Emerald Group Publishing Limited
Copyright © 2008, Emerald Group Publishing Limited
This is a fun book, if a little enthusiastic. Richard Ogle's Smart World rehearses key bits of twentieth century art history, business history, genetics, and neuroscience and that is a good deal less than the half of it. He looks at this interesting material from the perspective of network theory. It is all in the service of getting a handle on creativity. The “creative economy” is on the way to replacing the “knowledge economy,” and you learn to manage that messy stuff or get left behind (p. 2). His idea is straightforward: leaps of creativity do not take place in a vacuum or by accident. It is not scattering seeds on chancy ground. Creative leaps result from a dynamic interaction between the individual mind and its ideational context – what he calls the “extended mind” (p. 10). Genius is not the work of one person. The symbolic, semantic and technological fields in which we all swim function as networks, complete with nodes and, more importantly, self‐generating patterns for change. The individual mind picks up on the availability of a new node or “idea space” and lets it “think for him.” Ogle notes that the slide rule “thinks for you” (p. 11), so you have to go along with his use of the word if any of this is going to make sense.
Having cut my own mathematical teeth on an old K&E (that's short for Keuffel & Esser, an excellent slide rule, for those born too late to have used them), I can attest to some pretty muddled slide rule thinking. The governing thrust of the book is that by applying insights into how networks actually change and develop, you just might get some kind of handle on that singular and singularly profitable (an HBR book after all) creative insight that is going to be the NBT. That is the “next big thing” of course, but you know that already. This is a good book, if a bit of a mixed bag. It helps if you share the author's affection for energetic punched‐up prose – “breakthroughs” abound.
He applies these network theory insights to Picasso and Cubism, Crick & Watson, Barbie, the Apple II, Gehry and the history of architecture, Thomas Kuhn's paradigm shifts, Turner as a scientific painter, Guttenberg (the entrepreneur of printing), science and art, the dotcom boom, robots, T.S. Eliot, the Cambrian revolution, the Vietnam War Memorial, Napster and the Encyclopedia Britannica, to name just a few. Here is what he is up to: “Simply put, creative leaps arise from the imaginative and insightful transfer of powerful externally embedded intelligence from one idea‐space to another. Furthermore, when scientists, artists, architects, inventors and entrepreneurs make such dramatic advances, their achievements can be described in terms of network laws (p. 4) … . Applying well‐established principles of network science I have formulated a series of nine laws applying to the dynamics of the extended mind that enable us to begin to crack the code of creativity (p. 22) (all of this leaves him) … in a position to propose a powerful new theory of breakthrough creativity, a genuine science of ideas” (p. 72).
Retailing the nine laws (the fit get richer, the fit get fitter, tipping points etc. etc.) and retelling some great moments in art, business, history and science make up the bulk of the book. Get the book for the detailed readable brushing‐up on our cultural past, if for nothing else. If you have lost touch with what Cubism was all about, you won't find a better brief history and synthesis than right here. I am one of those ninnies who thought that Guttenberg invented moveable type, and boy did I get that wrong?! I also enjoyed his discussion of Turner's painting and its relationship to the science of the day. As he examines genius across these different fields, he does not always get it completely right. He says he is going to tell us, “How supersizing (sic) portions came about and how it became the most potent idea in the fast food industry since sliced bread” (p. 6). When I read that I coughed quietly and wanted to nudge him and whisper something about the corn lobby and the Farm Bill. Cheap corn, corn syrup, corn oil and other agricultural commodity bargains, courtesy of the American taxpayer, made that creative leap possible, not a genius fast food exec. That is the kind of “extended mind” businessmen always appreciate.
Ogle is mapping insights from network theory onto the creative leaps in many fields. He wants us to leave behind what he calls the “mind inside the head” model or MITH – Ogle likes acronyms and their economy of typographic hyperbole (p. 10). His effort is to turn your attention to the extended mind and its role in potentiating creative leaps. The straw man of the book is the notion that the genius acts in a vacuum. He fights mightily against that bit of conventional wisdom when I'm not so sure it's much of a contender these days.
The weakest part of the book, unfortunately for those who thought it was going to help them get creative, is the part where he wants to put all this neat mapping to work. In the final chapters he provides guidelines but they do not amount to much more than: pay attention to the right things changing at the right time. Would that we could do that! He more or less gives the game away when he notes, “… it is a defining characteristic of emerging networks that participants are blind at any given moment to the pattern that is emerging at the next highest level” (p. 110 – italics are his). Children of the 1960s, however, take heart! It all really may come down to being sensitive to the vibes: “The trick is to tune in to the dynamics of key networked spaces” (p. 114).