Imagining what can go right

"There are no days in life so memorable as those which vibrated to some stroke of the imagination." - Emerson

Sitting in JFK Airport in New York, a father and teenager carried on a New Yorkerly loud conversation about the Wii video game system (that's the one where you swing around the controller):

DAD: I wonder what will be next, the next generation?

TEEN: I think you'll wear gloves.

DAD: How would that work?

TEEN: You'd put on gloves and then every time you moved any finger, the system would react and make things happen.

DAD: But what about somebody who'd lost a finger.

TEEN: Yeah, well, that.

And then the conversation moved on before they could get stumped by the next idea-problem, a virtual-reality helmet for those without heads. But isn't that the way it is with creativity: Someone starts talking about "what if?" and then you veer off into "what then?" and the conversation peters out. The problem with engaging the imagination is that it veers into imagining what can go wrong.

What got me thinking about imagination was a new book, "Smart World" by Richard Ogle. I learned a lot. For instance, do you know Barbie's full name? Yeah, Barbie, the doll. Her full name is Barbara Millicent Roberts. And while I knew that Barbie's creator, Ruth Handler, had gotten the inspiration from watching her daughter trying to put paper clothes on paper dolls, I didn't know about Barbie's dark past -- her looks, and especially her figure, having come from a German doll "Lilli" derived from a golddigger/floozy cartoon character in a men's magazine.

Interesting, but then again, this is a serious book on creativity and taking such a book too seriously will make you less creative. Take for instance, Ogle's discussion of Barbie. We're told that her original clothing options included a girdle. There's a longish section devoted to that girdle, a discussion that begins, no kidding, "As any reader acquainted with classical Greek mythology knows, the girdle has resonances that go far beyond the need to compress the flesh." And that takes us to "the double aspect of the feminine the Greek goddess [Aphrodite] offered." The girdle discussion went on so long I confess to finding it more Freudian than Greek and decided that if a creativity consultant wants to borrow your Barbie, don't expect her to return home with all her undergarments.

And then Ogle gets to his "laws." There's The Law of the Fit Get Rich, for one, which sounds intriguing until we read, "This essentially Darwinian principle comes into play when a company is able to offer consumers a product with truly significant advantages over the competition." Ah, yes, offer a significant competitive advantage -- if only we'd thought of that.

Nevertheless, the book is worth reading for two thoughts alone. One is this quote from Kevin Kelly: "The acts of finding and creating are exactly identical; there is no conceptual difference." The other is Ogle's use of the term "idea space." This term is related to "paradigm" or "framing" but I like its concreteness, especially when Ogle compares the search for ideas to "navigation" through "search spaces."

This creates a visual representation of how idea generation actually works. You take a problem (or product), and you can see all the logical ideas that would flow out of it. (Instead of holding a stick with a Wii, you'd wear a glove.) However, you also can make a conscious decision to navigate into new idea spaces. You mentally travel into hyperspace and try out the product in other realms. You'd move the Wii into nightclubs, gyms, and classrooms to see what it might become in those spaces, then move the technology into distance medical diagnosis or physical therapy at home and so on. The idea travels and morphs into new ideas as it does.

In sum, the book "Smart World" becomes a metaphor for the generation of ideas itself: a lot of tinkering and tangents, a lot of misses, some of which are easy to poke fun at, and then there's that leap that makes it all worthwhile.

Dale Dauten is a syndicated columnist. He can be reached at dale@dauten.com.