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Syntony and Spark â" the Origins of Radio
By Hugh G. J. Aitken
PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESSCopyright © 1985 Princeton University Press
All rights reserved.
How new things happen is a puzzle that has aroused the curiosity of man since first he gave thought to the world in which he lived and to his place in it. It is the perennial concern of philosophers, scientists, and historians. Writers and artists must live with the search for creativity every day of their lives, must learn how to tap its springs and give it expression in words, music, sculpture, painting, or whatever is their chosen mode. No one, indeed, is absolved from the task of coping with novelty: if it is not our role to bring it about, it is nevertheless our fate to live with its effects. And those effects are frequently so disconcerting, so unpredicted, and so inescapable that we feel impelled to come to terms, emotionally and intellectually, with the new things that are the source of disturbance.
Catastrophic novelty — the earthquake, the pestilence, the sudden failure of crops or water, the disaster that comes without apparent cause — is one of the sources of religion, posing as it does a challenge to man's irrational conviction that the world he inhabits must make sense to him. Such events do not "make sense" in human terms. Their causes are unknown, their purposes hidden. We strive to understand them, and as our knowledge increases much that earlier was a mystery becomes comprehensible and even amenable to human control. But there is always a residue of the unexplained, of new things that seem to have no cause, no purpose, no reason. If these new things are rationalized, it is in terms of higher powers and transcendent purposes, at which man can only guess. The response is therefore propitiatory, by sacrifice and prayer, by confession of sins known and unknown. Those who, like Job, would argue with the deity, demanding to confront their adversary so that they may hear his indictment in terms comprehensible to them, receive no direct answer. Job, prototype of the man who insists on understanding what is happening to him, finds peace and an end to his troubles only when he accepts that the reasons for undeserved catastrophe are not for him to know.
Systematic novelty evokes a different response. An eclipse of the sun may cause terror when it is unexpected. But when men begin to keep records of the event, to predict the time of its next occurrence and to speculate on physical causes, it has moved out of the realm of religion and into that of science. Regular recurrence may not, in the final analysis, remove any of the mystery — there are those to whom each returning spring is a new miracle — but it does enable the mind to grapple with the event in secular and not sacred terms. How new things happen becomes a problem open to scientific analysis.
Even more clearly should this be true, it would appear, when systematic novelty results from man's own actions, from his own creating of things that are new. These actions may, and indeed typically will, have unanticipated consequences. Nevertheless, they should be amenable to analysis. There are means and ends, processes and purposes. Actions are undertaken by certain individuals in pursuit of certain goals, using certain instrumentalities, and typically in situations that involve a mixture of cooperation and competition with others. There is nothing here that rules out investigation by the normal canons of scientific inquiry, nothing that would seem to require us to invoke the mystical or transcendental.
And yet the sources of creativity have not in fact proved easy to uncover. How new things happen — the discoveries, inventions, and innovations that reshape our lives in what is now a seemingly permanent revolution — is not a question that social and behavioral scientists can claim to have solved, or even with a few courageous exceptions to have reduced to a form in which hypotheses can be put to the test. Meanwhile the flood of new things — new ideas, new information, new products, new processes, new forms of art and experience — pours over us. It becomes hard to find a firm place on which to stand and take our bearings. The future engulfs us before we have perceived the present or assimilated the past. Even man-made systematic novelty — the creations of our own curiosity and intelligence — comes to seem like built-in catastrophe.
The temptation is, then, to see something mystical in creativity, to argue that, no matter how closely we analyze the context in which creative acts occur, there will always be an irreducible residue that evades systematic explanation. This must be so, we tell ourselves, because in the nature of the case a creative act cannot be completely explained in terms of prior circumstances. If it could, it would not be truly creative. Creativity, the appearance of something truly new, necessarily involves a leap beyond anything that the "givens" in a situation can explain.
Now, for scientists to say, "We do not yet know," in answer to a problem posed to them, is no reason for embarrassment. For behind the surface humility of the statement lies confidence that eventually, through science, we can know. But to say, "We shall never know," is a different matter entirely, for implied by that response is the belief that some matters by their very nature are forever closed to human understanding. This is not something that, in our role as scientists, we should be too ready to admit. To assert that there is in creativity something necessarily beyond explanation may well be a premature and unnecessary retreat to mysticism.
