Imagination, Creativity, Innovation (2015)

ObserverImagination. Creativity. Innovation. Powerful words that have become cheapened as buzzwords, falsely attributed to some and sometimes never attributed to the deserving. I’ve been accused of all 3 at different points in my life and it’s not a brag I make – most of the time it has seemed a curse. In fact, the thing that gained the most visibility remains one of my most painful memories.

It should be no surprise that I picked up Imagine: How Creativity Works and have been reading it in spurts. It’s not that my ADD has kicked in or that it’s a difficult read – it’s something I consider a thoughtful read. It’s criticized for not being scientific in that it’s largely – if not all – anecdotal and doesn’t cite references but my own experience is anecdotal. One point does not a graph make but what the book has done has caused some introspection. That’s healthy and, if you do it yourself, it’s cheaper than laying on someone else’s couch. Really.

The reason I picked up the book is because for decades I’ve been dealing with the software developer/ engineering side and tossing in the creative side. Getting the two to work in conjunction has become easier over time but it has become more difficult to function within companies that don’t understand that the two are not necessarily mutually exclusive.

A story I often tell involves an old manager at Honeywell who told me that something needed to be done. I said I would ‘play’ with it after lunch. He told me, “we don’t play at Honeywell. We work!” I arched an eyebrow and went back to what I was doing. My mentor at the time shook his head at the manager. My mentor got me. But it wasn’t new to me – my father was much the same way. In fact, most of my family is the same way. “If you’re not miserable, uncomfortable and otherwise aggravated, it is not WORK.”

Fine. Maybe it isn’t. But that isn’t productive for me.

Misery Loves Company

I’ve worked with people who took great pleasure in grinding away at a problem – and they were often good at it though in a very brute force manner. I’ve always known a playful mind is where ideas come from. I lean on it under stress; when most people are miserable (see the above definition of work), I’ll seem upbeat and amused at the world. Why? That’s how I handle stress. It’s also how I solve problems most efficiently. I don’t beat myself like a member of Opus Dei.

Don’t get me wrong – there are times to be serious. The reality, though, is that being miserable and expecting other people to be miserable lends itself to spreading misery more than creativity and problem solving. Some people mistake this for a positive attitude. It’s not. I’ve found that once I separate myself from the problem I can walk around it, dance with it and get to know it in a circumspect way.

I know I’m not alone in this but I’m fairly certain I’m in a minority.

Everyone’s Creativity and Imagination are… Different

Ask 5 kids to make up a story, individually, and you’ll likely get 5 different stories. If they play at it together, though, you get stuff like ‘tape a cheetah to her back‘. The different ways that individuals approach problems is something that can work synergistically or… not. It means reining in egos and being able to discuss a problem outside of one’s self. It takes a level of trust and a willingness to have bad ideas.

Imagine: How Creativity Works talks about different paths to creativity. Being relaxed allows one to solve problems more readily – something that seems very intuitive but is counterintuitive in most work cultures I have experienced (see definition of ‘work’ above). As a software developer, I typically solve all the problems away from the keyboard and go to the keyboard when I’m ready to implement or test an idea… but most work cultures expect a software developer to sit in place. I often go for walks throughout the day not just to get the blood moving rather than congealing in my posterior but to change what I am experiencing. It’s almost something that Buddhists have patented – being in the present. Being a little distracted, like watching something from the corner of your eye. Throwing yourself at the ground and missing – or as I explained it to someone recently, woolgathering.

It wasn’t too long ago that I fixed a browser plugin as I walked to lunch and pondered Costa Rican addresses. When Microsoft’s documentation fails – more often than Microsoft likes to think – all you can do is look at what you know and try to find a solution. Lateral thinking allowed me to look at the problem with my own experiences and understand a problem that was, literally, not in the documentation. The data being returned by a call to Microsoft’s API for the printer was returning more information than was planned for, causing the plugin to break 3% of the time.

There are other paths to getting creative problem solving and the book (ibid) points them out – anecdotally – but I’ve experienced much of what I have read myself. Did you know that people with ADD/ADHD seem to do better where creativity is required?

Look! Squirrel!

Technology and Innovation

When it comes to technology, more people associate innovation with adding features and functionality (Open Source and Microsoft do have something in common, after all) – but innovation isn’t about adding features and functionality. Innovation is about adding the right features and functionality for a problem or group of problems. You want innovation? Don’t look at the iPad, the iPod or what have you – look at the damned wheel. Look at fire. Look at Visicalc. Yeah, we know you want to talk about the Internet but the Internet hasn’t changed things as much as accelerated them, in my opinion – we could get into the decreased distance per unit time discussion but that’s not what I’m writing about right now. Simmer down.

