Panos Louridas – Distributed creativity and design: Geniuses, code and cities
In 1419 a competition was held to design a dome for the cathedral of Florence. The main competitors were Lorenzo Ghiberti and Filippo Brunelleschi; the competition was won by the latter, a goldsmith turned builder and then architect. Brunelleschi designed a dome that adorns the Florence skyline with its breathtaking beauty to this day; the dome was revolutionary at the time, and indeed deemed infeasible to construct. Constructed it was, over and against dire predictions, with Brunelleschi providing ingenious solutions. Not only was the design inspired, Brunelleschi invented special machines for executing his plan.
Principia Mathematica (full title: The Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica) was Isaac Newton’s description of classical mechanics, containing the laws of motion and universal gravitation, among other foundations of physics. It is sometimes lost to people not well versed in the scientific canon that to formulate his theories Newton had to invent a new field of mathematics, which we call today calculus. In one fell swoop, Netwon revolutionised not only physics, but mathematics as well. In a remarkable parallel path, Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz developed calculus at the same time independently from Newton (indeed, the notation we use today comes from him).
On November 22, 1859, a book called On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life, went on sale to booksellers. The book made its author, Charles Robert Darwin, one of the most influential scientists in human history: religion, sociology, political organisation, psychology, the list of disciplines reshaped by Darwin and his followers (such as Thomas Henry Huxley, known as Darwin’s Bulldog, and grandfather of Aldous Huxley) includes more than it leaves out.
It is easy to find trailblazers in other fields. Paul Cezanne pretty much invented modern painting (at least according to Herbert Read); one may not like Picasso, but one can hardly dispute his originality; and any discussion on the topic will inevitably make its way through Leonardo or Einstein. People do differ on their intellectual capacities, and this should come as no surprise, unless we are prepared to be surprised by the differences in our external appearance or physical capacities.
“Many people, particularly those who regard themselves as within the left-liberal political spectrum, find such conclusions repugnant… But I find it difficult to understand why conclusions of this sort should be at all disturbing. I am personally quite convinced that no matter what training or education I might have received, I could never have run a four-minute mile, discovered Goedel’s theorems, composed a Beethoven quartet, or risen to any of innumerable other heights of human achievement. I feel in no way demeaned by these inadequacies. It is quite enough that I am capable, as I think any person of normal endowments probably is, of appreciating and in part understanding what others have accomplished, while making my own personal contributions in whatever measure and manner I am able to do. Human talents vary considerably, within a fixed framework that is characteristic of the species and that permits ample scope for creative work, including the creative work of appreciating the achievements of others. This should be a matter for delight rather than a condition to be abhorred.”
The above paragraph was written by Noam Chomsky, in an article entitled “Language Development, Human Intelligence, and Social Organization“. Individual variation in creativity is a fact of life. And although they do not abound, geniuses have left their mark in history. These marks are far from uniform, geographically and chronologically. There are periods and places where arts, sciences, and technology bloom, and others where they stagnate. This may be because geniuses are found only in some milieus and not in others; but if we accept that, we must be ready to accept other unwholesome consequences. Alternativey, it may be because the expression of the individual genius finds fruition in some places, less so in others.
Which are those places? Peter Hall, in his Cities in Civilisation undertook to map these places, which read like a roll-call of great cities in their prime. In the arts: Athens 500–400 BC (Golden Age), Florence 1400–1500 (Renaissance), London 1570–1620 (theatre), Vienna 1780–1910 (classical music), Paris 1870–1910 (Belle Epoque), Berlin 1918–1933 (Weimar republic). In innovation: Manchester 1760–1830 (industry), Glasgow 1770–1890 (ship building), Berlin 1840–1930 (technology pioneer), Detroit 1890–1915 (cars), San Francisco/Palo Alto/Berkeley 1950–1990 (information technologies), Tokyo–Kanagawa 1890–1990 (state-sponsored innovation). In the marriage of art and technology: Los Angeles 1910–1945 (cinema), Memphis 1948–1956 (music). In the establishment of the urban order: Rome 50 BC–Ad 100 (imperium), London 1825–1900 (utilitarianism), Paris 1850–1870 (public works), New York 1880–1940 (the modern metropolis), Los Angeles 1900–1980 (freeways), Stockholm 1945–1980 (social democracy), London 1979–1993 (the City).
What made those places special? It is difficult to generalise over so different cities, in such different times. But it seems that for creativity to thrive, we need accumulated wealth, outsiders, and a precarious balance in social relationships. Creativity thrives in places in transition. This makes it difficult to nurture, and easy to destroy. In 1928, the Nazis won just 2.6% of the vote; in 1933 Hitler was in power.
