Innovation and community

I went to my second likemind this morning, and once again really enjoyed the coffee and conversation.

One person at the table where I sat posed the question of how an artist can be unique or “deviant” in today’s society. There used to be a well-defined mainstream that you could rebel against and do your own thing, with recent examples being rap, punk music, and hiphop. But the mainstream has caught up and reintegrated all of those things. In some sense, there is no way to leave the mainstream because even if you rebel, somebody’s already done that, so you’re just joining a different community. We’ve experienced waves of rebellion, with the hippies rebelling against the Eisenhower 50s, and the greed is good yuppies rebelling against the hippies in the 80s, and the bobos rebelling against both in the 90s, etc. It seems like it’s all been tried, which is the frustration that this artist was expressing.

I was a bit skeptical, as it seems like anybody declares there’s nothing new to do, truly innovative things start happening very soon afterwards, such as the discovery of quantum mechanics and relativity soon after classical physics thought they had things wrapped up with Newton and Maxwell. But it was an interesting question.

My take on it was that “rebelling” these days often means just leaving one community and joining another, with the “we will all be nonconformist together” sentiment. I think the really innovative stuff is going to come out of integration of communities, to stay in the first community and bring elements of other communities into it. I’d been meaning to blog about a recent post by Grant McCracken where he emphasizes the importance to innovation of incorporating multiple perspectives, and it ties in nicely with this theme. This is also reminiscent of the idea of “productive friction” from The Only Sustainable Edge. It’s at the interface between communities that truly new ideas will be sprouting.

Part of this is a consequence of how much effort it takes to be at the center of a community. Another person at the table used the world of fashion to illustrate that point – the high-end designers at the center of the world are consumed with staying at the bleeding edge of fashion, and must continue to move quickly to stay ahead of the mainstream. Their ideas move out in concentric circles, to the fashion-aware people, then the people who read fashion magazines, and outward still to Target and WalMart shoppers, who don’t have to pay attention as the innovations from the bleeding edge have long since been absorbed into the majority. But because everything in this world moves faster now, the adoption into the majority happens on the order of months or weeks instead of years, so the fashion insiders are in the Red Queen’s Race, running ever faster to stay in the same place.

In technology, the same phenomenon is called Crossing the Chasm. Music has its own structure, with the hipster insiders flocking to Pitchfork to keep up with what’s current. Design, architecture, art… all of these communities have similar adoption patterns. You can be a total insider in one community and be a total outsider in another. In fact, you almost have to be because being an insider requires such a deep level of commitment.

Sine Wave Interference, by Matthew KleinSo I have this lovely image of rings of innovative ideas radiating outwards from these different communities throughout the world, and the rings creating these amazing interference patterns like waves, sometimes interfering constructively and sometimes destructively, with different people in different places on the map depending on their level of commitment to the various communities. And the really nifty new ideas will be where somebody is located at an interesting location where constructive interference is happening. I think there’s a real incentive to establish links to as many insiders as possible, to hear what’s happening first and see if you can figure out how to tie it all together.

Is there nothing new under the sun? Perhaps. But there are always new combinations to try. And I think that finding those combinations will be the challenge moving forward, as more people are caught up in the Red Queen’s Race in this world of increasing specialization. I’m still trying to figure out how to rebel from that scenario, as discussed here and here. We’ll see what happens.

P.S. To give attribution where it’s due, the actual image to the right above is taken from Matthew Klein.

P.P.S. Another likemind attendee handed out postcards with illustrations of the SoraPot, a teapot he had designed. Very slick. I just wanted to include a link to it because I liked it.

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