When you read about how scotch tape was made, you get a real idea of innovation. Incidentally, the company that brought that to you also brought the touch screen. 3M. Not Apple.

Real innovation is rare and it’s even more rarely commercialized. Tesla invented and he basically had to give away his patent to Westinghouse to get alternating current off the ground while Thomas Edison was busy electrocuting any creature he could find during the War of the Currents. If you think Apple vs. Microsoft is a better love story than Twilight, the War of the Currents will knock your socks off – static electricity and all.

People all over the world want to know where innovation comes from – as if it’s a secret sauce that you add or a base upon which to build a foundation. What Imagine: How Creativity Works explores isn’t exactly that but the many paths of getting there – and there are quite a few. And the roots of such innovation, as one might expect, are in imagination and creativity – but the real roots are in being able to harness them in different ways and be willing to fail. Innovation is rarely someone in a white lab coat staring at a computer 12 hours a day. Innovation is what happens when you’re in the shower thinking about what happened during that 12 hour day.

It seems that in a world that shouts for innovation we work ourselves into a corner where we can’t get to it. Everyone has imagination and creativity and, yes, they can be as overdone as the young stereotypical black clad poet screaming into a microphone – but enough imagination and creativity can go a long way.

Image at top left courtesy Flickr user Hartwig HKD, whose inspirational shots were tough to choose from. The work is made available through this Creative Commons License.
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The Future Of Technology and Society (May 2016)

FutureIf you’re one of those who likes tl;dr, skip this post and find a tweet to read.

It has been bothering me. There are a bunch of very positive articles out there that do not touch on the problems we face in technology.

What I mean by this is that, since the early 1980s, I have been voraciously reading up on the future and plotting my own course through it as I go through long, dark tea-times of my career. It allows me to land where things are interesting to me, or where I can make a living for a while as I watch things settle into place. I’ve never been 100% accurate, but I have never starved and have done well enough even in 3rd world countries without advanced infrastructure or policy. Over the course of decades, I have adapted and found myself attempting to affect policies that I found limiting – something most people don’t really care about.

Today, we’re in exciting times. We have the buzz phrases of big data, deep learning and artificial intelligence floating around as if they were all something new rather than things that have advanced and have been re-branded to make them more palatable. Where in the 1990s the joke was that, “We have a pill for that!”, these days the joke is, “We have an app for that!”. As someone who has always striven to provide things of use to the world, I shook my head when flatulence apps went to war for millions of dollars.

Social networks erupted where people willingly give up their privacy to get things for ‘free’. A read of Daniel Solove’s 10 year old book, The Digital Person: Technology and Privacy in the Information Age, should have woken people up in 2006, but by then everyone was being trained to read 140 characters at a time and ‘tl;dr’ became a thing. I am pleased you made it this far, gentle reader, please continue.

Big Data

All these networks collect the big data. They have predicted pregnancies from shopping habits and been sued for it (Feb 2012). There’s a pretty good list of 10 issues with Big Data and Privacy – here’s some highlights (emphasis mine):

1. Privacy breaches and embarrassments.
2. Anonymization could become impossible.
3. Data masking could be defeated to reveal personal information.
4. Unethical actions based on interpretations.
5. Big data analytics are not 100% accurate.
6. Discrimination.
7. Few (if any) legal protections exist for the involved individuals.
8. Big data will probably exist forever.
9. Concerns for e-discovery.
10. Making patents and copyrights irrelevant.

Item 4, to me, is the largest one – coupled with 5 and 7, it gets downright ugly. Do you want people to make judgements about you based on interpretations of the data that aren’t 100% accurate, and where you have no legal protections?

Instead, the legal framework is biased towards those that collect the data – entities known as corporations (you may have heard of them) – through a grouping of disparate ideas known as intellectual property. In fact, in at least one country I know of, a database can be copyrighted (Trinidad and Tobago) even though the information in it isn’t new. Attempts are being made by some to make things better, but in the end they become feeble – if not brittle – under a legal system that is undeniably swayed by whoever has the most money.

If it sounds like I’m griping – 10 years ago I would have been. This is just a statement of fact at this point. I did what I could to inform over the years, as did others, but ultimately the choice was not that of a well informed minority but that of a poorly informed majority.

Deep Learning / Artificial Intelligence

Deep learning allows amazing things to be done with data. There is no question of that; I’ve played with it myself and done my own analyses on things I have been working on in my ‘spare time’ (read: I have no life). There’s a lot of hypotheses that can come from big data, but it’s the outliers within the big data that are actually the meat of any hypothesis.

