In The Information Age, You Can’t Google Good Ideas

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Synopsis

Passive accumulation of information does not flex our creative muscles, and potentially causes them to atrophy.

I’ve been reading The Art of The Idea, an excellent short book by John Hunt, a playwright and author and the Worldwide Creative Director of TBWA. The book outlines 20 pithy observations about creativity, from “No one orders a bouquet of beige flowers” to “We don’t know what we don’t know until we do what we don’t usually do.”

One observation—“I Google therefore I am (not)”—has stuck with me. Hunt writes about how information, once a scarce and expensive resource, has become a commodity. From the trivial (I receive an update every time my favorite baseball team scores) to the impactful (doctors can access patient history faster), easy access to information is one reason to be optimistic about the future.

But, as Hunt argues, it is also a reason to be skeptical. “Information, no matter how beautifully it is packaged or repackaged, does not equal an idea. Information is nothing more than the raw stuff that might lead you to something new. Having lots of it doesn’t make you any cleverer.”

On Twitter, Tyler Vigen describes himself as a “statistical provocateur.” His blog—Spurious Correlations—publishes graphs that compare data points that happen to correlate. Did you know that from 1999 to 2009 the “number people who drowned by falling into a swimming-pool” correlated with “number of films Nicolas Cage appeared in?” Yes, correlation does not equal causation, but Vigen is satirizing a larger problem. We’re confusing information with genuine insight, data with ideas, charts with knowledge.

Google’s Ngram Viewer is triggering the same problem. If you type in a word, name or phrase into the Ngram Viewer, Google instantly charts how frequently your entry appears in books since 1600. “Inequality” peaks in 1663 and is seldom mentioned until 1960. Then it increases over the subsequent decades up to the present. What can Ngram Viewer tell us about the history of inequality? Not that much. It doesn’t distinguish between, say, gender inequality and income inequality or location. Any mention of the word, be it from a book published in the UK or South Africa, counts. (Curiously, the use of “inequality” declines during the Gilded Age.)

Are we turning into amateur statisticians and historians when we should, as Hunt puts it, be cultivating our ability to “look for meaning rather than facts?”

People like Nate Silver show that the ability to find meaning rather than facts—to distinguish the signal from the noise—is not just a valuable skill. It is one of the most sought after and lucrative skills. More information means more misleading information. We need people to sort through the irrelevant stuff (batting average) and find the relevant stuff (on-base percentage).

That’s why I love Hunt’s insight. It’s tempting to equate finding good ideas on Google with generating good ideas on our own. I’m worried that time spent clicking through Wikipedia pages is time wasted on wrestling with an idea. Passive accumulation of information does not flex our creative muscles, and potentially causes them to atrophy.

“Ideas don’t come from existing facts,” Hunt concludes, “but from the holes we drill through them.” If that’s true, then we should put down our iPhones and sharpen our drills.

Still Interested? Check out A Five-Step Formula For Producing Ideas From 1940 and Playing Your Cards Right: How a Good Idea Became a $40 Million Game.

 

This article originally appeared at 250Words

Tags: causation vs. correlation, creativity in business, data, idea generation, information, information retention, john hunt, knowledge, sam mcnerney

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