David Bowie’s reinventions

Innovators make a lot of experiments. Some work out. By the time we know, they have moved on. David Bowie comes to mind – and my friend Joe Donovan.


David Bowie died. I was up late watching a BBC documentary about him in the 1970s. He was a character trying out many musical roles. “I’m not very creative,” the musician said at one point. “I just like to keep up on the latest trends.”

Only a truly creative person would say that. Regular people try to be creative. There are books and seminars. Creative people may try not to stand out. It can be a struggle. People who go out of their way to appear creative usually aren’t the real thing. Real creative types are too busy exploring, falling down and getting up again.

In Wired to Create: Unravelling the Mysteries of the Creative Mind, authors Kaufman and Gregoire argue that the essence of creativity is the same in any field. Creative people tend to have diverse interests and try a lot of things. This helps them to see connections most of us miss. It’s not easy.

“Highly creative work blends together different elements and influences in the most novel, or unusual, way, [they write] and these wide-ranging states, traits and behaviours frequently conflict with each other within the mind of the creative person, resulting in a great deal of internal and extra tension throughout the creative process.”

The authors quote psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi: “If I had to express in one word what makes their personalities different from others, it’s complexity. They show tendencies of thought and action that in most people are segregated. They contain contradictory extremes.”

Bowie certainly explored many themes and styles throughout his life. He created musical personae. He acted on stage and in film. He was a writer and an artist. He moved in many worlds. When he first came to New York City as a young glam rocker from England, one of his musician friends took him immediately to The Apollo Theatre to check out this mecca of black music.

My late school friend Joe Donovan shared some of Bowie’s characteristics. I met Joe at St. Paul’s School in Concord, New Hampshire in the fall of 1968. We were entering the third form. He grew up in South Bend and told stories about tornadoes; his father taught at Notre Dame. I was from small town Nova Scotia. Like most third formers, we felt out of our league.

We ran cross country and one day after practice I talked to him about the novel Ulysses. I had just read the war novel HMS Ulysses by Alistair MacLean; he was talking about James Joyce. He was known for his wit.

Joe played the piano and, late at night, boogie woogie on the chapel organ. He played the bassoon in the school orchestra. He had many classical records on the Nonsuch Label and loved The Greatful Dead. He was the only third former to play in the 18-hour performance of Vexations by Eric Satie at Mem Hall.

At age 15 he studied Greek and read the I-Ching and Zap Comix. He wrote in an ornate hand with coloured ink and drew stylized cartoons and sketches with a Rapid-o-graph pen.

We were in France together for the last year of school and I got to know him better. We walked the cobblestone streets of Rennes. He made ridiculous comments. I laughed.

Arriving back in New York, we stayed with a friend in a huge apartment in the west seventies. In the fall he attended Columbia. He came out. He discovered the Apollo. I visited him a few times, checking out jazz concerts at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. We lost touch.

When we reconnected years later he had bulked up from swimming and running. He was HIV positive but took medication and was healthy for many years. We went shopping for supper in the neighbourhood. He wore a beret and joked with the clerks.

He got into bowling and sang with the New York City Gay Men’s Chorus. “Imagine a rehearsal,” he told me. “Two hundred guys sitting around talking about Judy Garland.” He had a shrine in his West End Avenue apartment in memory of the girlfriend of his friend, Joe 2. She had died of cancer.

Bowie preferred to compose on his first instrument, the saxophone. He wrote, acted and influenced the world of fashion, marrying model Iman. Even his name was made-up. He was born David Robert Jones.

He had an eye for business, helping to create the first “celebrity bond.” The musician securitized his music catalog, selling an offering to raise $55 million. Designed to last 10 years, the bonds allowed Bowie to monetize his music without giving up ownership.

Joe Donovan worked for a PR firm and wore a suit to work. He wrote for Avenue magazine. I met Joe and Joe 2 at a bar, the coolest joint. There was a neon sign, the symbol of a lizard on the outside wall, no name. We drank martinis. Later we visited this flight attendant just back from somewhere. It was late. She was tired, served us drinks anyway.

When I got lost in intellectual pretense, Joe put me in my place fast. The last time I saw him was at a school reunion some years ago. For some reason he thought that because he was gay he would not fit in. When he showed up, his old friends and classmates were glad to see him. He had been one of the stars of our form – an original. You never knew what he would say, but it would probably be funny.

He had cancer and was between chemo sessions.

We were waiting for a cab that last morning and I was rambling on about people deserving their fates. “You’re being a Jansenist,” Joe scolded.

A few weeks later he had his final chemo session. The cancer came back fast. I spoke to him on the phone one last time. He died soon after.

Reading the press, I realize how many lives Bowie lived. Many successes, many failures. It wasn’t easy. It wasn’t supposed to be.

One study of Nobel laureates in science found that they were more likely than their peers to have a serious hobby in the arts, painting, say, or playing an instrument. Einstein played the violin and loved to sail. They were skilled amateurs whose hobbies were a divine distraction. Always learning. Falling down, getting up again.

