it is easy, but because it is hard.” Our generation needs to start to figure out how to apply the massive wealth of talent (and newfound technical+creative skills) to the truly hard problems of our age.
It’s not going to happen overnight, and we all don’t need to go out and start wind power companies. But, we all must make ourselves open to BOTH sides of our brains. We must realize that it is poetry and art which will provide the insight we need to make technical breakthroughs. We must listen to each other and be open to diverse viewpoints. We must become spiritual beings — it doesn’t matter whether your spirituality comes more from The Force than The Bible or The Koran — but to deny oneself any of the channels of thought that inform our basic human nature is to cut yourself off from the great insights and genius of one’s humanity.
Be open. Listen to people. Look at diverse kinds of art. Listen to diverse kinds of music. If you want to take part in the next great wave of innovation, these are the kinds of fuels you’ll need to do it. And I hope to see you at the next Ignite Baltimore in February 2009, where we can continue this conversation!