Returning to the present, the creative genius is standard fare in information technology, and computer programming in particular, lore. The image of the lone programmer sweating away in a basement to come up with the next killer-application and found a multi-billion company, has nurtured merciless efforts by countless programmers around the world. Gifted individuals have turned creative itches to profitable enterprises in record time; many of us spend most of their waking hours working with tools, programs, and infrastructure, started by their efforts. In the relatively short time computers have been with us, we have even been able to create our own mythology on the subject. In 1983 a post on a newsgroup described the apparently magical prowess of a programmer called Mel, the archetypical macho programmer who would write his programs in machine code using the hexadecimal number system. As it was put in the news post, “I have often felt that programming is an art form, whose real value can only be appreciated by another versed in the same arcane art; there are lovely gems and brilliant coups hidden from human view and admiration, sometimes forever, by the very nature of the process. You can learn a lot about an individual just by reading through his code, even in hexadecimal. Mel was, I think, an unsung genius”.
The programmer as a genius artist motif pops-up repeatedly. The definitive text in computer science is a multi-volume magnus opus called The Art of Computer Programming. American Scientist included the series among the best twelve physical-science monographs of the century (others were: Dirac on quantum mechanics, Einstein on relativity, Mandelbrot on fractals, Pauling on the chemical bond, Russell and Whitehead on foundations of mathematics, von Neumann and Morgenstern on game theory, Wiener on cybernetics, Woodward and Hoffmann on orbital symmetry, Feynman on quantum electrodynamics, Smith on the search for structure, and Einstein’s collected papers). The books are being written for more than 30 years by Donald Knuth, widely held as the greatest programmer on this planet.
The world’s two most popular computer operating systems are associated with individuals: MS-Windows with Bill Gates, and GNU/Linux with Linus Torvalds. These words are written on a program (an editor) created by Richard Stallman. In the world of software, and especially in the world of open source software, people know each other by first name; some programmers achieve celebrity status among their peers worldwide.
The question then, again, is not whether in computer science, as in elsewhere, brilliance results from the creative genius—it often does, as in architecture, music, painting. The question is not if genius exists; the question is how genius is realised.
In 1997, at the Linux Kongress conference, Eric S. Raymond presented a paper, “The Cathedral and the Bazaar“, which to a large degree framed the subsequent discussion on the mode of open source software construction. Raymond argued that open source software is developed in a bazaar fashion, where many individuals contribute their own bit, in a distributed manner reminiscent of oriental markets—in contrast to medieval cathedrals that were developed in well-organised, structured plan. This may be an elegant simplification; Steven Weber in his book The Success of Open Source examined the workings of open source projects in depth. There are open software projects that are developed along strict, hierarchical lines, much like it happens in disciplined software houses; on the other hand there are software companies that develop their products in a free-wheeling manner. What is clear, however, is that even though programmers will grab the opportunity to work alone physically, they rarely ever work alone. Successful software projects are the result of an involved community that supports them. Software projects may be headed by genius geeks, but genius geeks alone are not enough to make great software happen. For that, a veritable ecosystem must get involved. The ecosystem is reified by intensive use of digital infrastructures; these revolutionalised everyday work and life in the later part of the last century, but they have been heavily used by the programming profession for much longer (the 1970s or so).
Which brings us full circle to cities. In the beginning of the 20th century, Strauss, Mahler, Schoenberg and Debussy, among others, revolutionalised classical music. They were able to do that, as Alex Ross has eloquently explained in his The Rest is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century, because Vienna and Paris boasted a wealthy middle class that was willing to support art that would scandalise it; and because in these cities there was a critical well-connetcted mass of creative class, mostly underclass, that was prepared to shock. Similarly, in the field of architecture, Dana Cuff showed in Architecture: The Story of Practice that although the profession tends to celebrate the creative talent of the individual architect, most architectural work takes place in collaborative settings where architects engage with clients and fellow professionals to realise
The tension between the lone creator and collective creation is not new; it was there in Florence, as it is now in the Silicon Valley; what is different, at this day and time, is that technology allows us to connect to others more easily than before. It is the creation of digital communities, by members separated in space yet brought together by online collaboration, that offers new opportunities for creativity to blossom. In Terre des Hommes (English title: Wind, Sand and Stars), Antoine de Saint-Exupery considered the fate of those unlucky enough not to be given the opportunity to create; at his time, for a European like him, they were the Orientals: “What torments me is not this poverty to which after all a man can accustom himself as easily as to sloth. Generations of Orientals live in filth and love it. What torments me is not the humps nor hollows nor the ugliness. It is the sight, a little bit in all these men, of Mozart murdered”. Stopping this waste, is the chance given to us by the new technologies of communication.
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