(This blog post came out of a conversation I had with Scott Alexander, so I’ll be quoting him extensively.)
Jaron Lanier, Hipsters, and Hesse
I recently finished reading Jaron Lanier’s book You Are Not a Gadget: A Manifesto. There’s a lot I could say about this book, but I’ll focus on one particular point. Lanier claims that today’s youth, who are members of a digital culture, lack the creativity of previous generations. Lanier notes that most of the “artwork” produced on the internet is derivative. Popular youtube videos are not creative new short films made by aspiring directors, but instead are often mashups of pre-existing artwork created by external, commercial sources like the film industry. Lanier claims that culture/artwork froze sometime around the beginning of the internet era, and that today’s young people have no defining style of music or fashion. They just rearrange existing pieces made by actual creative geniuses, and call these mashups works of art.
Lanier wants to see young people transform and revitalize the world of art and thought, instead of simply recombining the aesthetics and ideals of previous generations. The internet has transformed society, and has overall reshaped the world completely. Why hasn’t it given rise to entirely new forms of artwork? Modern technology has not inspired completely new artistic media – in particular, Lanier is surprised that there hasn’t been much focus on creating immersive, interactive virtual worlds as a form of art. Presumably there are many other possible artistic media that we haven’t dreamed up yet, but which would be quite popular if invented. According to Lanier, digital culture discourages the kind of creativity that would lead to such advances.
I’m not sure I agree with Lanier that modern culture in general lacks creativity, but his criticisms definitely apply to hipsters. Hipsters look on modern culture in despair, and fleeing from it, they retreat into a world of nostalgia. Because hipsters think that modern, commercialized culture lacks anything worthy of aesthetic appreciation, they reappropriate the aesthetics of past ages. But they do so ironically and haphazardly; each of their outfits is a hilariously mismatched collection of miscellaneous past items, whose conjunction succeeds at looking ridiculous. These clothing-mashups are analogous to the youtube mashups that Lanier so disdains. (I am not free, by the way, from the barbs of this criticism. I, too, despair of the commercialized, super-stimulated, plasticized culture we live in, and look back with longing on bygone eras.)
I suspect Lanier would say that hipsters are channeling their objections to modern culture in the wrong direction. Hipsters say modern culture is lacking in aesthetic value, and so they look to the past. Instead, they should look to the future. If hipsters are dissatisfied with modern culture, then they should create an entirely new culture that better fits their sense of aesthetics. They could make new styles of clothing instead of relying on creations from the past. This would revitalize culture much more than trying to overlay outmoded aesthetics onto it. What we need is something new and fresh, something creative, something people will get excited about. But I suspect that hipsters’ irony and cynicism prevents them from such a sincere endeavor. Perhaps they doubt that such a thing can be accomplished.
All of this reminds me a bit of Hesse’s novel The Glass Bead Game. The future society he describes is a culture that has grown old and stagnated. The members of this society believe that they can’t create art of the same vitality as past ages, and so they abstain from artistic pursuits altogether. Instead, they only focus on analyzing and reanalyzing what’s already been created. Our current society may also head in this direction, if we lose faith in the human ability to create, and scorn any sincere attempt at creativity and originality.
Creativity: Does it exist?
But does creativity even exist? Is originality possible? Or have we already completed an exhaustive search of artspace? In our conversation, Scott suggested that perhaps “there are no untapped artistic primitives, and the new forms of art that can be invented are all just recombinations of existing ones, in the same way there are lots of words that don’t exist but probably many fewer completely novel human-conveniently-producible phonemes that don’t”.
I suspect that this is a natural question for readers of LessWrong. In particular, there seems to be a sense, among such intellectuals, that there’s no such thing as originality, and all attempts at it are naive. For instance, there are countless LessWrong posts/comments revealing that, although people might think they are dressing to “express themselves uniquely”, they are actually dressing in predictable manners to signal allegiance to various groups. I imagine there’s a large group on LessWrong that would claim all artistic endeavors are just attempts at signaling.
And there’s a certain perspective on creativity that I adhered to for a long time: nobody comes up with truly new ideas; we’re all just distilleries, sitting atop a confluence of influences, mixing old ideas together into new ones, with maybe a bit of Gaussian noise thrown in. Nietzsche, for example, seems profoundly new and revolutionary, but one can find pre-echoes of his ideas in Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, and even as far back as William Blake’s Marriage of Heaven and Hell. There are intellectual tides, and the brilliant geniuses are the ones riding at the foremost edge of those tides, who advance it slightly further. But their ideas aren’t as new and creative as we believe them to be.
Similarly, I’ve read a lot of Joseph Campbell, and one can interpret his writings as saying that “all originality in stories is a lie”. People may write things that seem creative, but underlying all their works are the same few basic archetypes. 
