Imaginative Poverty

In my story of Myron the Pig, I had Myron explain our species’ imaginative poverty this way:

Because you live in such an artificial world, a world of your own making, where you are told so forcefully what is and what is right, you have lost your imagination. While I get great joy from imagining what it would be like to be a crow, soaring up in the clouds and spying my own dinner, earning it myself, or to be a firefly, you humans have lost that imagination, you have forgotten what it is to be in the real world. If you could only imagine, really imagine, what it is to be a crow, or a firefly, or a pig, you would not live the way you do. You could not.

In my recent e-mail dialogue with Dick Richards after my review of his book Is Your Geniius at Work?, I wrote:

Perhaps my Genius is Imagining Possibilities. That’s what my Innovation Consulting practice is about, on behalf of my clients. It’s what my ironically-named novel The Only World We Know is about, about a better, future world. It’s what my book on the potential of new-age entrepreneurship, Natural Enterprise, is about. It’s what my book on Innovation and Knowledge Management, The Cost of Not Knowing, is about. It’s what my newest book idea, The Generosity Economy, is about. It’s what my poetry and short stories, often set in dream-worlds, are about. It’s why I love learning. It’s what I was doing in my own fantasy world for most of my childhood. It fits with what I’m most often, and I think most unfairly, criticized for: Idealism. It explains my nightmares and my recurring depression, and why I’m so unhappy with my tendency to procrastinate. And it’s “on Purpose” of my purpose: Provoking Change.

The ironic moral of Myron’s story is “If you can’t imagine, you can do anything”. The corollary, which is not ironic, is that If you can imagine (the consequences of your action or inaction, a better way to live, etc.) you can’t not do anything — you have to act.

I have explained the difference between imagination and creativity in previous articles. I am relatively imaginative, conjuring up opportunities, ideas, worlds from a strange juxtaposition of ideas and learnings and readings and experiences, a mixing of neurons in my brain, especially in moments when I am able to let go, when I am under the influence of dreams, or music, or in the company of children or the rhapsody of nature. I am not that creative: I have no patience for the details of bringing something I’ve imagined into practical existence in the real world. My job is to pay attention to what is, and to imagine what is possible; the creative people can take it from there.

Bucky Fuller, among others, often made a point about how our education system grinds the imagination out of young people. Einstein said imagination was more important than intelligence. Who or what do we blame for the rapid loss of imagination as we ‘grow up’, and the resultant imaginative poverty of our society? After all, a good imagination has been selected for in our evolution: It is what allowed us to invent languages and mathematics and models of what did not already exist, which has been critical to our adaptive ability and hence our survival.

But in a modern, homogeneous society, do we still need imagination? I think it’s possible that in a hierarchical, overcrowded, enormously interdependent society imagination is an evolutionary disadvantage: It breeds dissatisfaction, nonconformity and discontent, and it suffers in an environment of homogeneity and monoculture. Even language, which has been shown to affect the way in which our brains are structured as we grow, drives us to think in linear, traditional, established ways. So I would argue that over the last 30,000 years imagination has been bred out of the human gene pool, and what survives is systematically squelched long before the school system has the chance to inflict further damage on it. Imagination can be frightening, and our society ridicules fearfulness (except of things prescribed by the government, the media and our peer groups as ‘reasonable’ to fear). I think we actually learn not to imagine.

Take a look at the cars we drive — all horrifically similar, even the special edition vehicles we pay a premium for. Take a look at the houses we live in, “little boxes made of ticky-tacky and they all look just the same”. Take a look at the way we dress, even those of us in the so-called ‘counter-culture’: We’re learning that we can’t jam the culture, and the illusion of individuality is just a means to coopt us into conformity so we all buy what is convenient for the mass merchandisers to sell us. Take a look at the porn on the Internet and see how little imagination it exhibits. Those who imagine too much are disparaged as dreamers or idealists, and admonished to pay attention to authority and “not be rude”. And since most of us as customers have so little imagination, and are so prone to conform, there is little incentive for producers to seek out imaginative people and introduce imaginative products that might stimulate a little more imagination. As Kal Joffres says, “For a lot of companies, being ‘innovative’ means hiring better and more edgy designers for their products.” So I think we can share the blame for imaginative poverty pretty broadly.

What can we do about it? Like any other capacity, imagining needs to be practiced, or we lose it. In an earlier post I suggested these ten ways to practice it:

  1. Pay attention
  2. Spend time with children
  3. Remember your dreams
  4. Change your point of view
  5. Collaborate
  6. Transport yourself
  7. Improvise
  8. Break the rules
  9. Believe, and make believe
  10. Get away from the media

As for changing our culture to make it more appreciative of imagination, I wouldn’t hold your breath. Necessity is the mother of invention, and when our civilization starts to run into a series of walls later in this century, and realizes it needs more imaginative approaches, you, or at least your children and grandchildren, if you’ve encouraged imagination in them, will be ready to meet that challenge. And in the meantime, you’ll be making their lives richer. But you’ll also be making their lives more difficult: They’ll likely be more discontented, impatient, and non-conforming.

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7 Responses to Imaginative Poverty

  1. Lawrence says:

    “As for changing our culture to make it more appreciative of imagination, I wouldn’t hold your breath.”Just change what you can change: your own living environment, those close to you, those willing to engage in serious dialogue because they sense some kinship with you through your words. That’s the only concrete thing that matters. Vast vague thought-constructions like “our culture” only have as much power as you choose to invest in them.Though… I don’t want to suggest that one must limit oneself to a small, fixed sphere of influence. Those who understand best how to keep imagination thriving in their own selves will be the ones best equipped to weave that power into tomorrow’s societies.

