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When Scarcity is a Useful Resource

Nowadays, computer memory isn't a problem. You could write for hour upon hour, and day upon day and still not fill up your hard drive. Even then, if you did run out of space - and if your fingers were still up to it - you could get more memory. No - nowadays, the problem is seen in terms of structuring that memory in useful ways. But a couple of recent posts have made me wonder whether, with respect to creativity, the sheer quantity of memory we can access makes everything harder.

Paper and Personal Content Management
The first "in" was Dave Pollard's excellent post about Personal Content Management. (It's worth following the whole thread!). In it Dave mentions the durability of paper (and pen) as personal content management tools - a topic dealt with at some length by Malcolm Gladwell - and the value of paper shuffling. So I thought: Hmmm, paper.

Unclassified Ideas
One of the (many) interesting comments was

"knowledge workers" use the physical space of the desktop to hold "ideas which they cannot yet categorize or even decide how they might use."
So I had another thought - (two in the space of as many minutes!) - : Hmmm, unclassified ideas ...

Optimal Unfamiliarity
The second "in" was another excellent post, this time by Ton, where he suggests the notion of optimal unfamiliarity.

Basically to visitors a congress is a physical space to meet people to have interesting conversations with.

Which people? Well ideally one would want to see a mix of people you know or are familiar with, and people you are not familiar with. Only known faces would bring too little thought provocation, only strangers would make it difficult to get into deep conversations quickly. By having both the communities you’re already part of and new ones represented you’re sure to have enough to start conversations with, and can be sure of new insights and opposing views as well. Maybe we can call this balance Optimal Unfamiliarity.

Leonardo was a bright bloke
Now Leonardo da Vinci was a polymath. If you didn't know that, you could see it by looking at his notebooks. Many have no obvious structure and range from topic to topic on page after page. As well as being in that left-handed mirror writing he loved, while they do sometimes have one key theme per page, often they have a mass of unrelated doodlings and notes, seemingly put down wherever he could.

One of the causes of this randomness was constraint: financial, paper-is-so-expensive-you-make-sure-you-cover-every-inch-of-it-with-whatever-ideas-you-have constraint.

Constraint and Creativity
This is pure conjecture, but maybe that constraint helps creativity. Effectively, the ideas in Leonardo's notebooks may have started out related, but as the paper constraint told they became less obviously themed. My guess is that as he ran out of notebook space (memory) he used whatever space he could to jot down whatever ideas he could. And at that point the "memory-constrained" notebook becomes fertile ground for Arthur Koestler's bisociative thinking - seeing two unrelated thoughts and finding a link between them. Or in Ton's phrase, these memory-constrained notebooks optimised unfamiliarity.

Learning from Leonardo
So my theory is this: creativity can be (but isn't necessarily) helped by scarcity. Put another way, necessity is the mother of invention, and that necessity can be provoked by scarcity of memory. Serendipity, optimal unfamiliarity, lateral thinking - call it what you will - is helped by a lack of options. How does this apply to blogging, or Personal Content Management? Try finding something interesting to say based on, say, four random blogs and what you know.

You never know, it might be a good idea.


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