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Howard Gardner is a developmental psychologist and the John H. and Elisabeth A. Hobbs Professor of Cognition and Education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. He holds positions as[…]

A new culture of risk-aversion and crowd-sourcing is changing the traditional paradigm of the creative individual.

Question: How has the culture of creativity changed in the United States?

Howard Gardner: I think one of the good features about the United States—since I've been bashing it—is that it's built into our DNA to take a chance, and if we fail, to try again. And that's why, with the good and the bad, Hollywood, Wall Street and Silicon Valley all over the world are icons, particularly for young people, particularly young people with ambition. And I can remember back 30 years or so ago I had a steady stream of people from East Asia—Chinese, Korean, Japanese—saying, we want to be creative. Tell us the 23 steps to being creative, in order, please. And I kept saying it doesn't work that way.

Basically, I don't think I had the word startup. I said you've got to try something out, try to get some other people to support you, and if it doesn't work, what can you learn from it? And so I think it's in our national DNA. But creativity is completely neutral; it can be used—I mean, Osama bin Laden is very creative, and he's changed the history of the world, but I don't think we really want to engender more Osama bin Ladens. Bill Gates is very creative, but 20 years ago a lot of us were pretty critical about him, and I think, so to speak, he has redeemed himself by what he's done with his resources. So to me it's really wedding our, let's say the societal DNA for taking a chance, with doing something in a responsible way. One thing we have learned, though, from our research recently with young people—and this is kind of a surprise to me, and these are again rather privileged young people—is they're quite risk-averse. And this is especially in school; they want to know what's required of them, what's the right answer.

They don't want to take any chances there. And I even wonder if you take a look at Wall Street and the major peccadilloes of the last 10 years or so whether the young people were kind of getting signals from their bosses about what they're supposed to do and what they can do. So that's a rather different view of creativity than Thomas Edison, you know, alone in his lab, you know, coming up with new ideas and trying them out. So I guess what this soliloquy is convincing me of is, creativity isn't kind of a fixed entity over the time and over the milieu, and clearly the secret is to bottle up what we've done well, but not to assume that it's going to be done exactly the same.

Creativity used to be sitting alone in a garret in Paris, or tinkering with your test tubes in New Jersey, or being a patent officer in Berne, Switzerland. And now it's global. And how that takes place when everybody's connected to everybody else, and any art work can be initially not only transmitted, but morphed and Photoshopped and Flickr'd and messed around and so on. We need to have different analytic tools than we had in the days of solitary creativity.


Question: How has the internet culture changed people’s creative engagement?

What's interesting -- in our own studies we have what we call the Good Play Project, which is about kids and computers -- is that every child, every young person, is wired now, and most older people as well. The overwhelming use is either social networking, which is basically hanging around the front of school, but doing it now 24/7, wherever you are; gaming -- some games are intellectually challenging, but a lot of them are just can you get the other guy before he gets you? They're usually guys. Then -- and here I'm talking about the work of Mimi Ito in particular -- there's some what we call messing around, where people have ideas and interests and pursue them a bit, but the way -- in my day I would have read a book about something and talked to some people and gone another way.

And then there's what's called geeking or geeking out: people getting seriously interested in things. And that's still a small percentage of the population. Whether it's bigger than before I can't judge. And the -- I am old enough to have lived through the promises, the educational promises, of radio, television, the filmstrip, DVDs, CDs and so on. And of course, school hasn't changed very much. I do believe that the new digital media will change education radically and they will change workplace radically.


Question: How can the internet leverage non-expert participation?

Howard Gardner: A book that I just read on wiki government by Simone Noveck argues very persuasively that in thing like giving a patent we can make use of expertise in the population, and in fact it's probably imperative because there are way too many applications, and the Patent Office is overwhelmed, and it takes years for it to make a decision. And then they almost always say yes because they don't have a good argument to say no. Now if you simply were to post an idea for an invention and let everybody in the world say whether it should be patented, that's nonsense, because 99 percent of the people would have no idea about how to analyze it and wouldn't have the knowledge to know whether it was original or not.

So the idea of wiki government—and it seems to work in the patent area—is that people have to be technical enough to be able to read the stuff and to be able to comment in an appropriate way, and ultimately raters themselves will be rated the way they are on eBay, so if John Smith pipes up all the time, but what he has to say is nonsense, he gets a very low rating. And the decision in the end is made by the U.S. Patent Office, and they see which people to pay attention to and which not. That seems to me, on the face of it, to be a plan worth taking seriously. On the other hand, all you would need to have is three multinationals who decide to corrupt the process by pretending to fakery, the way many people on the left and the right have thousands of e-mails sent to a political candidate, and if the political candidate isn't sharp, they think it's their own constituents rather than, you know, IBM or whatever paying for it. Gaming the system is not going to disappear just because some people have a good idea of how to use lay expertise.

Recorded On: September 3, 2009