There are many forms of collective creation that run the whole spectrum, from merely coloring in someone else’s existing drawing to the actual creation of a thing from scratch. Often this spectrum of distinction is lost in the rush to embrace the amazing and wondrous, collectively created works like Wikipedia and, um, Zagat guides—these being held up as models for the possibility of collective creation of all and every kind of activity—from politics to newspapers. I’ve maintained a fair amount of skepticism about the idea of crowd sourced creative works for some time, which is not to say some of them don’t work incredibly well. But, they’re not all the same. To me, even though Wikipedia is indeed an example of the wisdom of crowds producing an amazing work—one that is possibly better than those that are top down in their inception—it seems that the claims made for this kind of creative process are often a little misleading. Each Wikipedia entry is not vetted or added to by everyone—by the lumped masses—but by self-appointed experts on each subject. Then, after these experts have had their say, we, the masses, tend to accept on faith that they have haggled amongst themselves over a particular subject to determine what will be included and the accuracy of what is in the entry. Of course, everyone considers themselves an expert on some subjects…
I’m not going to claim that only folks nominated as experts should be trusted to manage our world and create the things we enjoy and consume. I’d be the last person to believe that a college degree or experience in a field gives one a guaranteed wise perspective—would you trust a Rumsfeld? Often, it’s the perspective of amateurs that is more accurate than the professionals who are embedded and entrenched within their field of work. That said, nature seems to have found that some level of specialization is proven to work on some level. Though it seems clear that certain ants are designated as “experts,” and are deferred to as such, I admit that I have a bias against deferring to experts. Despite the sound social management system of ants that is responsible for their long survival—a system that we often believe that we might do well to emulate—I refuse to believe that the bankers who got us into our current economic mess are the best minds to get us out of it. Similarly, I sense that one maybe shouldn’t trust the military in evaluating and establishing their own budgets. It happens over and over—the police have proven they can’t be trusted amongst themselves. Economists? Oh, forget it.
The popular hive analogy, which compares insect societies to human interactions and creation, is often applied to the idea of many doing and creating what one alone cannot. Even in the hive though, there are “experts”—worker bees are given right of way to accomplish their tasks by the other bees because it seems that everyone recognizes no one can do their job as well as they can—there is not a mass consensus meeting or discussion amongst the entire hive about the role of these worker bees. For example, it is assumed they know best how to forage for food. Like the worker bee, the area of expertise of Wikipedia contributors may vary widely, potentially covering topics from Glee to String Theory. When one of these experts writes an entry, and then annotates and/or expands on it, we (in some sense) assume they are wise and perceptive in their particular field. Also, we assume these contributions have been vetted by that expert’s peers—not by everyone. So we, the non-expert readers, give respect.
With ants it is similar. Certain worker ants (all of whom are female) have designated tasks. A quick smell, via an antennae brush, identifies what a specific worker is best at doing—foraging, cleaning debris elimination, guarding—and no one tries to “tell them” how to do their jobs. There are no bosses. It is possible for the worker ant to switch jobs, but usually, as with humans, that opportunity arises when the colony is relatively young. After that, the job pool, one’s career, is more or less set. Though, there are always reserves of other ants underground that are recruited if a new food source suddenly becomes available (Thank you Deborah Gordon’s TED talk 2003).
One of the ways an ant figures out what is going on is oddly similar to the Google search algorithm—it “counts” how many encounters it has with a specific kind of worker. Based on these encounters, the ant can deduce that there is, for example, a major clean up in progress. Instructions and situations in progress are not “described,” but are inferred by the aggregate of encounters.
The consensus “rules” of OWS were (are?) possibly a more accurate example of real crowd (or democratic) decision-making. How did the OWS group, who struggled to maintain their leaderless and self-organized identity, ever make decisions? They endorsed the idea of consensus as opposed to voting. The word consensus comes from a Latin word meaning, “feel together”. Consensus means everyone (eventually) arrives at a place where they will give consent, although they might not be in 100% agreement. The distinction seems a little vague to me.
