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February 28, 2005
On Creativity, Or The Tale of the Squawking iPod
When most people think about creativity, they imagine the lonely poet in the garret, or Jackson Pollock poised over an enormous canvas with a dripping brush. Seth Schoen, on the other hand, thinks about a squawking iPod. Deeply. And manages to make tangible the things that keep technological innovation strong and healthy -- the conditions that nurture new ideas and keep the garden growing.
An excerpt (hyperlink, mine):
Schneider's ingenious approach shows several important virtues:
- User innovation and the lack of passivity. Apple didn't intend for third-party software to be used with the iPod; not only was Schneider unconcerned with this, he ended up using the iPod in a way that its developers wouldn't have anticipated (and, if they've heard about it, are probably amused or startled by). He certainly refused to limit his thinking to what the original manufacturer had in mind; he insisted, on, well, thinking different.
- Consciousness of history. This problem was solved before in an earlier generation of technology. As Dave Farber has often pointed out, it's tragic that computer scientists and programmers working today are often thoroughly ignorant of what earlier generations have already invented and implemented. Even more than other fields, computing may be repeating and duplicating effort all the time. The notion of modulating digital data as a waveform at audio frequencies has been deeply important in digital communications, but it's easy enough for people who don't use a modem any more to forget it -- never mind people who (like myself) have never had to use an acoustic coupler.
- An appreciation for the universality of the machine. The idea that data is data and that representations and encodings of it are merely accidental goes back, depending on how you want to count it, decades or centuries. (See, e.g., Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language (Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishers, 1997), for some antecedents of this idea in the days before Shannon, Turing, and von Neumann.) But even so, we can get stuck in what cognitive psychologists call "functional fixedness" and refuse to think about data outside of its current representation. ...But Schneider thought with an abstraction and generality that befits an "information age"; he knew that bits are bits, from a communication engineering point of view, and meaning comes after, at another layer.
- Hack value. It can be risky to describe something as having "hack value" ...So let me note the ...famous discussion in The Diamond Age: "Pardon me, Your Honor, the concept is not easy to explain -- there is an ineffable quality to some technology, described by its creators as a concinnitous, or technically sweet, or a nice hack -- signs that it was made with great care by one who was not merely motivated but inspired. It is the difference between an engineer and a hacker."
We need many, many more technically oriented people writing about what makes innovation work (or not). What better way to demonstrate what we lose under laws like the DMCA/government technology mandates like the Broadcast Flag/future Induce Act(s)?
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