We use terms such as “idea,” “concept,” and “creativity” so frequently in our profession that it would benefit us to take a moment to put them in context. The field of cybernetics, which is the study of systems and feedback loops, provides excellent explanations for the terms “information” and “creativity.” Of use in this instance… Read more »
We use terms such as “idea,” “concept,” and “creativity” so frequently in our profession that it would benefit us to take a moment to put them in context.
The field of cybernetics, which is the study of systems and feedback loops, provides excellent explanations for the terms “information” and “creativity.” Of use in this instance is also its focus on relationships that work across disciplines, which examines the nature of difference (what might be called thinking about thinking or, perhaps, the systems of systems).
Gregory Bateson, one of the leading cybernetic thinkers of the last century, defines information as a difference that makes a difference. And what exactly IS difference? Difference only exists when comparing two or more things. It is not itself a thing but rather a relationship between things. And in order for a difference to make a difference, it must have some effect on an existing set of relationships. Think about the meanings of the colloquialisms “same difference,” “it makes no difference,” or “what difference does it make?” and you might see what I mean.
Bateson also provides clear explanations of creativity, of which we will look at two. For the first, he describes the emergence of creativity out of a context of contexts. Working in ethnography and anthropology, he uses the learning process as a feedback loop to elaborate how individual interactions inform larger relationships. Translating this to our design process presents a strategy for integrating scalar relationships: local sites are always implicated in global systems, with an intermediate scale that connects the two (or, as Bateson would say, a context of contexts of contexts). During the process of design, each scale has a characteristic set of information associated with it; but more importantly, these scales inform one another through feedback loops. Instead of reproducing the same information at multiple scales, we should consider that through careful calibration of their differences and similarities, scaled drawings form an ecology of diagrams. Bateson proposes the second useful conception of creativity as the ability to think through the problems in one discipline in the terms of another. He calls this transdisciplinarity, which evokes what we use as metaphor or analogy in design parlance.
We can see a history of this application of creativity as transdisciplinarity through some of the major “isms” of the last few decades of design culture. Postmodernism, as a reaction to the progressive homogenization and abstraction of modernism, took recognizable historical forms and recombined them to reintroduce meaning (difference at the level of type). Deconstructivism, in reaction to postmodernism and with creative import from linguistics, sought to question the meaning and structure of those forms through fragmentation and dislocation (difference at the level of system) and used collage as a representational technique. Shifting from fragmentation to integration, parametric design drew from biology and its use of phylograms (tree diagrams for illustrating classes of difference as family/genus/species), as well as employed progressive differentiation in the form of smooth gradients, as a formal aesthetic (difference at the level of detail). I think architecture has moved onto cartoons or something else now.
The image above abstracts the recent theory of horizontal gene transfer from evolutionary biology. It claims that genes may be transmitted “horizontally” among different species of microbes, in addition to the known vertical transfer that happens from organism to offspring as typical of all other species of organisms. Thus the drawing integrates the two major types of organization: the tree (hierarchical) and the web (networked).
We can use this diagram to illustrate Bateson’s two forms of creativity: that of the evolution of ideas as progressive differentiation (or one might say specialization) within families (or disciplines) as one moves from the bottom to the top (contexts of difference), and that of migration of ideas (transdisciplinarity) as one moves from one “tree” to another (the red lines, or “vines”) that form a network.