The well-reported use of hand signals, as a means of reaching this consensus, was adopted (microphones weren’t allowed due to noise restrictions) by the movement. One would be very tempted to ask who exactly decided that consensus would be the mode for decision-making? Who and how was that decision made?
Many of the participants found the assembly and consensus reaching process a bit tedious and boring—some would wander off from lack of interest.
Maybe the ants are on to something. They too have no leader (the queen lays eggs but doesn’t manage the colony via smell, as used to be thought) nor do they have a central control. On the surface, this sounds very democratic—even anarchistic. A completely leaderless society—that works! Although it might appear this way to us when viewed from a distance, you, as an individual ant, are very much programmed by your evolved instincts and your innate reaction to smells and behaviors. While having no leader might imply absolute freedom, there are other restrictions among insects. The leader, the guide, the rules, are not external, but are built into you as an individual.
Therefore, it statistically appears as if there is no free will in the ant colony. Each individual seems to go about their task without questioning things or stopping to ponder why or what for. But, maybe on the individual level, to each ant, they feel like there is, in fact, free will. Maybe they do agonize and make specific decisions. Maybe they have simply “learned” that following the aggregate tends to give the best results for the colony as a whole. They may feel that they have made a personal decision to join along with everyone else; they may also feel that they have acted of their own free will and are not forced into joining a specific program or activity. They’re acting in consort because, from their point of view, they want to…. or so they may be telling themselves. Maybe, their “government” is internalized.
According to Gordon, when you look inside of ant colonies, the behavior seems pretty haphazard. They’re not the well-oiled, smoothly functioning machines we might expect from a species that has survived for millions of years. As in human society, the behavior of individuals is not predictable. We all, as individuals, appear to be acting on our own—but just as it is with the ants, there is a kind of decision-making based around aggregate behavior. I’m not sure how this translates exactly—how this process works with people. Does it mean that if everyone is “drinking the Kool-Aid,” I intuitively “decide” that I should too? If everyone watches Kim Kardashian, then I better join the bandwagon and do what everyone else does? If the ants appear to have some sort of free will on an individual level, but in actuality it is mostly an illusion, does the same apply to us?
How Does Anything New Come Into Existence?
I’m curious as to whether or not what we call creative works can come into fruition as a result of the contributions of countless individuals. Must a creative work inevitably be guided by the tyranny of one person’s vision—or at least a very small group (Pixar films, for example)? Can the crowd write a great novel? A symphony, or pop song? A feature film? (Hollywood films are notoriously made by a committee—and the results speak for themselves). Do we all have a kind of innate (possibly unconscious) wisdom that can profitably guide us to influence and direct the track and arc of a creative work? Do these deep instincts, if trusted and tapped into accurately, and without bias, result in a work that is inevitably true? Is this why we feel cheated when a Hollywood movie has an obviously happy ending tacked on? Do we sense that the instinctively “true” ending was abandoned? Or, is this why the happy ending was tacked on in the first place? Is the happy ending what we instinctively want in a narrative? (Is this making any sense?). If, to some extent, a sense and structure of narrative is innate, then are authorship and writing skill overrated? Superfluous?
A parallel to the question of how new works come into being are some ideas that seem to be related to collective creation, but that might not really be the same at all. Are open-ended works (e.g. video games in which the players determine details of the story) and self-generating works—such music and visual programs that accept outside input but are designed to endlessly generate content on their own—truly collectively created works?
There is an established tradition of what are called indeterminacy in music—a not so new idea that has now migrated to digitally programmed works (musical and otherwise). In these earlier musical works, used by John Cage and many others, the player was allowed to determine how long to hold a note—and sometimes, what note to play from a set of given choices. Terry Riley’s “In C” is like this, as is Cornelius Cardew’s “The Great Learning.” These are all works that almost always end up sounding wonderful, despite being as open ended as they are. The marvel is why they don’t go off the tracks. We expect that, given free reign, chaos will inevitably result. Though, it doesn’t seem to—not always, anyway.
