From time to time on various so-called social media someone suggests, when looking for inspiration, insight or guidance, grabbing a book at random and looking at some random sentence on some random page — say, the 3rd sentence on page 43 for example. When I just did this I came up with this sentence from The Fourth Turning:
“What [the early European migrants to North America] did not seek — indeed, what they were fleeing — was a pagan resignation to the seasonality of nature.”
Likewise when you seek guidance from the Tarot or the I Ching (card above is from the Pen Tarot, and is one of two cards — the other being the Hanged Man — that most often come up when I ask questions about my purpose or role in life. I don’t believe in divination, but sometimes playing with the random can provoke insight that rational inquiry cannot.
And similarly when you draw at random from a trusted reference resource; such as the Group Works pattern deck for facilitators, from which I just drew, after asking the question “What should I keep in mind when leading the session on patterns in group process next Tuesday?”, the card shown at left.
Very wise, and completely random.
There is a certain magic in letting your mind entertain random things drawn from outside your normal stream of thinking, particularly if they juxtapose things that would not normally be thought of together. Once we get into a lot of habitual behaviours and thought patterns, these patterns can become deep ruts that entrain our thoughts and inhibit our imaginations and creativity, and may need a ‘bump’ to knock us out of them.
So, as someone who endlessly complains about our society’s imaginative poverty, I was intrigued to stumble upon a game called Big Idea from a prolific game designer named James Ernest* at Cheapass Games. While the game (which involves a very creative and novel sequence of steps investing in new startups with seemingly incongruous Big Idea products and services) was intriguing, I was more drawn to the two card decks that produce, at random, the Big Ideas that players have to promote and invest in in the game. One deck contains adjectives that hint at a feature (some rather silly, but then again maybe not?) of a new product or service, while the second contains nouns that generally define what that product or service is. In the game, you have to select one or more of the adjective cards and one of the noun cards in your hand to represent the springboard to a novel invention (the “Big Idea”) which you then have to promote to other players (“investors”).
Rather than playing the game, I just drew random combinations of adjective cards and noun cards, and then when my intuition was piqued about the possibilities it provoked, I wrote down the combination. When I ran out of cards the second time, I returned to the possibilities that I’d jotted down and played with them. It had been a long day and I was really tired, so after writing down my thoughts I fell asleep. Twice during the night I awoke and immediately wrote down other thoughts that seemed to stem from what my mind had been playing with. In the morning I had refined the list to eight ideas, and spent an hour playing around more with them. Here are the eight ideas and the thoughts I had about them:
- Colour-Changing Clothes:
- Biomimicry: using the ‘technologies’ of chameleons or butterflies (colour from light refraction), how might clothes be woven and ‘wired’ in such a way that they could change colours on demand, so one item could be used in multiple wardrobes? And if it works for clothes, could it also work for changing the colour of your house’s walls, or that of your furniture upholstery?
- Pheromones: what if some items of clothes could change colour based on the chemicals being given off by the wearer, reflecting unspoken moods?
- Instant Vacations:
- Last Minute Getaways: how might ‘last-minute clubs’ who buy up unsold tickets and resort rooms just before the travel date, tap into vacationers’ preferences (per a pre-completed questionnaire about your ‘dream’ vacation, or your TripAdvisor reviews etc.) so that you could be offered a completely organized, ready-to-fly package on the spur of the moment that matched closely exactly what you like to do on a vacation?
- Surprise Vacations: using the same intelligence on preferences as above, might adventurous people enjoy signing up for a vacation where they wouldn’t be told where they’d be going or what they’d be doing until they actually arrived at their destination?
- The Herb Game:
- How might a multi-sensory game teach you all about herbs — what they smell and taste and look like, how to use them for health, in cooking etc.?
- Perforated Cement:
- Cement is heavy and its production is environmentally destructive, consuming huge amounts of water. Could new technology reduce its weight, cost and destructiveness without reducing its strength?
- Reflective Clothes:
- For Beach Wear: Could reflective fabrics reduce the weight and cost of beach wear and keep the wearer cooler?
- For Fun: Could a reflective fabric make the wearer look almost invisible, reflecting instead the world in which the wearer moves?
- Invisible Laundry Machines:
- Washers and dryers take up space and generally look ugly. How might we hide them in plain sight where they aren’t noticed, and/or fold them up and away or repurpose their surfaces and interiors, or build these functions right into the cupboards where the clothing is stored, so their space is freed up for other uses? What other lessons from innovative ‘tiny homes’ can we apply to every home?
- “Training” Government:
- What if you had to complete a multi-year program as a member of a simulated “government”, where your decisions and their effect were recorded, tracked and made public, before you were permitted to actually run for office in a real one?
- The Facebook Birthday Aggregator:
- Every year people send notes to others on their birthdays; it’s often a pain for both senders and recipients to track and manage these. Could an automatic service track everyone’s birthday messages and use the data to prepare a single aggregated birthday ‘card’ (electronic and, if desired, hard-copy as well) with all your messages together, perhaps along with additional functionality (card designs, multimedia attachments etc.)
Of course not all these ideas would prove to be viable (technically or in the consumer marketplace). I’m just using this to illustrate the power of throwing things together at random to stimulate new ways of thinking. How might we enable inventors and other creative people to do this more often and in more different ways. Could we discover analogous ‘random idea stimulators’ that would boost imagination and creativity in other domains (music, film, poetry, design etc.)?
The ultimate application of such creativity-boosters would be, to my mind, in environmental conservation and in preparation for collapse. What improbable juxtaposition of concepts, features and ideas might spark some realization on how we could make cavernous and energy-wasting homes appear to be large and spacious, for example, without actually being so? And how might we, by shaking up all our ideas about how to live and make a living, get people to imagine and role play and get excited (rather than terrified) about living in a community with no private automobiles, no private land or buildings, no distant centralized institutions, no schools or prisons, no imported or processed food, no corporations, no need for money or ‘jobs’?
Playing with randomness. Genius.
* This guy is freaking brilliant. In this presentation he invents a poker-like game called Da Vinci in which players who fold can sell their cards to players who are still playing. Over the years I’ve co-invented dozens of intriguing poker variants, but not once did this game-changing idea occur to me.