Not that the problem is easy to solve. The question is whether it is possible to construct a theory that will serve to explain how and when new things happen. Can we build a model that will make such events understandable when they have happened in history, and predictable and possibly subject to control when they happen in future? An honest answer, at the moment, must be in the negative. None of the social sciences is yet able to offer such a model. In psychology and anthropology, in the history of invention and discovery, there are clues, but one looks in vain for a general theory. This is ironic, for creativity has been the essence of the human experience so far. It is, however, a hard nut for social and behavioral scientists to crack. Equilibrium models are easier to build; gradual and continuous change is simpler to handle mathematically. Unfortunately, it is the discontinuities in history, and in one's own life experience, that cause the trouble.
Lacking a general theory, we must proceed by steps, using as our guides the generalizations that previous workers in the field have suggested. Two of these are particularly relevant. First, there is general agreement that creativity is best analyzed as a process, not as a set of isolated, distinct events. Barnett, for example, defines innovation as "the reorganization of a configuration of ideas"; the essence of change lies in the restructuring of the parts so that a new pattern results. To understand creativity we should look not at the separate parts but at the process by which they become fused into a new configuration. Second, novelty always emerges out of the familiar. If we look only at the end product we may be struck by its apparent "distance" from its antecedent components; but this impression usually vanishes on closer examination. George Sarton, dean of historians of science, expresses it this way: "When one considers carefully the genesis of any discovery one finds that it was gradually prepared by a number of smaller ones, and the deeper one's investigation, the more intermediary stages are found." Creativity implies a new configuration. Ex ante this typically appears as a discontinuity, a leap into the unknown. But to the historian, analyzing the process after its closure, the new configuration seems to emerge not by one single leap but a series of incremental, distinguishable steps.
Neither of these propositions seems, on the face of it, very profound or helpful. Taken together, they suggest a particular point of view and an avenue of analysis. The first statement directs our attention to the way in which novelty emerges rather than to the particular features of the new things that result. These results, the particular outcomes of the creative process, are very diverse. What does a new symphonic form have in common with a new antibiotic or a new mode of political organization? If we are looking for the common characteristics of creativity it is not likely that we will find them by analyzing the characteristics of these end products. Much more probable is it that we will find them located in the process by which creativity happens. It would be well, then, to look less at inventions and more at inventing; less at discoveries and more at discovering. And since inventing and discovering are activities carried out by individuals and groups that are part of organized societies, acting in socially defined ways and seeking socially valued objectives, it will clearly be a social process that we are investigating, and our methods had better be chosen accordingly.
The second proposition reminds us that nothing is wholly new; novelty emerges out of the known, the familiar. Its origins are to be looked for in preexistent data, and the degree to which it is new is to be gauged by the extent to which it goes beyond any ways in which those data have previously been put together. Creativity does indeed involve an act of insight, a shift of perspective that makes the familiar strange and the strange familiar. But the process starts from combinations of known elements; its immediate stimulus is a perception of incompleteness in those combinations, often under the stress of a problem that demands solution; its essential characteristic is the sudden "seeing" of what is required to complete the incomplete pattern; and its necessary sequel is critical revision to integrate the new configuration more thoroughly into what was known before. At both ends of the process the emergence of something new is rooted in a field of the known and the familiar.
When we speak of "discoveries" we think of science or of exploration. When we speak of "inventions," devices like the steam engine or the telephone come to mind. And when we talk of "innovations" we associate the word with new forms of organization, new methods of production, or new modes of behavior. These semantic differences are certainly useful but they must not obscure the common feature that underlies them. This feature is creativity, the emergence of novelty in ways of thinking, ways of acting, and ways of perceiving. This phenomenon cuts across all our conventional categories of human experience. Any model we devise to explain it or understand it must be one of very general applicability. The idea of creativity as a process by which novelty emerges out of recombinations of given elements is a first step toward such a model. Whether in the arts or in science and technology or in the business of everyday life, the best clue to understanding how new things emerge is to watch how elements of the known are combined and recombined in new patterns, how new features are added to fill perceived gaps, and how new patterns are modified and revised so that they interlock with the familiar. The kaleidoscope turns gradually, but suddenly the elements of the image shift and fall into a new design. The result may appeal or not; it may prove useful or useless, interesting or dull. But the process has been creative, irrespective of our liking for the outcome.