Maybe what is key is that the overall shape of the work has been cleverly pre-determined. There is free will involved in the choices the players are given, but within very severe limitations. One might say that this process is a way of fostering the illusion of free will. Maybe it proves that these compositions and social mechanisms, when cleverly “designed” can appear as though they allow for free will but, in actuality, they involve lots of restrictions—which have the effect of guiding the structure and the finished work to be something beautiful.
Cage used other devices to introduce chance and randomness into the “decision-making” process, but the “programmer” was always lurking. More recently in music, this process has been moved into the digital realm—with algorithms that do their best to randomize the choice of notes, along with other aspects of a composition. The Buddha Machine is a good example of this—a transistor radio sized device that plays endlessly changing sounds, chosen by the program, from a given set of notes and sounds. There is, as one would expect, no arc to these compositions—no beginning, middle and/or end. They are merely states of being, not substitutes for narrative.
These indeterminate scores can be viewed a bit like the literature that emerges out of oral traditions—the great epics and sagas. The process is not so different than what occurs in a lot of folk music as well—blues songs that get passed from area to area and subtly altered each time someone new sings them… but the main thrust of the story and the song tends to remain consistent. Everyone recognizes the song despite every interpretation being absolutely distinct.
There was a text version of this process called Consequences. It’s a bit like Mad Libs, though it originated much earlier (pre-1918). One creates a sentence by filling in the following blanks (from Wikipedia, of course):
1. A Man's name
2. A Woman's name
3. A Place name
4. He said to her…
5. She said to him
6. The consequence was… (A description of what happened after)
7. An outcome
Then the resulting “story” is read (for example):
Scary Bob met voluptuous Alice at the zoo. He said, "This is delicious.", she said, "Hit me baby one more time." He gave her a red rose, she gave him cholera. The consequence was that they eloped to Mexico. The world said, "the femme fatale will always win".
Could one write a whole book this way? William S. Burroughs used an aleatory (chance) literary technique that he and Brion Gysin popularized, called cut-ups. Cut-ups are created in two steps: by cutting a finished text into pieces and rearranging the words and then, by folding the linear text and looking for resonant bits of text when overlapped and placed next to one another.
There is the visual equivalent—collectively produced artwork like the Exquisite Corpse drawings. The Surrealists created these images based on an old parlor game. The idea is that 3 or more people contribute to a “body” by drawing on a folded piece of paper and then passing it around without knowing what the next person will contribute below the fold. Restricted by the rule that one is obliged to draw either the upper, middle or lower portions of the body the resulting monsters are, yes, beautiful and strange things whose authorship we could say belongs to an invisible 4th entity.
Here is a Chimera collectively drawn by Joan Miro, Man Ray and Yves Tanguy. They sort of didn’t adhere to the normal rules (in which you are to add normal body parts appropriate to your segment):
I’d argue that all of these forms are in fact authored. The programmer that sets the ball in motion, the one who determines the set of simple rules is, in these cases, the author. While you often get marvelous things through these algorithms, I’d be inclined to think that what you don’t get is a coherent story arc, complex characters or even a consistent vision—musical, lyrical or visual. That is, unless the framework has already been provided by a “programmer.” Follow a framework modified with embellishments, modification, additions, etc.—as in the oral tradition of storytelling—and, as a result, you get a coherent form.
Some of our most resonant works of literature have emerged out of the tradition of oral storytelling and do not have a single author credited. The tales of the 1001 Arabian Nights, for example, is composed of stories that have all been embellished, edited, written and molded by an unknown multitude of individuals over a long period of time. The stories hold up, and continue to move us today, as do the folk tales collected by the brothers Grimm. The Mahabharata and the Ramayana epics are similarly composed by a host of unknowns, as is the Bible. These all were all derived from oral traditions—in which each storyteller would add subtle embellishments and refinements to suit the local culture, time and place. The basic story arc would tend to be maintained and serve as a skeletal framework—though, in many cases, we can see where successive refinements over time completely altered the “message” of the tales. We know this because people wrote down some of these tales at different stages of their evolution and transformation.
