…is the ability to be puzzled by simple things.
I am often staggered by how some folks appear to think that the opportunities for innovation are somehow narrowing due to intense market competition and low barriers to entry for technology.
Nothing could be further from the truth.
Indeed, by some accounts, innovation is stagnating in many developed countries. I happen to hold this view, but it would require far too many words to justify and would only be of interest to management theorists and other esotericists.
The barrier to innovation has nothing to do with markets. It has everything to do with education.
Education, especially mass education, has no interest in creating innovators. It is assumed that ideas will come from “on high” and that the critical ingredient is compliant workers to put those ideas into action. This is not some leftist anti-establishment rhetoric, but the openly published intent of many of the mass-schooling architects. An eye-opening account can be found in many of the works of John Taylor Gatto.
I will spare you the pain of me climbing my soap box to pontificate about education. But let me tell you that I put my money where my mouth is in that all of my kids were homeschooled, or, as I like to say, custom schooled (via a mixture of methods). I have no inclination towards “homeschooling” or any particular mode of learning, but a strong inclination towards teaching kids to think and to harness their innate abilities for creativity. This was our objective with our kids. It ought to be the objective of the nation, especially at this critical moment in history.
Indeed, I would say that creativity is what makes us human. No amount of showing me videos of a monkey “solving” puzzles will persuade me otherwise. Human creativity is on a whole different level to anything we witness in the animal kingdom. Such a pity that we provide children with an education that dulls their creative spirit.
What has this got to do with innovation?
The short answer is everything.
Whatever innovation is, it has, as its core, a discovery process whose mechanisms and nature remain a deep mystery. It likely has something to do with the language faculty, although we should not confuse the brain’s ability for endlessly creative speech for its capacity to have creative insights.
Whatever you might think of Chomsky (and there is a lot to discuss), his observations on creativity are useful, as well summarized by D’Agostino in his essay: “Chomsky on Creativity”. It is a somewhat technical paper, but concludes, as Chomsky has often said, that human creativity remains a deep mystery of nature.
We should not confuse what he is talking about with the mechanized activity that many silicon valley pundits call “innovation”. For example, I would declare that there is nothing remotely innovative about Dropbox.
To use an example oft-quoted by Chomsky, Newton’s discovery of gravity is more the kind of creative leap I am referring to. What now seems obvious to us was, in his time, a deeply ridiculous idea that even Newton himself tried to refute. The idea that an invisible force might affect objects was deeply disturbing and heretical. It caused offense to the Aristotlean view that things moved to their natural places: objects fall and steam rises.
Chomsky summarizes his insights into creativity with a very simple maxim:
Discovery is the ability to be puzzled by simple things.
Another example might be the works of Edward Tufte who wondered why it should be that our ideas must be confined to those that fit neatly on an A4 sheet of paper. Indeed, in this age of low-cost wide-screen monitors, we must wonder why so many interfaces are similarly confined to the traditional confines of responsive design that are laptop-centric as the primary interface modality.
Why doesn’t every remote worker have an 80-inch screen and “big screen” interface to go with it? Indeed, the greatest of tragedies is the radically uncreative approach of many corporate IT-procurement systems that deem that most workers are allowed to request a fairly pathetic monitor for home use. Indeed, many workers are hunched over laptops that are literally harming their eyes and posture, to say nothing of harming productivity.
This speaks to another orthodoxy — that of the corporate budget that treats monitors as capital expenditure and tiered-expenditure as a signal of authority and power, both of which also kill creativity (deliberately) — senior managers get big things that junior worker’s don’t.
There are so many simple things about which to be puzzled. I believe that were I to sit and ponder, I would die before completing such a list.
The problem is that we are not taught to be puzzled because, more often than not, this involves the questioning of orthodoxy.
Consider a simple thought exercise. Why is the education syllabus in your child’s school structured the way it is?
I don’t mean why do you assume it is, as in some justification that surely it came into being via the hand of “education experts”, or the like. I mean do you actually know why it is the form it is?
Most likely not, which is a deep problem of orthodoxy in itself.
I write this because I have been lucky enough to have spent a career in innovation, often involving the kind of fundamental questioning of orthodoxy to which I refer. Indeed, every time I sit at my computer, I loathe how ridiculously primitive it is. MS Word seems not to have changed in its nature since its invention, as if the only possible method of working with words is to store sequences of ascii characters in a file. How absurd.
I write this because we seem to be at a critical point in history where ecocide is a real possibility and, let me be curt, capitalism is broken. I do not mean this in any political sense, but as a set of human activities that seem to have relied upon our understanding of the world from a century ago. The orthodoxies here are so deep that they are difficult to penetrate.
Indeed, there is an anecdote I often use to illustrate this point. I ask about the sale of a used car to two potential buyers. One buyer offers 2000 and the other 2500. To whom should I sell the car?
It seems an absurdity that the question is ambiguous. It is always taken to mean: to whom should I sell the car in order to maximize profit?
This seemingly “rational” assumption is most likely a significant contributor to the impending ecocide.
This is why I have no faith in the Biden administration heralding an era of renewal. Nor do I have faith, as so many do, in “the youth” as though they are somehow immune to orthodoxies.
But let me return to the crux of my position, which is that we are a million miles away from running out of opportunities for innovation. They are many and vast. But the secret to unlocking them is, per Chomsky, the ability to be puzzled by simple things. I would go further and say that the mere ability to be puzzled is a useful starting point.
There is only one place to look — and that is education.
And, whilst we still have the opportunity to do so (unlike those living in France) it might require taking education into our own hands. This is a do-able and possibly radical commitment to a new agenda.