  2. Dave — whenever someone “accuses” me of being an idealist, I tell them, “Yes. Somebody has to be. It might as well be me because I am good at it.” We are a minority, so have to stick together, perhaps for those times when we are needed, but at least for our own sanity. A man whose art is welding, and who demonstrates his art in schools (the kids think the blue flame and helmet are really cool) once told me that when he asks a class of first graders if they are artists, they all raise their hands. When he asks second graders, some raise their hands. When he asks third graders almost none raise their hands. Imagination will thrive when we insist that it is as important to nurture as the traditional 3 Rs. What we now do is kill it.

  3. medaille says:

    Culture, as it is important to the brain and thus peoples actions, comes all sources that help unconsciously reinforce patterns that influence our actions. The root influence comes from hard, well-defined things. Things that can’t be changed by culture, but can only be changed by conscious action and choices. This is infrastructure. This is all of the institutions that make up our society. This is the way that we are forced to interact with our environment. All other cultural influences (meaning media, peoples thoughts, etc) are malleable and will adjust unconsciously to conform to the static forces. This is what happens when people deal with their environment because “that’s the way it is.” No one questions the fact that the world is set up to be a rigged game. It is set up to promote conformist behavior. It is set up to prevent people from living up to their potential. All they see is that “That’s just the way the world is.”There is nothing vague about our culture. You just have to pay attention. It’s easy to see. Just try to be aware of the decisions you make. The ones that you make without fully thinking about are most often a result of your culture, but sometimes a result of your past decisions (tendencies –> self-culture?) If you pay attention, you can see in real-time when the “world” tries to push you to do something without you thinking about it. The other day, I was trying to buy shaving cream and I wanted it that day. I also wanted to not buy it from a huge reseller like Wal-mart or Target or the like. It occurred to me that I had no idea where I buy it from. I figured that it would have to be a barbershop or a salon, but I never paid attention to what kind of products they sold at places like that besides hair products. This is an example of how my own past choices continue to influence present day decisions in a manner that I am unhappy with. It would have been very easy for me to have just gone to Target and bought some shaving cream, because that is the first place to go for generic items required for daily life. It required a conscious effort to prevent me from making an action that I would later be dissatisfied with.That is why it is not wise to focus only on “your own living environment” or a “small, fixed sphere of influence.” It requires conscious thought to maintain that influence and most actions/decisions aren’t made by the conscious. Most are made by the unconscious. If you mold the environment that people live in, they will unconsciously mold themselves around that environment and will make choices similar to what their culture is promoting them to do. We can either have a culture that promotes people to not have any time and to buy things as cheaply as possible because money is the most valued thing or we can have a culture that promotes social interactions over material possessions where they spend less time at work and try harder to maintain a healthy environment around them conducive to happiness. If you try to mold yourself to be something different than what your culture and environment promote, you are setting yourself up for an uphill battle because your environment will try to drag you to be at equilibirium with it.

  4. That is a really terrific way of saying it: “your environment will try to drag you to be at equilibirium with it.” The really sad thing here is how little responsibility most people assume for their part in creating their environment. It is, as Medaille has pointed out, a question of consciousness/unconconsciousness. I once addressed this issue with a group of employees in a manufacturing plant (in Canada BTW). They were at first stunned by and resistant to the notion that they “owned” the culture of the plant. It was, after all, largely a result of what they thought, said, and did. When they finally began to accept their responsibility (took some doing on my part) they were immediately able to recognize and decide on what to do differently. For example, “Let’s quit sitting around at lunch whining about management. Let’s figure out what we can do to make things better on our own.”

  5. Michelle P. says:

    Quote: “So I would argue that over the last 30,000 years imagination has been bred out of the human gene pool, and what survives is systematically squelched long before the school system has the chance to inflict further damage on it.” End Quote. … And so Man ‘decided’ that He didn’t need God anymore and could do it by himself. He lost a whole lot more than imagination in the process too – all that ‘stuff and nonsense’ became mere superstition and ignorance. He forgot where his resources came from and was ungrateful; He forgot how to live amicably with others now that He was the Centre of Everything; He chose to be blind to everything so that He could just look at the anything He desired; He learned to equate “wanting” with “needing” and forgot there was a distinctive difference between the two. Yes! Man has bred his reliance on the Eternal Perspective out of his system: to lose Faith is to lose quite a lot of imaginative potential.

  6. Dave Pollard says:

    Lawrence: Beautifully put. Together, we <i)are the culture.Dick: You sound like a Gatto/Illich fan (like me). Medaille: Exactly. We start with paying attention, and what follows is awareness, consciousness. And then from there, a little, gradual change and (sigh) a great deal of dissatisfaction.

  7. medaille says:

    It’s more like a plan with 2 simultaneous objectives. The first is to alleviate the symptoms, while simultaneously trying to cure the root causes of the pain. The closer you get to the root cause the less forces you’ll have to struggle against. It is far more effective to try to change the institution than it is to try to change the people that interact with it. If you start with concentration, awareness, consciousness, etc., there would be two ways of trying to achieve it. The first would be the difficult way (not difficult for one, but difficult for the masses to be directed towards), which would entail going around to people at various stages of their lives and trying to let them awaken or the like. The second would be to subtley shift the culture surrounding them to promote lifestyles that are conducive to obtaining those skills. This has a relatively fixed cost as it is based off of concrete items and could probably be calculated to an order of magnitude or so. Trying to convert people while they are receiving constant messages discounting yours requires more total cost as it is based on a per individual basis and since you are swimming upstream it requires more “effort.”

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