Undoing Creativity: The Hidden Hazards of Control-Z
Tuesday, September 18, 2012 - 06:00 AM
The explosion of technology over the past several decades has made creative endeavors easier than ever. Now we can tweak images, design sculptures, compose music, write novels, and make movies. Even untrained artists can create entire imaginary worlds. And if the image on the screen doesn’t match the image we have in our heads, there’s a simple solution — the undo button.
Zack Booth Simpson — a computational molecular biologist at the University of Texas in Austin, a software engineer, and a digital artist — uses the undo button all the time. But he sometimes wonders whether it’s helping his creativity or hindering it.
One of Booth Simpson’s most well known works involves the projection of animated butterflies on the wall of a dark room. When a visitor steps in front of the projector, he casts a shadow. And if that visitor stays very still, the butterflies will begin to interact with his shadow, landing on the arms and flitting around its head.
“Mariposa” may be a successful work of art, but Booth Simpson feels it lacks “procedural creativity” — he had an idea and then made that idea come to life. The final product is “exactly what I imagined it was going to be,” he said.
The same could not be said for Booth Simpson’s attempt at a little DIY masonry. A couple years ago, he attempted to build a brick planter in his front yard. “I tend to be sort of impetuous,” he says. “I just start laying bricks, and I don't really pay attention.” When he realized that the foundation was crooked, he couldn’t simply click undo. For brickwork, “the undo button is a jackhammer,” he says. Being stuck with a cockeyed foundation forced him to get creative. “Each day I had to think a little bit about how was I going to recover from this,” he said. And he ended up in a truly new territory, with a planter that is deliberately asymmetrical and looks like no other.
Scientists don’t necessarily have an undo button — knowledge can’t be unlearned — but they too can end up trapped by their own preconceived image of how things should be, Booth Simpson says. And that poses a problem, because science requires testing hypotheses and accepting any outcome, especially an unexpected one. “Only under the extreme constraint of not being able to get where it was you imagined do you discover new territory,” Booth Simpson says. That truth is often under-appreciated, and it applies “just as much to science as it does to any other creative endeavor.”
As Italian physicist Enrico Fermi once said, “In a scientific experiment, there are two possible outcomes. If the result confirms the hypothesis, then you've made a measurement. If the result is contrary to the hypothesis, then you've made a discovery.”