The Sandpit: Creativity and the Power of Random Association

sandpit

 

Tim Berners-Lee, growing up on the outskirts of London in the 1960s, grasped early on a fundamental characteristic of computers. They were good at following step-by-step instructions but bad at making random associations and connecting unrelated ideas to generate new ones. A computer followed programs. The human brain wrote them.

Berners-Lee’s parents were computer scientists. One evening, when Tim was young, his father drafted a speech about how to make computers more intuitive. Computing technology was steadily improving at the time—Moore developed his eponymous law in the mid-1960s—but computers were still bulky and impersonal. Early theorists, including Tim’s father, wondered if computers could ever mimic the free-associating human mind. “The idea stayed with me that computers could become much more powerful if they could be programmed to link otherwise unconnected information,” Berners-Lee wrote years later in his book Weaving the Web.

In 1984, Berners-Lee began a fellowship at CERN, the famed European research hub filled with brilliant computer scientists, physicists, and engineers. His job involved solving a classic business problem—it was difficult for researchers in each department to swap information and ideas—and his ingenious solution grew into something much larger. Berners-Lee created a platform, the World Wide Web, which allowed computers to link unconnected information. He had realized his dream.

 

I was thinking about Berners-Lee’s story when I read How We Learn: The Surprising Truth About When, Where and Why it Happens by New York Times science reporter Benedict Carey. The book explores one of Berners-Lee’s lifelong interests: the power of random association. Carey profiles Ronda Leathers Dively, who in the early 1990s was finishing an English degree at Illinois State University when she was tasked with teaching students how to write for academic journals. One semester, she had students write six essays of three to five pages. Each essay focused on a social or political controversy. Unfortunately, Dively found that her students were not improving. She was failing them.

Dively changed the syllabus. Instead of writing six essays, her students wrote one that was due at the end of the semester, but they performed the same amount of work. They had five “pre-writing” assignments in which they wrote about the experience of doing the research, or an interview, or a key concept. She wanted students to carry around their topic for the entire semester, to contemplate it, to argue with it, to flip it over and look at it from different sides.

And that’s what happened. Instead of writing six essays that were mostly “cut-and-paste summaries of published scholars’ work” the students took on “an expert persona, an authoritative presence capable of contributing to the scholarly exchange.” One student said that as the semester went by the information become “embedded” in him; he “even question[ed] certain things which the author claim[ed] to be true.” Another scoffed at an article “written for a beginner in environmental health in this somewhat prestigious journal. I would only recommend the reading of this article to someone with almost no knowledge of the subject.”  As Carey puts it, “[Dively’s] students were no longer looking to borrow someone else’s opinion. They were working to discover their own.”

This shift in perspective highlights a curious aspect of creativity—namely, the concept of percolation. Unfinished ideas that we’re forced to flesh out in an essay, speech, or presentation tend to linger in the mind, spread, and then strengthen. The key is letting those inchoate hunches and intuitions percolate through our neural networks. Every time we travel, sleep, read, or conduct research—anything, really—the mind is hard at work. The goal isn’t to only diligently drill down on an idea but to relax and let it spread, to allow those random associations to happen naturally. This percolation, connection, and subsequent combination are what Dively’s students experienced.

It’s also a reason why the World Wide Web exists. I read about Berners-Lee’s story in Walter Isaacson’s latest book The Innovators. Berners-Lee said that he “wanted to build a creative space… something like a sandpit where everyone could play together.” He was talking about the World Wide Web, but he could have been talking about individual creativity. The Web flourished by allowing ideas to diffuse across it. So, too, does the mind.

 

If the mind is a creative space where our ideas go to play, then the goal of this blog is to feed that space. My aim isn’t to fill your mind—the web does not need yet another “content provider”—but to ignite it. I will publish one essay each week. The schedule is deliberate—it takes me seven days to write a coherent essay and I want to give you enough time to read and digest each essay. Most publications have the opposite view, but a strategy that relies on publishing content without giving your mind time to breathe is a strategy that relies on pageviews and ad revenue. This blog is about neither. It’s about building that sandpit.

Hopefully, some of the ideas here will crawl into your intellect and trigger new associations. Most won’t, but an uneven ratio is to be expected. Good ideas are rarely plucked out of the ether. They’re typically found amongst the debris of ordinary ones.

One final note. I love books. In addition to a weekly essay, I will publish a list of book recommendations each week. The goal there is to continue a tradition from my previous blog, 250 Words. When it comes to smart non-fiction books, I want to be a credible voice. I’ll use my connections in publishing (Simon and Schuster owned 250 Words and employed me) and the relationships I have with authors to let you know what books I think you should read and give you a heads up about upcoming releases.

 

Enjoy,

Sam

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Image via Flickr/Scott Robinson