The Positive Snob Dept.

By Serdar Yegulalp on 2014-06-22 10:00:00-04:00 No comments

The Early History of Smalltalk (1993) (Alan C. Kay)

A twentieth century problem is that technology has become too “easy”. When it was hard to do anything whether good or bad, enough time was taken so that the result was usually good. Now we can make things almost trivially, especially in software, but most of the designs are trivial as well. This is inverse fandalism: the making of things because you can. Couple this to even less sophisticated buyers and you have generated an exploitation marketplace similar to that set up for teenagers.

Reading that convinced me similar arguments could be made about the way our technology of creativity has become similarly juvenile. I'm not talking about the word processor, though, but the way creative ideas are explored and implemented.

When Mr. Kay talks about "the making of things because you can", it's hard not to be reminded of the whole flood of me-too social sites and automate-this-real-life-thing apps that have become synonymous with technological development lately. But more than that, I'm reminded of the way we have come to believe combining [zombies|steampunk|historical figures] with [mythology|dystopias|urban fantasy] is all that needs to pass for creativity nowadays.

It takes time to come up with a good idea, one which isn't simply a recapitulation of any two neighboring ideas in the surrounding culture — and it also takes a kind of distance and remove, a willingness to shut out the noise around you and focus on what's inside. Elsewhere in the same piece Mr. Kay notes that "point of view is worth 80 IQ points", something akin to a notion I've thrown around in these pages before: how you see something your way is what gives you the freedom to do things with it no one else can. It's hard to do that when you're surrounded by so many disincentives not to listen to your own voice and instead blithely copy everyone else's.

One other reason why things might be so easy today, and not in a good way, is how it's become acceptable in critical circles — not just conventional reader/viewer ones — to accept "bad" things as good. Meaning that people who create formulaic, workmanlike product are not seen in a bad light, because taste is relative, and everyone has a taste for something different — and if some people's tastes run towards relatively mindless stuff cobbled together out of this and that, something to take up a few hours of our life painlessly, who are we to say no to it? The very idea of having an elevated degree of taste, let alone making a case for it, seems downright quaint now the product of snobbism and elitism.

Let me make what I suppose amounts to a positive case for snobbery, then. Let's not elevate the good things because the bad things deserve to be shoved off the table. Let's do it because the good things deserve equal time, because without effort expended to let them share the limelight, they get crowded off the stage a little too automatically. Let's make a case for the truly original product, the kind original enough to get under your skin a little — yes, even the kind you might hate in the end. Better something that inspires a little active creative opposition or even deliberate re-invention, than one that just sits there and takes up space on the shelf.

Tags: creativity creators inspiration originality