Sunday, April 30, 2006

Art or Invention?

Last weekend I went to Maker Faire 2006, a faire hosted by Make Magazine. How can I describe this event? It was a cross between a Science Fair, a carnival, and Burning Man (well my impression of Burning Man—I've never been there). For a weekend, inventors came out of their garages to showcase their creations for the public. It gave me the feeling that time had become twisted causing the Renaissance to collide with the Digital Age. It was a lot of fun. I highly recommend checking it out next year if you're in the Silicon Valley.

I went to Make 2006 to understand something about creativity I still couldn't quite figure out. I think most people would agree that both artists and inventors have creativity. But invention is about creating something useful, something that solves a problem. Are artists also trying to solve some kind of problem or is art (A) equivalent to invention (I) minus function (F)?

     A = I - F                         (Equation 1)

I asked several inventors about their motives for inventing. In particular, I wanted to talk to inventors who had created something seemingly functionless. If I looked at their invention and I said to myself, "now what's the point of that?" then that was an inventor I wanted to understand better. Here is what I learned from three of them.

The first was a musician, pictured below, I don't remember his name (my apologies). A crowd swarmed around him. I peaked over their shoulders to see the mad-scientist/artist below gesticulating wildly. With each flick of his fingers, a new sound emerged which created the most wonderful music. But why?

I asked him why he made his musical glove and he explained to me that when he was getting started as a musician, people would hire him to produce electronic music for parties. He didn't like sitting behind a laptop though, he wanted to get up and entertain the audience with more than his music. So he created a special glove that gave him the same control as his computer but allowed him to get up and perform. I once heard that a similar thing happened with drummers in rock bands when the electric guitarists started claiming center stage. Drummers started putting a lot more flare into playing their instrument. So there you go, an artist with a specific problem that motivated him to innovate artistically.

But I was still skeptical. I thought when I found the Giant Painting Machine below, I had found an instance of art unadulterated by the economic, social, and political motivations that seem to drive invention. Stretching up before me was an enormous painting consisting of nothing but squiggly lines in varying shades of green. It was still being painted, in fact, by none other than a painting robot. Surely this had to be a functionless, purely artistic creation, right?

Wrong. When I spoke to the artist, Douglas Irving Repetto, I found out there was a very practical explanation for the art and the invention for creating it. One of his patrons had asked him to fill a big blank wall. Finding he needed to do a lot of repetitive work to create a giant painting, he did what human beings have done since at least the time that farming replaced hunting, he looked for a way to get more output with less work. He built a machine to paint for him.

It's a neat invention consisting of a motorized brush holder attached to a 2-axis pulley system. I didn't see if the artist controlled it by remote control, but I can just picture him reclining in a Lazy Boy, RC in one fist, ice tea in the other painting away at an enormous canvas.

My hypothesis was not holding up so far, but when I saw what's pictured below, I thought for sure I'd found a purely functionless invention that couldn't be called much more than modern art. It was the world's biggest iPod.

This was it, I thought: a purposeless invention, a perfect example of wasted human creativity. Why would someone turn something that's main benefit is its small size and make it huge? It was just to be "creative," right? It couldn't possibly have a function...or could it?

I had been foiled twice by my incomplete world view so I wasn't going to let it happen again. Smart thing I held back my urge to ridicule this so-called invention, because it turned out there was a perfectly reasonable explanation for the device. The creator had a collection of vinyl records he wanted to be able to listen to on his iPod. So he bought an old fashioned record player and rewired it so he could control it with his iPod, thus allowing him to convert the songs to electronic form. The artistic irony was secondary, the need was the primary driver. So there you go, another piece of art that's actually an invention.

Does pure art, unadulterated by the needs of human beings even exist? Are invention and art independent concepts that both happen to be driven by creativity? Or is art a type of invention? I'd appreciate your help in understanding this issue that has perplexed me for years. Maybe you can explain the bicycle below made out of a 2 by 4 and a single wheel. Is that art or an invention? I didn't get a chance to ask its creator what the motivation was, but from my experience talking to the musicians and painter above I guess I should expect to be surprised that there was a functional reason to invent this enigmacycle.

Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Fostering Innovation through Physical Layout

While at MIT, I met a very interesting person. She’s an anthropologist who was there to study the culture of scientists in their native habitat. This is very unusual, of course, because most anthropologists go off to developing countries to do their research. But Kathleen Richardson was different. Doing her Ph.D. at the University of Cambridge she decided to innovate on the field of anthropology by studying a very different type of culture from what her peers were studying.

She chose MIT to do her research. She immersed herself in the daily life of scientists in a robotics lab at the Stata Center. Recently built, the Stata Center is an innovation unto itself. Frank Gehry architected the building so that researchers would bump into each other frequently. As the thinking went, innovation would flourish because of the enhanced communication of ideas.

Is the Stata Center working? Is it fostering innovation? Apparently not so much. Here is a passage from Kathleen’s article published in Times Higher Educational Supplement February 24th 2006:

“Nevertheless, researchers said the new building had not led to distinctively new patterns of work and nor had it increased the interaction between different groups. As at the Stata Centre, the design achieved the opposite of its aims: boundaries between public and private spaces were so confused that researchers felt unable to use either effectively.”

That’s a shame, but maybe it just takes time. Another experience at MIT led me to believe that communication patterns are very important. One study I heard of suggested a very steep decline in communication the further people were physically located next to each other. Maybe it just takes time, or new ways of looking at things, kind of the way that Suzanne Harrison in her new book “Einstein in the Boardroom” notes that traditional methods of accounting don’t recognize the value created in today’s firms because value these days is so highly intangible.

I know one other group at MIT that subscribes to the notion that fostering communication across departments fuels innovation, and that is the MIT Innovation Club. The recently elected co-President, Alex Slawsby, just informed me that the website has been updated to include blogs for students to share information, hopefully across campus.

Despite the findings at the Stata Center, I too believe there’s value in fostering communication across disciplines. While recently sitting in on Joost Bonsen’s Digital Innovations course in the Media Lab at MIT, I heard several interesting findings to this effect. It made think about new ways to foster communication across departments at MIT.

What if, every lounge across the MIT campus could be connected to every other lounge through a video and audio feed? I’m sure a large electronics manufacturer would be thrilled to have their displays (and their logo) visible to every MIT student. And the benefits to the students and faculty would hopefully be accelerated communication of ideas and ultimately innovation. MIT also has a very long hallway that a large number of students walk through each day. The Infinite Corridor, as it is called, could similarly provide a video portal into every other hallway around campus. To infinity and beyond…

Monday, April 03, 2006

Another article on the emerging role of the Chief Innovation Officer

A consulting firm named Innovaro out of London recently published a press release about the emerging role of the Chief Innovation Officer. Here are companies that it says have a CIO or otherwise someone in charge of innovation:
  • Akzo Nobel
  • BBC
  • Cadbury Schweppes
  • Citigroup
  • Coca-Cola
  • DSM
  • Diageo
  • Hitachi
  • KFC
  • Lego
  • Mitsubishi
  • P&G
  • PepsiCo
  • RBS
  • Reuters
  • Shell
  • Wrigley
The article also gives some insights into the history of the role which I thought was valuable.

I would like to thank Jamie Dinkelacker, Ph.D. for sending me this article.