But maybe recombination is what creativity is. As Scott points out, saying “there is no creativity, just novel recombinations of artistic primitives and existing ideas” might be like saying “there’s not really any rain, just drops of water falling from clouds”. The problem is that LWish people read things similar to the above and think “creativity is impossible”, and perhaps give up being creative or original after being exposed to this ideaplex. As a result, they produce things that are less creative! I’m speaking from experience, here, because I myself only recently escaped from this trap, and am now trying to re-cultivate my own creativity.
What are the artistic primitives?
If creativity is just the novel recombination of artistic primitives, it’s worth investigating these primitives in a bit more detail. What are the primitives, exactly?
Let’s look at primitives for writing. One possible answer was given above – the primitives of stories are archetypal characters and narrative segments, put together in a new arrangement.
For another possible answer, we look to a book that I’m reading, More than Cool Reason by George Lakoff and Mark Turner. It’s an analysis of metaphor as used in famous poetry. If someone had deliberately set out to write a book that specifically appealed to me, they could hardly do a better job than this. It’s a whole book where they take poems I love, and identify the metaphors people rely on for processing these poems cognitively! And yet… I find myself disagreeing with some things they’ve said. (Note: I’m about 40 pages into this ~200-page book, so it may be premature for me to be discussing it/disagreeing with its contents.)
One of Lakoff and Turner’s main observations is that the same metaphors appear over and over again. Poets extend and combine these metaphors in new and beautiful ways, but the same metaphors continually recur: life as a flame, or life as a year or a day, or time as a thief or devourer, for instance.
Here’s a quote from the book:
At this point, we have seen life and death understood metaphorically in terms of many different concepts – journeys, plays, days, fluid, plants, sleep, and so on. We have seen many complicated mappings of knowledge, images, reasoning patterns, properties, and relations. This diversity may be overwhelming and suggest that anything can be understood metaphorically in terms of anything else, or that all of our concepts are understood metaphorically in terms of concepts from different domains.
But that is not the case. Although human imagination is strong, empowering us to make and understand even bizarre connections, there are relatively few basic metaphors for life and death that abide as part of our culture. And there are tight constraints on how their mappings work. For example, PEOPLE ARE PLANTS gives us a basis for personifying death as something associated with plants [such as a reaper], but not just anything associated with plants will do. The structure of the metaphor exerts strong pressure against any attempt to personify death as an irrigation worker or as the baker who bakes wheat bran into muffins. There are reasons, which we will explore in chapter two, why death the reaper seems apt but death the baker does not.
What is remarkable in what we have seen so far is not how many ways we have of conceiving of life and death, but how few. Where one might expect hundreds of ways of making sense of our most fundamental mysteries, the number of basic metaphorical conceptions of life and death turns out to be very small. Though these can be combined and elaborated in novel ways and expressed poetically in an infinity of ways, that infinity is fashioned from the same small set of basic metaphors.
This tells us something important about the nature of creativity. Poets must make the most of the linguistic and conceptual resources they are given. Basic metaphors are part of those conceptual resources, part of the way members of our culture make sense of the world. Poets may compose or elaborate or express them in new ways, but they still use the same basic conceptual resources available to us all. If they did not, we would not understand them.
Both Scott and I feel very strongly that in these paragraphs, Lakoff and Turner underestimate the potential for new metaphors to be created. Just because we typically conceive of death as a reaper, or the driver of a carriage, doesn’t mean we can’t personify it as a balloon-seller or a fisherman’s wife instead.
Scott points out that “of course a casual reference like “the Reaper came for Jack” will have to use commonly understood terminology; if someone said “the Balloon-Seller came for Jack”, that would make no sense. But if we wanted to, we could establish a metaphor for Death as a balloon-seller. Like for example we take the balloons and then float up to Heaven. It would just be something that could only fit in a novel or a longish poem that established that particular metaphor, not as a throwaway reference.”
In fact, one could argue that the most creative people are those who can establish completely new metaphors and analogies. And I’m not just talking about artistically creative – I’m also talking about scientifically creative. A scientist can recognize the metaphors underlying his own worldview, and thereby become more aware of the paradigms constraining his thought processes. He can then explore alternatives to the traditional perspective. For me, this is one of the biggest appeals of reading Lakoff’s work.
