Are You My Missing Piece?

Steven Johnson on why the Internet-connected world may be a historic boon to human creativity and collective intelligence.

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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4 Responses to Are You My Missing Piece?

  1. Staffan says:

    Sounds great, but if this was true we’d be living in the best of worlds, or at least the most creative of worlds, since we’ve never been more interconnected. I can only look at my own country which is geographically isolated and highly introverted and which showed huge degree of scientific and technological creativity in the pre-internet era. Our neighbors Finland is old and almost completely White with no diversity, and perhaps the most introverted population on Earth. They often rank number one globally in technological innovation. And the lack of ideas in Hollywood is also problematic; like Dorothy Parker said, the only ism Hollywood believes in is plagiarism, that still holds today. They are always looking for something to do a remake of. They aren’t missing your piece – they are missing all of the pieces. Or in music, the last major genre in popular music was grunge in the 1990s. Then came the internet…

    • Santi Tafarella says:

      A couple of things in response. First, introverted in 2013 certainly doesn’t mean introverted in 1913. You could really isolate yourself in 1913, and urbanization was much less than today. I bet your introverted country has high internet connectivity, and even if the people there aren’t talking to outsiders as much as those inside the country, they are still talking.

      The more people hive, the more they innovate. Of course we need times of solitude to think, but we also need opportunities to bring our thoughts to others in conversation (most especially those who disagree with us). I get a lot from talking to you, for example.

      And even in hunter-gatherer times, an isolated individual meant a dead individual. It meant that there was no opportunity to imitate the smartest individuals in the tribe for taking down a large animal (for instance). So imitation is not a bad thing, even in Hollywood. In every human endeavor, imitation is going to be the norm because geniuses are few.

      You’re also not thinking about belatedness. If you come after Shakespeare, and Shakespeare has covered vast amounts of creative territory in advance of you, you’ve got to find new territory on which to think of new things to do. Every movement has its arc of romantic energy followed by decadence, imitation, farce. Then someone thinks of something novel to do and there is a new infusion of romantic energy in an otherwise stale genre. Sometimes even a new genre is created. But that’s especially rare because of contemporary man’s belatedness. How do you do the human body better than the Romans and the Renaissance?

      Contemporary art wrestles against Enlightenment humanism (for example) because it has all been done before (the heroic body, perspective painting, etc.). The human mind looks for novelty. And Hollywood is a business (it’s not “show art” but “show business”), meaning that it has difficulty finding marketable material that fits the mass sensibility while also being genre-breaking.

      Think of when Tarantino hit the scene with Pulp Fiction in 1996. Then came imitation. Imitation is a human trait of tribes. Not everyone is a genius.

      The imaginative spaces where there are fresh things to do is where the Internet can help today. The smartest people in your country, I’m sure, are in email contact with the smartest people in other countries.

      • Staffan says:

        Well, technological innovation and access to the internet come together. But most of our innovations are pre-internet, in the 1800s and 1900s.

        Belatedness sounds a bit like those individuals who claim that all the possible patents have now already been applied for. It’s possible that arts and science creativity are largely unrelated to each other, but I still find belatedness an improbable cause. To get back to pop music, the 1900s saw the birth of punk, synth, reggae, hip hop, country, rock, R & B, and many other subgenres of lasting power. But then grunge in th 1990s and…nothing. Is this belatedness? I think isolation is part of the basis of these genres. Punk: British working class, synth: British middle class, reggae: Jamaican, hip hop: African American, country: White American working class etc. They all grew from distinct ethnic and social categories. The hive knows no such restrains, nor does it produce any new genres.

        Sure Hollywood is business – but novelty sells and so they look for it. They just don’t find any. Instead they recycle. And this is what Tarantino is doing too; his films are very campy and full of references to older films. American film began to decline in the early 1950s, probably due to mcarthyism. There are still great movies being made – like Black Swan which I can recommend if you haven’t already seen it – but they are derivative in nature. The problem with modernity is not belatedness but intellectualism and self-reflectiveness. It’s to the point where if it becomes uncreative by definition – if you don’t comment or reference something it isn’t art. Modernity is too smart for its own good.

        Look at people like Bach, Mozart and Wagner – did they hive much? Not that I’ve heard of. And today we have no one on their level. Arvo Pärt, one of the best contemporary composers, lived pretty isolated in a small country behind the Iron Curtain for most of his life.

        I think hiving is good for transmitting stuff, but not for creating it. It is at heart about breaking with the old order of things and socializing is all about order and conventions. Just think of the big artistic or scientific achievments – how many were a collective effort? The Florentine painters, Shakespeare, Verdi, Newton, Darwin – they were not duos or trios but all single individuals.

        When the hive tweets me a symphony I will reconsider : )

      • Santi Tafarella says:

        Well, you make some good points. The individual genius is important, no doubt. And isolated cultures, like isolated genetic populations on islands, lead to evolutionary peculiarities and innovations that a broader continent of people might never think of.

        There’s no doubt that, by the end of this century, with 90% of people living urban lives, that standardization across these urban islands might kill creativity, but I doubt it. I think you are underestimating the power of time and overemphasizing geographic and language isolation. Time too is another country, an exotic land. If the past is another country, so will be the future. And technology will open up new spaces for creativity that we cannot anticipate. There will be pioneers who leap into this new territory and human creativity will flourish there.

        I’m thinking, for example, of contemporary architecture, which is seeing a Renaissance thanks to computers and the ability to fabricate materials in ways unavailable to architects in previous generations. That’s what time can open up through new technologies–new spaces for imaginative creation. And think of when photos became film, then film became talkies, then black-and-white talkies became color films. Each of these shifts led to new experimentations.

        Likewise, it may take new instruments to make new music. The piano had to be created before you could have a Mozart. The electric guitar made the Beatles possible.

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