Sunday, 5 December 2010

Idea creation and propagation: Good TED talks

TED (Technology Entertainment and Design), a global set of conferences hosted free on the internet has been the most influential force on my thinking this year. The foundation’s logo is “Ideas worth spreading” and interestingly enough it has been the talks about ideas – what they are, how they are born and how they spread that has most intrigued me. TED.com has been incredibly influential on me in terms of changing my perception on how new ideas are formulated and the underlying creative process. In this discussion I will refer to four specific TED talks around idea creation, propagation and formulation; I will summarise the main point I took away from each talk and then discuss why I feel they are important.

The first talk that sparked my interest was a TED talk Susan Blackmore on memes and “temes”. In it she defines a ‘meme’ to be a unit of cultural information, a proposition first postulated in Richard Dawkins book The Selfish Gene. What memetics does is it treats information in a similar way to how Darwin treats species in that a successful idea or meme is one which gets itself replicated and distributed in as many people as possible, forming a symbiotic relationship with the 'host'.

Dan Dennett, a philosopher and cognitive scientist expands on this in his talk on dangerous memes. In it he talks about how a collection of memes can be collectively viewed as an ideology which using the same analogue is an information organism. A successful ideology is one that spreads to as many hosts as possible, removes competing ideologies from a host and then uses its host to carry out its purpose. An individual can be infected and ‘hijacked’ to carry out an extreme purpose, for example the suicide bomber who seeks martyrdom for a cause.

In Matt Ridley’s talk, When ideas have sex, he explains his thoughts on human creativity. In it he argues that our minds act as the breeding ground for ideas – we absorb massive amounts of ideas and process them to produce new ideas of greater complexity. A new idea occurs by taking two or more ideas and noticing an underlying pattern tying them together. In a sense the best bits of different ideas are combined to create a new one in a similar fashion to how our DNA combines when we mate to produce offspring.

The talk by Steven Johnson, Where good ideas come from expands on this theory of mixing ideas driving innovation. He suggests that we have the wrong concept of a ‘eureka’ moment for idea creation, such as Newton seeing the apple fall to the ground and discovering gravity. He argues that all new ideas and innovation are driven by social discourse between networks of people, with each individual contributing a set of ideas which collectively leads to innovation. If you think of any of the great thinkers of the modern era, say Einstein or Darwin they each had a network of like minded people with who they exchanged the ideas that helped drive their discoveries. We in the West have a tendency to over-emphasise the contribution of an individual over the collaborative nature of idea creation.

My takeout from a aforementioned talks is that to be creative and innovative is a matter of ‘plugging in’ to individuals and networks which propagate the ideas I find the most interesting. My mind will act as the evaluator, creator and replicator of ideas. First I determine the ‘fitness’ of an idea and if it passes my evaluation I will endeavour to build it into my world view and propagate it to other people. TED acts as such an idea feed, almost as an online university – spreading the latest ideas and insights on a number of different topics to whoever is interested.

What is exciting about the time we live in is that it is now possible to share ideas with anyone on the globe – instantaneously. Social networking through twitter, facebook and blogging now allows anyone to have a global audience for their ideas. I can read articles, blogs and status updates, ponder over them and come up with an insightful thought about them and share it with my network – immediately.

The speed at which information and ideas are spreading is accelerating. New information is being propagated faster now than it ever has before. If we think about the invention of writing, the printing press, the telegraph, radio, television and now the internet. Each new technology allowed for a more efficient distribution of information in order to drive innovation. But while we have harnessed the internet to share audio, visual and written information, this is still limiting. Much work must be taken into preparing a speech, or film, or even writing this essay, and whatever the result it can never quite convey exactly what we are thinking.

I see neural interface technology as the next leap forward in terms of accelerating idea innovation. I think that in time neural interface technology will allow us to share our thoughts almost instantaneously and that this will lead to a level of creativity which can barely be imagined.