It may well be true that the artist is more sensitive to the shape of things that are "struggling to be born than is the scientist. If we wish some insight into modes of human experience that are not yet fully realized but still clouds on the horizon "no bigger than a man's hand," possibly it is to contemporary literature, drama, music, and poetry we should turn, rather than to forecasts of future scientific or technological breakthroughs. In the arts the imagination works under fewer constraints. Requirements of verifiability, skepticism, objectivity, and disinterestedness check and channel creativity in the sciences, but not in the arts. And artists, seeking the widest possible audience, are more likely to express themselves in a vernacular than are the scientists, who necessarily use a special-purpose vocabulary unintelligible to laymen or to scientists in fields other than their own. For artists past forms are fetters from which they must struggle to liberate themselves; for scientists they are structures on which to build. For these reasons, in the constantly shifting modes of artistic expression we may sometimes catch a glimpse of the future earlier than it shows itself in the more disciplined advance of science and technology.
The processes by which novelty emerges in science are in important ways distinguishable from parallel processes in other fields. The differences arise principally from differences in the nature of the outputs that are desired. The output of science is of course knowledge, but knowledge of a particular kind. In the words of Robert K. Merton, it is "that particular kind of knowledge which springs from and returns to controlled experiment or controlled observation." The crucial element is the emphasis on control, on the processes by which science discriminates between desirable and undesirable, true and false, good and bad outputs. To maintain these controls science has developed a rigorous methodology of testing and proof; a set of standards by which new discoveries are appraised; an internal social structure one of whose functions is to monitor conformity to these standards; and an ethos or set of internalized values which guides behavior and limits deviance. These are the elements we refer to when we speak of scientific creativity as being subject to discipline. There are disciplines in the arts too, but not of this type.
Science is that sector of society which specializes in the systematic production of new knowledge. The essence of creativity, here as elsewhere, lies in the combination of bits of information into new patterns. Sometimes the elements are already at hand; only the combination is new. But sometimes, to complete a pattern perceived as incomplete, new information is seen to be necessary; in such a case novelty is not just a new combination but involves also the deliberate search for an element of information not available but recognized as required. In either case the outcome of the creative process is a new structure of knowledge: a generalized conceptual scheme. Such generalized conceptual schemes, produced according to accepted canons of inquiry and appraised according to accepted canons of verification, are the sole output of pure science, strictly defined. Advance in pure science is a matter of developing conceptual schemes of ever greater explanatory power, a process that includes extension, revision, and testing, an "inherently endless process of establishing provisional truth." Applied science, in contrast, is science "devoted to making conceptual schemes instrumental to some other purpose than that of the pursuit of conceptual schemes as ends-in-themselves." Advance in applied science is gauged by the degree to which such social purposes are served.
Merton has suggested that historians of the future will find it strange that so few social scientists of the twentieth century could bring themselves, in their work, to treat science as one of the great social institutions of the time. "Long after the sociology of science became an identifiable field of inquiry," he observes, "it remained little cultivated in a world where science loomed large enough to present mankind with the choice of destruction or survival." If we think of science as that sector of society which has the particular function of generating systematic new knowledge, then indeed it is ironic that we should have such meager understanding of how "new things" in that sector occur. And it is even more ironic that our understanding of how new information generated by science becomes translated into new technology, and then into the structures, devices, and processes of everyday economic life, still barely transcends the level of glib and ill-supported generalizations. If the "new things" of science, technology, and economic life often seem overwhelming and uncontrollable, the reason may well be that we have, in modern societies, created highly efficient structures for the generation of new knowledge without seriously attending to the processes by which new knowledge is put to use. These processes are social processes, and they relate particularly to the ways in which new information generated by science is screened, filtered, and transformed as it is converted first into new technology and then into goods and services and new patterns of economic behavior. There may be some excuse for our failure to grapple with the problem of creativity itself; it is harder to justify our failure to come to grips with these simpler questions of how new information is transformed and utilized.
Excerpted from Syntony and Spark â" the Origins of Radio by Hugh G. J. Aitken. Copyright © 1985 Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission of PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS.
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