March 28th, 2006


Want to think? Get a mask.

The Problem with Brainstorming is my new Wired piece (also available as a husky podcast). It's about a "creative ideation" or brainstorming session I participated in a couple of weeks back in a prestigious hotel on Park Avenue. At first I didn't want to do it (a friend recommended me -- as a "creative person" of repute -- for this brand-enhancement and extension exercise), but the gig was farcically well-paid and I'd noticed cash machines getting a bit iffy with their cash, so I agreed.

It began somewhat farcically, too. Crossing the darkened, chandeliered lobby in my sky-blue plastic Japanese fishmonger's pants and hoody, I was intercepted by a detective (heads of state stay here) and asked my business. "I'm here to help determine the future of this hotel," I said, rather grandly. The detective fixed me in a stare of utter disbelief, as if to say "Nobody who looks like that is going to determine the future of this hotel, dude!" Only after examining my invitation did he let me proceed to the elevator and ascend to the 18th floor, where brainstorming "facilitator" Mike was warming up a dozen "creatives", most of whom seemed to have come down from Connecticut for the day.

To be honest, I don't think I gave great value over the next eight hours. I suggested that the hotel might put plasma screens on its ceilings and project the Sistine Chapel. I suggested that they could make a VR HUD helmet which would give you the impression of being in the luxury of their hotel even when you were actually in the Bronx. I thought they might start an airline with beds and butlers, but didn't dare to tell anyone because I thought someone else might already have suggested it while I was daydreaming, gazing out at the Chrysler Building, or scribbling notes.

And what notes they were! Full of moral indignation, full of exactly the sort of judgementalism that brainstorming is so intent on suspending. It seemed to me that this hotel wanted to put its private brand on things that weren't yet owned, or were publicly owned. This seemed to me immoral, so I was working on ways for that to come full circle back to public ownership. How about if the hotel started its own nation, and everything it owned became the property of every citizen? The word "exclusive" came up time and again in people's ideas, so I wondered how "exclusive" might be pushed so far that it became "inclusive". Surely when more than 50% of the population of Hotelland were enjoying its "exclusive" products, they'd have to be considered "inclusive" products? I also thought about how the hotel, rather than concentrating on "guilty pleasures" and "the decadence of luxury", ought to be projecting an ethical image in order to become a good object for tender and liberal-minded people who care about stuff like the environment. I mean, even the wealthy need a world, right? Air, sea, that sort of stuff?

None of these perspectives got aired in the session, because none of them fitted the brainstorming model. When you're brainstorming, you suspend self and work in teams. That means you censor your moral, ethical and political beliefs, and all the interesting ideas they lead to. You can be collective when you're brainstorming, but you can't be socialist.

Let me just say that although I'm bad at brainstorming, I don't think I lack ability to come up with lots of ideas. I like to think I can take a "Uses of Objects" test into regions of the surreal with the best of them. Yes, this brick is going to be an object of worship to a Melanesian cargo cult and an ear plug for some being with only one big square ear. My problem with brainstorming -- or this particular session of it -- is that all the ideas inevitably led towards money-making schemes. I was certainly (if grudgingly) impressed by how good the Americans in the room were at thinking this way. They had practical business plans ("in the $300 to $400 million a year range") all mapped out within seconds of putting two ideas together ("dog kennel" and "cruise", for instance). They'd obviously been thinking this way for a long time, whereas my thinking was all about why such schemes wouldn't and shouldn't work. I felt very Calvinist in my grey "Nein No Non" t-shirt.

I have to face it, I'm just not good at suspending moral judgement. The silver lining is that I don't believe that because I'm judgemental I'm any less creative. In fact, being judgemental, being prejudiced (and this ties in with Malcolm Gladwell's ideas in Blink, I think) and trying to be ethical are ways for me to link unrelated things and come up with surprising new perspectives. Judgementalism is also a way to become emotionally invested in the subject, which, as I know from intense online debates, is sure to give me tons of motivation to think energetically about it. As a tiny example, bluesky brainstorming probably isn't going to produce an idea like "let's compare music gridlock to car gridlock", but judgemental thinking (by which I mean moral, ethical and political thinking integrated by a persona) may well.

It seems to me that whereas brainstorming breaks down the individual ego and gets people working in teams, judgemental thinking is personality or persona-based. You heighten and exaggerate certain facets of your real personality when you make an argument online, write an editorial, or haul yourself astride some highfalutin' moral horse, ready for some moral crusade. It seems to me that when you suspend moral judgement you suspend the integrated personality, or even just the useful fictional form of that, which is what we call "persona". And I believe that this suspension, far from facilitating originality of thought, cripples it.

I actually don't make much of a distinction between personality and persona; they're both fictions. Mostly, we try to make both our masks and our faces consistent, attractive and characterful, and this straining for consistency and conviction involves us in making efforts of associational creativity, efforts of imagination, that wouldn't otherwise happen. In fact, it seems to me that the idea of persona suspends the "rockist" part of the idea of personality (in other words, the idea that personality is authentic) in the same way that Alex Osborn's idea of the suspension of judgement liberates invention from the need to be practical.

In the Wired piece I point out how the masked ball nature of the internet -- it's anonymous and largely risk-free -- has led us towards a persona-type creativity rather than a brainstorming-type creativity. Brainstorming and "freewheeling" may have been hot in 1953 (freewheeling was still hot enough ten years later for Bob Dylan to drop the 1950s ad executive's favourite phrase into the title for his second album), but the internet has changed the way we think. We're all self-mediators now, free to split ourselves into numerous avatars. These avatars (what's your LJ handle? Is that the same as the person your parents named?) aren't quite fact, but they aren't quite fiction either. They're selections, edits, 100x100 pixel crops of our real faces or masks we find appealing. Battles, stories, relationships and contexts form around our avatars, giving them an ersatz reality which may come to exceed the reality we feel surrounds our actual names.

Want to think? Get a mask.