The Old Testament tales are, in many cases, embellished versions of stories that were told (sometimes even written down) for hundreds of years. Though, by the time the stories came to exist as they do today, they had already morphed into tales that emphasized the overthrow of the older matriarchal society and spirituality by a more rigid patriarchal one. (There’s a very nice analysis of this in the back of the Crumb comic version!)
Even though these particular tales changed their emphasis in a majority of cases, usually not too much fundamentally changed in the narrative framework. The embellishments were mostly superficial… until the cumulative effect of the changes became something more profound. When reading these works, one can often sense the fragmentary nature of the chapters and episodes—many of which contradict one another. At other times a plot point or explanation is dropped for political reasons, leaving one wondering why there was a sudden shift in tone of a story or the behavior of a character. A single author would be less likely to contradict him or her self. But often, if we take each single episode—such as a single Grimm’s tale or one of the tales out of the Arabian Nights—it is often consistent, incredibly well constructed, efficient and resonant—like a tool honed by use over centuries.
These stories behave like living creatures that have evolved over time—adapting themselves, over and over again, to the psychological needs of the listeners and the creative embellishments of the narrators and their audiences. They’re not, and never were, fixed stories with an Ur version—there never was a primal text. They survive and maintain their resonance by mutating, changing and adapting to the world around them. As soon as they become fixed, they die (in a sense). They become a work that is somewhat ossified—rooted in a specific time and place. Then, the core narrative quickly resurfaces in another form—a film, TV show or popular novel.
Folk, blues, house music, pop, hip hop and lots of other musical genres might be viewed the same way—not so much as individual songs or acts of unique creativity, but as the cumulative result of many creative narrators pitching in to tweak a form that already has a given and collectively accepted shape and framework. The equivalent of the narrative arc of a story is already there in these song forms, and we songwriters, producers and singers are the storytellers in our own oral tradition—putting our own spin on an existing form, but not making substantial changes in the form itself. The point is, a lot of music that we think of as being individual acts of creation might actually be narrators contributing to what might be viewed as a larger epic work.
Though I am not a griot or epic bard, I am in my home studio making subtle adjustments and contributions to a form that came before me, and will later be picked up by others. I have the illusion of free will, of creating work and forms from scratch, but I am merely embellishing. Of course, successive embellishing will eventually lead one far from home…
That said—I believe I lean towards work that has a consistent vision. Don’t we want to feel that the version of a song, movie or narrative we have just spent time listening to, reading or absorbing is consistent—that every part was considered by its author, so as to adhere to a coherent vision? We assume that collective works don’t have the same intention as authored works. This view doesn’t totally exclude the author as a creative contributor to an ongoing epic storytelling effort though, as one still might hope for consistency from a narrator, songwriter or storyteller, even if the individual works that result are essentially modifications of something recurring and familiar.
Architecture Without Architects is the title of a wonderful picture book, by Bernard Rudofsky, that came out in 1964. The pictures are presented as evidence that exquisite, “authorless,” architecture has existed for thousands of years—and that, despite not being designed by one person, it rivals individually designed works in beauty and, above all, practicality. One might view the simple and elegant furniture of the Shakers the same way. The buildings Rudovsky chose evolved much in the same way folk stories and oral narratives did—to best meet the demands of each place and society, while also maintaining an aesthetic and spiritual appeal.
Was the latter aspect an unintended consequence of meeting local and practical needs? Could one say that these entities that have evolved over time tend to be beautiful because we recognize that some deep parts of ourselves are expressed and manifest in them? Is the beauty a layer that is, in fact, serving another equally practical function that is as important to human beings as keeping out the cold or ventilation? Is the need for beauty and elegance also something practical?