I think that part of what Lakoff and Turner are saying is that we can’t make metaphors which conflict with how we already conceptualize something. We see death as destruction, dissolution, decay. But baking is the process of building something up. Baking is a subclass of making, and in Metaphors We Live By, Lakoff and Johnson observe that making is often metaphorically identified with birth. The creation is born from the materials. If baking is already identified with birth, that makes it much harder to identify it with death. So even though baking, like death, involves turning a living organism into a sort of food, it’s hard to conceive of Death as the Grim Baker. People who wanted to speak of death transforming something living into food would be more likely to pick “Death the Butcher” or “Death the Reaper”, since both of those focus on the dismemberment of the living, instead of the transformation of the body into sustenance. (Many apologies to Lakoff and Turner if this is what they’re saying in Chapter 2, which I haven’t read yet.)
So yes, it seems there are constraints on the metaphors we can create. But that doesn’t mean we can’t make any new metaphors! A truly creative author could come up with new metaphors that even find their way into the culture. And obviously, new metaphors arise all the time as new technology arises. For instance, the preface of Julian Jaynes’s book contains a beautiful discussion of how, in every era, prominent technologies/advances in the hard sciences provide new metaphors/models for the mind.
How to Be Creative
So here we’ve established one possible source of true creativity: the creation of new metaphors. But how does one go about creating new metaphors? One possibility is to use some kind of randomness. For instance, the balloon-seller example from earlier exists because I, looking for a concrete example, said “We often describe Death as a reaper, but we never talk about him as a balloon-seller.” And Scott replied “But we could”, and proceeded to generate an image of death as a balloon-seller. Thus, one could randomize metaphor-generation by opening to a dictionary, picking a word, and comparing a given concept (like Death) to that word. This obviously requires some amount of innate creativity. But it can help with thinking outside of the brain’s normal patterns. Upon thinking of Death, for instance, you might immediately think of “Reaper”, and really weird metaphors like “balloon salesman” won’t even occur to you.
Another possibility is to just start paying attention to what metaphors you use in your daily conversations. If you start to write a sentence, and find that it contains a cliche, then reword it! I started doing this a few months ago. Eventually, my brain figured out what I was up to, and slightly reoptimized its sentence search procedure for weird new metaphors. Now they come far more naturally. (Or, to be less machine-learning-y about it, I practiced a skill, and then got better at it!)
Obviously, new metaphors are only one possible form of creativity, and it’s worth analyzing others. One method involves consciously identifying the dimensions of a certain artspace, and varying them. Scott gives the example that if a certain style of art can be described as “representational, serious, pointillist, with lots of bright colors, photorealistic”, then one could create a new style by picking a new value for any of those dimensions.
Furthermore, at one point in our conversation, Scott objected to my notion of true creativity as “generating new metaphors”, because I was still relying on the preexisting abstract categories imposed by language. Generating new metaphors is still just a matter of rearranging primitives. He then described his ideas about true creativity, which I’ll quote here:
“My idea of an artistic revolution would be…well, imagine some Europeans who had never seen Asian architecture before and just had a lot of European architecture inventing something like Asian architecture. It looks completely different, it’s just as beautiful, but it’s beautiful in a totally different way. I agree that they’re both made out of things like walls and roofs and stuff, but my brain classifies them as two totally different categories, in a way that ‘Nara period Japanese architecture’ and ‘Kamakura style Japanese architecture’ aren’t. And it bothers me that even architecture in fantasy worlds seems more similar to European architecture than Asian architecture is, because that suggests either we’ve run out of architecturespace or everyone’s just incredibly boring.”
But how does one go about starting such an artistic revolution? This would seem like an impossible-to-answer rhetorical question, but Scott has a brilliant suggestion:
“Also, I’ve found that if you’re optimizing for something other than creativity, you usually end up much more creative than if you’re optimizing for creativity. Like my constructed societies were super boring elf clones until I thought ‘You know what, screw making something beautiful, how about I make a perfect society I would actually want to live in’ and then it got super weird. Actually, the same might include Asian architecture – they were optimizing for different materials and a different tech level and trying to solve the ‘make buildings that don’t fall down’ problem without optimizing for difference-from-Europe. Also, calligraphy apparently is kind of what happens naturally if you use a pen with the shape of a quill feather. I never realized that before. And Gothic lettering is what happens naturally if you try to cram as much text into as little space as possible because it’s the Middle Ages and you have to kill a calf for every sheet of parchment you want.”
And this fits with Lanier’s idea that new technology should inspire new art forms, because new technology provides vastly different startings condition.
I am interested to hear everyone else’s suggestions for artistic primitives, and for methods of “rational creativity”.
 I’m pretty sure Joseph Campbell would strongly object to this interpretation of his work, by the way. He very much emphasized the role of the individual artist in the creation of myths, and he directed his writings at artists, hoping that they would help someone to create myths that are suited to the modern age. Interestingly, though, I’ve heard many people express a frustration with Joseph Campbell, since his works have inspired many unoriginal stories that simply copy the hero’s journey in a formulaic fashion.