24 February 2012

The Borrowers

There's an old joke that goes, "for Lent, I'm giving up abstinence." It's one of those throwaway clichés that hides a serious idea. The forgoing of luxuries on Lent is built on the idea that privation is good for the soul. The contemporary rationale for doing this is that giving up is a form of spiritual discipline, emphasizing the gifts of the spirit over earthly goods. It is, however, also rooted in an ancient and medieval distrust of the desires of the flesh. In Summa Theologica, for example, Aquinas discusses the Lenten fast as having been designed to cut down on sperm counts:
[…] fasting was instituted by the Church in order to bridle the concupiscences of the flesh, which regard pleasures of touch in connection with food and sex. […] Such [foods] are the flesh of animals that take their rest on the earth, and of those that breathe the air and their products, such as milk from those that walk on the earth, and eggs from birds. For, since such like animals are more like man in body, they afford greater pleasure as food, and greater nourishment to the human body, so that from their consumption there results a greater surplus available for seminal matter, which when abundant becomes a great incentive to lust.
I'm not singling out Catholicism here—Judaism and Islam have their days of fasting; asceticism is practiced in Yogic and Buddhist traditions. There are secular equivalents, too, in the practice of "detoxification" or athletes refraining from sex the day before the big match. We humans seem very distrustful of our bodies, and sometimes with good reasons. Left unchecked, desires can distract us from what is necessary or lead obsessively to our ruin. But—and admittedly I'm speaking here from a purely secular, non-religious standpoint—our desires are also who we are and determine what our possibilities might be. Ultimately, what we do for pleasure are the things that teach us our truest selves, the things that lift us, however briefly, out of mere existence. I've alluded to it before, but "(You Gotta) Fight for Your Right (to Party)" is a very wise song masquerading as a very silly song.

In this spirit I'd like to offer up a new tradition, not an alternative to Lent, but in conversation with Lent. I suggest that this secular festival be called "Borrowing"—not an exact parallel tense-wise, but you get the idea. For this forty days I challenge you to take on a luxury of some sort. It could be a new food, a new activity, a new sexual position. It doesn't have to be a vice per se, but in honor of the election, you get extra points if your new habit would make Rick Santorum cry. The important thing is that you follow this taking-on where it leads you. Indulge yourself. Give your new thing a chance. Maybe it will turn out you don't like it, maybe it will change you deeply and permanently. Either way it will be a success.

Some suggestions: try not to make your Borrowing taking-on simply be more of something you already like. The spirit of Borrowing is the widening of possibilities and the re-imagining of one's self through one's passions. You might use this Borrowing time to try out something you always had meant to get around to: learning to dance salsa, writing a book. Or you might use this time to try out something you're sure you don't like but which brings pleasure to others: country music, say, or gin, or licorice. Maybe if you're inspired it will be a chance for you to do something you've always thought was wrong.

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.