01 February 2012

Checkmate, I think

A box office flop in 1982, Ridley Scott's Blade Runner today enjoys a preeminent position in geek culture: the first (and best) movie adaptation of Philip K. Dick, whose dystopian vision set the art direction for hundreds of later films. But the best thing about the movie is the way it perfectly demonstrates two hilarious Hollywood clichés. The first is the "enlarge and enhance" scene, where Harrison Ford's character reviews a surveillance video and instructs the computer to not only zoom in on a hopelessly out-of-focus scene and fill in the detail, but also to look magically change the camera angle to look around a doorframe. The second is the "check...checkmate!" scene, where the crafty replicant, Roy Batty, instructs the genetic designer J. F. Sebastian on how to defeat the mastermind Dr. Eldon Tyrell at chess in the following bit of dialog, conducted over the building intercom:
Computer:New entry. A Mr. J. F. Sebastian. 1-6-4-1-7.
Tyrell:At this hour? What can I do for you Sebastian.
Sebastian:Queen to Bishop 6. Check.
Tyrell:Nonsense. Just a moment. Mmm. Queen to Bishop 6. Ridiculous. Queen to Bishop 6. Hmm... Knight takes Queen.—What's on your mind Sebastian? What are you thinking about?
Roy:(whispered) Bishop to King 7. Checkmate.
Sebastian:Bishop to King 7. Checkmate, I think.
Tyrell:Got a brainstorm, huh, Sebastian? Milk and cookies kept you awake? Let's discuss this. You better come up, Sebastian.
Anyone who has logged more than a few games knows that that is some wiggy chess right there. Barring obvious blunders, successful play is a matter of gaining slow advantages, developing your position, and calculated sacrifices. Winning is never sudden; instead it's a slow build towards an increasingly unavoidable conclusion. But in movies it's always "Wot ho, I do believe you'll find that is check." "Is that so, now. In that case...checkmate! Sorry, old bean."

This is the Romance of Genius: the mistaken belief that brainstorms are at the heart of problem-solving. It's the lightbulb-over-the-head concept of invention or the sing-to-me-O-Muse concept of creativity. I'm not saying that Aha! moments don't happen; it's just that they're very rare, and usually come as the result of slow, deliberate, and incremental work. (See Stephen Johnson's concept of the "slow hunch" in his talk Where do Good Ideas Come From.) The most important ingredient to being creative is to show up. The most productive period of my life for writing was when I was in a creative writing program that required its fellows to write two short stories every week. How did we come up with all the ideas? We didn't have a choice. Scheherazade probably didn't know she had all those stories in her before she had a sword at her throat.

One reason I'm obsessed with copyright and patent reform is I'm convinced that our laws are based on this faulty premise of how creativity happens. By fetishizing novelty we devalue work that is derivative, collaborative, or interpretive. But more often than not, innovation is an emergent quality that arises from combining what is already at hand rather than from creating something original. A good example of this is the iPad. When it was introduced, detractors branded it as nothing new—simply a collection of existing technologies. And even as that, it was missing some obvious features. But none of that mattered to the users who sat down with one for the first time and found its particular mixture of form and function at once humanistic and compelling. Similarly, Edison was not the inventor of the incandescent lamp, but it was his laboratory that found the right combination of filament and vacuum  that made the lightbulb a practical invention.

I don't want to discredit the role of intuition, of the flash of insight. But "sudden" inspiration is always the result of hard work, patterns of thought, and cultural context. It might not be as showy as an unexpected checkmate. That's because real chess is a conversation.


  1. So very very hot. Thanks for sharing these slow insights.

  2. Unless you're actually talking about a real chess genius like Bobby Fischer, in which case you're well, totally wrong. Sorry.

    Listen to this - check in 20 moves: http://www.radiolab.org/2011/aug/23/

  3. I like the point here, but the point of the scene in Blade Runner was that it was out of the ordinary.

    Roy isn't human.