In English, the exceptions create the rules which further define what needs to be looked at. For outliers in the data can mean that another bit of data needs to be added to the mix.

Artificial Intelligence (AI), on the other hand, can incorporate deep learning and big data. While an AI may not be able to write a news article that can fool an editor, I imagine it could fool the reading public. This is particularly true since, because of the income issues related to the Internet, media outlets have gone to pulp opinionated pieces instead of the factual news that used to inform rather than attempt to sway or just get more reads by echoing a demographic’s sentiment. Then it is shared by people of like-minded people on social media. It’s an epic charlie-foxtrot. 

People worry about jobs and careers in all of this with robots and AI, and a lot of white collar folks are thinking it will affect those in the blue collar jobs alone. No, it will not. There is an evolution taking place (some call it a revolution), and better paid white collar jobs are much juicier for saving money for people who care only about their stock price. 5 white collar jobs are already under the gun.

KFC and McDonalds have already begun robotizing. More are coming.

And then let’s discuss Ethics in the implementation of AI – look at what Microsoft did with their Twitter-bot, Tay. We have a large corporation putting an alleged AI (chatbot, whatever you want to call it) into a live environment without a thought to the consequences. Granted, it seemed like a simple evolution of Eliza (click the link to see what that means), but you don’t just let your dog off it’s leash or your AI out in an uncontrolled environment. It’s just not done, particularly in an environment where kids need ‘safe places’ and others need trigger warnings. If they didn’t have an army of lawyers – another issue with technology – they probably would have had their pants shaken severely in Courts across the world. Ahh, but they do have an army of well paid lawyers – which leads us to Intellectual Property.
Space Marines: Into the Future

Copyrights, Patents and Trademarks (and Privacy)

If you haven’t read anything about Copyright by Lawrence Lessig in the past decade, or Privacy by Daniel Solove, you’re akin to an unlicensed, blindfolded teenager joy riding in your Mom’s Corvette ZR1. Sure, things might be fun, but it’s a matter of time unless you’re really, really lucky. You shouldn’t be allowed near a computing device without these prerequisites because you’re uninformed. This is not alarmist. This is your reality.

And anyone writing code without this level of familiarity is driving an 18 wheeler in much the same way.

You need a lawyer just to flush a virtual toilet these days. I exaggerate to make the point – but maybe not. It would depend on who owns the virtual toilet.

You can convert any text into a patent application. Really.

Meanwhile, Patent trolls are finally seen as harming innovation. The key point here is that the entire system is biased toward those with more in the bank – which means that small companies are destroyed while the larger companies, such as Google and Oracle, have larger legal battles that impact more people than even know about it. Even writing software tools has become a legal battle between the behemoths.

‘Fair Use’ – the ability to use things you bought in ways that allow you to keep copies of them – has all but been lost in all of this.

Meanwhile, Wounded Warrior – an alleged veteran’s non-profit – has been suing other non-profits because of use of the phrase, ‘Wounded Warrior’. If you want to take the nice approach, they’re trying to avoid dilution of their trademark… at the cost of veterans themselves, but that doesn’t explain them suing two of their own former employees with PTSD.

And Here I Am, Wondering About The Future.

There are a bunch of very positive articles out there that do not touch on the problems we face in technology. Our technology is presently being held for ransom by legal frameworks that do not fit well; this in turn means our ability to innovate, and by proxy entrepreneurship, are also being held ransom. Meanwhile we have people running around with Stockholm Syndrome waiting for the next iPhone hand built by suicidal workers, or the next application that they can open their private data to (hi, Google, Microsoft!), or…

I can’t predict anything at this point. It used to be much simpler and, by proxy, easily controlled. The questions of whether to do something used to be an ethical question, but now we go to lawyers for ethics (a group that is largely not known for ethics – apologies to those who do). The governments institute policies biased by whoever funds the campaigns of politicians, or gives United States congress people nice things. It affects the entire world, and every few years I think it won’t last – it continues.

Too big to fail.

But out of all of this, I don’t mean to stop trying. I don’t mean to stop innovating, starting new businesses, etc. What I mean is – we have a lot of things to do properly to assure a future that isn’t as dim as I see it now, to assure that the kids who are hooked on realities that someone else created rather than what they imagined. Imagination itself needs to be revisited, cultivated and unleashed against all of this like a cool wind across the desert.

It cannot be done blindly. People need to understand all of this. And if you made it this far – congratulations – I offer that you should, if not share this, share the ideas within it freely rather than simply clicking ‘like’ and hoping for the best.

We cannot change things on our own.

As for myself – just surfing the waves as they come in, but I fully intend to build my house on a distant shore at this point.