Wednesday 8 June 2022

Trimtabs and Loosening Creativity

Creative processes are often difficult. It is hard to steer through distractions, uncertainty, self-doubt, dead-ends, etc. The steering becomes "heavy". So what's wrong with the mechanism, and what might be done to loosen things up to make the process more navigable?

The construction of niches for creative work is critical. It is the niche within which new things can grow. From a technical/theoretical perspective, niches are the result of redundancy. In his description of the Zone of Proximal development, Vygotsky said as much (without using the word "redundancy"), in highlighting the importance of imitation in what he called the "learning" process, and arguing that "development" lags behind "learning". In the same way, creation lags behind redundancy - it doesn't matter what kind of creation it is - it can be technical, artistic, organisational, theoretical or scientific. 

Margaret Boden talked once of the creative work of Spanish seamstresses making Flamenco dresses. She said "they do one layer, then another, then another, then another... what's going on there?" It's the same with things like mosaic, quilt-making or knitting. I didn't know enough about redundancy at the time to suggest it as an explanation, but I think she was already thinking this. This is niche construction. 

It is something we tend to ignore in education because we have become so obsessed with outcomes and products, seeing the processes which produce them as "problem solving". The word  "solving" is interesting because it really means "loosening" - solvere. That's not how people who talk about problem solving think about it. But if loosening really happens, then it makes the "steering" easier.  

Buckminster Fuller's idea of a trimtab is a loosening device. It literally loosens the steering, and it does it by creating a niche for steering - simply by  adjusting the pressure on a rudder or a wing. This tiny thing at the back-end of the navigation process is the thing that makes everything else work. Now perhaps its not stretching things too far to say that trimtabs create redundancy. Without them, there are a variety of different forces and pressures operating on the wing - so much variety that there is no single steering movement that can manage this variety. The trimtab reduces the variety by increasing the constraint. It's rather like a spider spinning a web. By creating a uniform area of lower pressure,  steering can be assisted. 

The trimtabs of our organisations lie in the redundancy of communication among their workers. Where there is high redundancy, we will also see what we might call "collegiality". Collegiality, team working, and a shared mission can all create the niche for organisational creativity. An absence of it will make creativity very difficult. 

Our organisations do not have operational trimtabs. The only lever they can pull is the departmental meeting - and this has become a ritual which often serves very little purpose. There is a deep need for exploring new mechanisms for institutional organisation. The answer to this lies in technology - but not the kind of surveillance technology which is often talked about (like "learning analytics"). Surveillance will not produce collegiality. Quite the opposite. 

We need to use technology to provoke dialogue among colleagues. It is through the dialogical engagement among colleagues that effective niches can be established. This is not to see technology as instrumental, but dialogical. AI may be our best opportunity to do something like this, and if there is one single challenge that faces us with that technology, it is that we misuse it to tighten, and not loosen, the steering.   

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