It seems that the beauty these buildings possess is not an aspect added on, an appliqué, but an integral consequence of every other aspect of these kinds of works. When every other aspect is true and integrated, maybe you automatically get beauty. These buildings and houses have evolved so that they have a spirit of life deeply ingrained in them. By recognizing this, by sensing that these qualities are in there, we find the resulting structures beautiful.
In his book Rudovsky includes single-family homes, as well as monumental works.. All of them were molded over time by a kind of collective will and impulse; none were built by just one designer. The design is not open to anyone-—it’s clear that not everyone in the community would have voted on where the chimneys go—there are folks who know how to thatch a roof, for example, better than others. But, it’s the evolutionary process that tells the community, and the specialized workers within it, that maybe there is, indeed, a best place for a chimney or a best size for eaves—and that this wisdom shouldn’t be ignored.
Here is a vernacular plantation house in Hawaii and the Sankore Mosque in Timbuktu:
There are other types of architecture, not designed by “individuals,” and these are not so different from the mosque above—like these giant termite mounds in Australia (near Darwin):
Here’s a cross section—they’re not just mounds of dirt or refuse from the tunnels:
The chimneys and air vents from underground allow the hot air, in the parts of the world where these things are built, to escape—so that the precious nurseries deep inside can maintain a constant temperature. It’s a fairly sophisticated bit of building and HVAC for a creature whose brain is the size of a pinhead. However, one might say that if you combine all of those pinheads, you get a more substantial mental capacity.
However, I’m not sure size is what matters. Heh heh. A fairly simple algorithm—rules and behavior that don’t require a lot of brain cells—can set in motion what, in retrospect, seems like a very complex bit of creation. So if over time evolution arrived at a structural solution by adapting to the situation at hand, and by using just a few rules, When these rules are set, the mental capacity of each individual doesn’t have to be so “big” at all. Everyone (or all of the workers anyway) can, and does build these incredible things instinctually.
Recently, there was a short film posted on the web of some scientists who poured concrete into an anthill to see what the network of nurseries and tunnels might look like. After the concrete (10 tons of it!) set, they painstakingly dug away the surrounding dirt to reveal an entire (miniature) futuristic city.
Here’s a blurry still:
And a blurry close-up of passageways and chambers:
And a link to the video (it’s short):
It’s easy to see how incredibly impressive the city is that these little things constructed. Overlap this town over a medieval city in Europe, in the Maghreb or in the Middle East, and one might see an almost an identical layout. It makes one think that: (A) we haven’t come so far, and (B) maybe the “hive mind” concept is more literal than metaphorical. Maybe we have retained elements of the insect mind, and we use and are guided by that, to order, build and organize our own cities. Like storytellers and songwriters, maybe in urban planning, we are merely embellishers too—we are reworking the same forms over and over, making slight adjustments to fit our own needs.
Others have preferred to view the social insects, not as social cities composed of individuals, but as single super organisms—more like one being made up of millions of semi-autonomous crawling “cells.” This would mean that these towering termite mounds and the tunnels of the ant colonies might represent the clothing or shell that belongs to a collective whole being. The mound is like the skeleton and the skin of a large creature. This view makes the cooperation of the little critters seem more like the cooperation and symbiosis of the cells and bacteria that make up our own bodies. The chambers are like the organs in our own bodies—each with its specific function and specialized job functionaries.
If we make that leap, then we too can be seen as sophisticated works of “soft” architecture. Just like the cities of the ants, bees and termites, one would never imagine that our little cells would be able to individually make and organize a structure as complex as we are. If we reorient our viewpoint, and can see ourselves as a kind of ant colony, we get a frightening insight that maybe our sense of free will is not much more than that of the ants and termites. Our most beautiful cities, and maybe we too, are not much more sophisticated than those of the social insects.