Sandlund: Our Binary Humanity

Progress does not mean anything without the ability to question it

by William Sandlund | 2/9/18 2:05am

This column was featured in the 2018 Winter Carnival Issue.

Today we associate innovation primarily with science and technology as opposed to the arts and humanities, where the more nebulous word “creativity” has more resonance. The word “innovation” conjures images of open-plan offices where ideas are discussed by gaggles of rich, smart, young people. Creativity, while still a part of this sleek new world, also raises the spectre of the starving artist, misunderstood in her own time and not long for this life.

We now live in a world where innovation takes precedence over creativity. Our intellectual idols are now businessmen working in the technology sector — Jeff Bezos, Jack Ma and Mark Zuckerberg — who can be far more short-sighted, self-centered and change-averse than their public images suggest. We shouldn’t make such a strong, value-based distinction between innovation and creativity or arts-humanities and science-technology because these fields of knowledge utilize the same human capacity for insights that can improve our lives. The current imbalance in how we view such a dichotomy has tangible consequences, evident in the unintended social disruption caused by recent innovations in technology.

An objector would raise the obvious differences in how science and art are pursued. Scientists follow a strict framework for inquiry, while artists are frequently portrayed as relying on intuition and inspiration. But artists must learn a method specific to their artistic form. Poets learn the principles of meter and rhyme, and painters spend thousands of hours sketching imitations of reality. Albert Einstein once said that, “After a certain high level of technical skill is achieved, science and art tend to coalesce into esthetics, plasticity, and form. The greatest scientists are artists as well.” It seems that once mastery of a given field of knowledge is achieved, one can extend that field of knowledge beyond its prescribed boundaries.

It is strange to think of art as a field of knowledge. However, it is an exploration of subjective experience as opposed to science’s objective reality. What artists convey is this personal exploration, and when absorbed by others, it in turn stimulates another individual’s subjective experience. That is why you can leave a movie theater feeling as if the world looks different. It is also why art released to the public ceases to belong to the artist. Similarly, scientific breakthroughs do not belong to individuals but form part of a canon of ideas. This procession of ideas strives to make lives objectively and subjectively better. But we are always left wanting more — otherwise we would have stopped this endless march long ago.

The argument for brushing aside the creativity-art versus innovation-science dichotomy is supported by recent research. Rex Jung, a neuroscientist who studies creativity, believes that the human brain evolved to solve using “best guess” reasoning. Homo sapiens first existed in a world without “rule-based” systems of logic and had to infer how processes around them worked. In short, the absence of knowledge leads humans to generate plausible explanations.

During the creative process, brains use two forms of reasoning — first relying on daydreaming and speculation in the default-mode network then relaying these ideas to the cognitive control network, your “internal analyst,” which assesses how to implement these ideas. This helps explain why going for a walk can help when solving a problem or writing a paper — a period of idle daydreaming allows you to make novel connections, which you can later analyze.

Given these findings, why do we compartmentalize creativity and innovation, science and art? Our current way of thinking about these concepts are indebted to ideas of the Renaissance and Enlightenment periods. Previously, creative acts were perceived as processes of discovery rather than invention. As Dartmouth history professor Darrin McMahon will tell you, the Latin word “genius” originally connoted a person who acted as a conduit for the “god of our conception.” But during the 17th century, humanists ascribed a name to the especially creative, innovative person — the “Renaissance man.” This idea of creativity as a sort of divine intelligence, possessed by a fortunate few, was refined during the Enlightenment by the Romantics. It was also during this moment in the 19th century that Francis Galton observed how statistical measurements of intelligence adhered to a normal distribution and conceptualized the “average man” — an empirically based ideal form to counter that of genius.

But this does not explain why we think of creativity and innovation, art and science, as so different today. If anything, previous intellectual movements indicate that we thought of these concepts as one and the same. I don’t have the column space or intellectual chops to answer this question, but it likely has much to do with the advances made in computational power over the past 30 years. These developments have forced us to question the utility of creativity in the face of reasoning existing outside of strictly human boundaries. Innovation is something that happens to technology, and creativity is something that happens to people who are becoming increasingly obsolete in modern society.

Even though innovation’s mystical cousin creativity still gets mentioned when people talk about Steve Jobs or Silicon Valley elites trying to get in touch with their souls, it’s simply seen as a means to enhance the drive to “innovate.”

Nonetheless, we still crave alternative forms of creativity or innovation untouched by the march of progress. So we listen to music, and we watch movies and we sometimes read stories or poems. But these are things our society no longer values as ends in and of themselves. And so Dartmouth constantly scrambles to explain why the humanities still matter, when it is self-evident that we need to be able to discuss, imagine and question the implications of innovation as much as we need to innovate.