Saturday, 6 May 2017

Thinking Inside The Box

Calling ourselves Homo Sapiens — literally wise man — has to be either missed irony, or hyperbolic self-flattery. Even dummies know that the average human is far from wise. Quite the contrary, whenever life is good, most of our species take petulant pride in not thinking. Behind dainty expressions of ostentatious innocence and unworldliness is an unmentionable awareness that being really stupid without consequence is a modern privilege, a rich-folk thing, a secretly adored social status. Sure, during our negligibly short existence, the odd thinking specimens might have had delivered us from collective troubles, or led us to more favourable grounds for survival. But mass ignorance has since been reinforced, making such rare fortuitous events ever less likely in the future.

Time has evidently been rather good. Decades of affluence has made inanity not only affordable, but fashionable, resulting in a myriad of self-gratifying myths and chimeric aspirations. Creativity, an undefined but universally desired attribute, is one of them. Though not lethal like “freedom and democracy”, creativity, like all good things, is merely hot air unless understood and cultivated with perspective. Contrarian as it may seem to question an unquestionable virtue, creativity does have a negative side which warrants closer examination.

To start with, teaching someone to be a creative or alternative thinker is a logical fallacy. Whatever we teach automatically becomes a template, whether intended or not, unless the students are specifically “instructed not to follow instructions”, which would create a dilemma. Similarly, paid trainers calling upon all corporate animals large and small to “think out of the box” (usually without saying what the box is) are risking astounding chaos for a fee, if successful. And when everyone dutifully thinks out of the box, would it not take courage and originality to think back inside? Whatever’s inside has made the team successful enough to afford corporate training; it can’t be all bad can it?

Perhaps creativity should be compared to biological mutation — a chancy force of change which drives evolution and progress (or precipitates disaster). It cannot happen by design. If teachers focus on passing knowledge and fundamental skills (which have grown prodigiously in quantity, enough to keep them busy without dreaming up creative approaches), creativity will happen naturally through a small percentage of students, just as it had for millennia. Given space, these innovative minorities will prove their worth in ways we cannot imagine, or disappear without us ever knowing. Anyways, none of the super-creative individuals we know had ever received any formal training in alternative thinking.

Overstating the case for creativity can also backfire. It denies the statistical majority their rightful places in the norm. The average guy is made to feel inadequate, constantly searching for ways to be somehow different for the sake of appearing different. Look around and you’ll know what I mean. Pathetic isn’t it?

There’s nothing wrong with being average. Our existence as a species loses definition without average. If we all had a brain like Einstein, then his IQ would be just average. Expecting everyone to escape the average trap is mathematically and philosophically absurd, not progressive. Plus if we all think like Einstein, paint like van Gogh and compose like Mozart, our average ability would improve impressively only on our own appraisal scale which, in the big cosmic picture, remains infinitesimally insignificant.

Decades of creativity worshipping has done little to serve humanity unless one counts things like fancy weapons, smartphone zombies, and fancy-slogan politics. Maybe it’s time to do some rethinking inside the box, and give convention the respect and attention it deserves. Creativity maybe cute and adorable, even beneficial at times, but convention is the foundation of our simian community. Conventionality is the precondition for creativity, the basis for innovations. Without it, the word creativity wouldn’t even exist.

James Tam 2017.05.06

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