Science, the arts, business, sports, they are fundamentally the same. We explore the world, carve it up so we can understand it better. Hit one out of the park. Strike out. Learn. Thank you, David. Thank you, Joe.

The price of perfect: The mythology of the digital age

The airplane stops. Everyone turns on their smartphone. There is a lot of Facebook. A man passes my wife’s bag from the overhead storage. “Thanks,” I say. “How is your day going?” Suddenly he looks suspicious. “Why do you ask?” he says, his eyes narrowing.

We have a brief chat. I can tell he isn’t used to speaking to people on airplanes. Entering the terminal, most people are staring at their phones. Inside, almost everyone is. Few people are talking to each other. Social now means media, not chatting to the person beside you.

This is the new normal. Everywhere a laptop, a tablet, a smart phone. All the pretty pictures, clever videos, smart websites. Check social media and see your friends smiling on a mountaintop. Their life is wonderful, and yours should be too.

So much is free on line, or seems to be so, including access to the libraries of the world, the latest scientific discoveries and the ripest gossip. You can buy stuff – it’s fast and cheap. Everything has a rating. There are few secrets.

This is the world we live in. It is beautiful and efficient on the surface. You can be forgiven for thinking your life should be this way too.

It is also a mirage.

The people who have grown up in this world are comfortable with what we call technology, computers and the internet. They use it all day long. The digital world has many attractions and benefits. No-one wants to go back to the old days. Life is easier. You don’t need much matter to scale. It is harder to deceive.

But there are drawbacks. There is a flip side.

On the level of organizations, the networked economy means that pyramids are getting steeper. The closer you get to the top, the more opportunities you find, the more money you make. But for many the pyramid is harder to climb.

The networked economy is squeezing the middle class. In the United States at least, the wealth rebound since the 2008 recession has gone almost exclusively to the top one per cent.

On the personal level, our gadgets promote the illusion that the world is pretty, efficient and mostly free. By implication, if your life isn’t going so well, you are falling short–way short. You may never catch up.

Paradoxically, another drawback is the multiplicity of choices–for products, services and life decisions like career direction and even who to date. It is hard to decide. No matter what you choose, something sleeker and cheaper—or someone who is better looking, more accomplished and wealthier–will come along. Perhaps moments later.

These drawbacks seem to take an especially big toll on young people. A recent article in The Atlantic, The Silicon Valley Suicides by Hannah Rosin, investigates the psychology of high school students in Pal Alto. Rosin found a lot of unhappiness among young people who, on the surface, have it all. Their families are wealthy, the schools are good and they have many opportunities.

Rosin checked in with Suniya Luthar, a psychiatrist who was been studying adolescents for some time. She has found that kids of the affluent and well educated feel tremendous pressure to perform, both academically and in extracurricular pursuits. Their parents have high expectations, but they are busy with their own revved up lives and tend not to be around.

“Luthar constructed a profile of elite American adolescents whose self-worth is tied to their achievements and who see themselves as catastrophically flawed if they don’t meet the highest standards of success,” Rosin writes. “Because a certain kind of success seems well within reach, they feel they have to attain it at all costs—a phenomenon she refers to as ‘I can, therefore I must.’”

Madeline Levine, a child psychologist in the Bay Area, says these young people “feel they have no choice. Many have also fallen prey to what she calls a ‘mass delusion’ that there is but one path to a successful life, and that it is very narrow.”

These young people lack a sense of purpose and agency, the feeling they can control their own lives. Rates of anxiety, depression and suicide are far higher than the national average. This is the price of perfect.

Dr. Bob Rotella is a sport psychologist who also consults with businesses and high performers of all stripes. Writing in How Champions Think, he makes the case that perfectionism is a terrible trap. Falling under its illusion, athletes and others who obsess about the inevitable setbacks of life develop unrealistic expectations and an unhealthy psychology that is ultimately self-defeating.

The best hitters strike out, the best golfers mishit shots, and the best sales people fail to close sales. Top performers come up with their own strategies for dealing with tough times.

“For the perfectionist nothing is ever good enough and every performance is a failure,” Rotella writes. “Perfectionists almost never arrive at the highest levels of sport. They can’t survive. So much depends on not being a perfectionist, on understanding that there will be losses and mistakes and on responding well to those setbacks.”

So, put those phones away for a while. Look at the sky. Talk to the person next to you. The digital world has many benefits, but it isn’t real. It promotes the illusion that life should always be pretty, easy and cheap. This viewpoint is superficial and artificial. It is like a drug.

The people who create the business models and write the code know it’s not always easy. Success comes at a price. Innovation involves a lot of trial and error.

The digital world is a nice place to visit, but I wouldn’t want to live there.

Ray Kurtzweil invents the future

This inventor is fascinated by long time scales, tiny pieces of matter, long strings of information and the brain’s ability to make jokes and love.

We are addicted to the short term, the dopamine jolt delivered by our various screens. Turn on the news and you get a blast of randomness of the negative variety. Switch to entertainment, what the stars are wearing. A TED Talk subs for reading a book.

So Ray Kurzweil’s thoughtful optimism and long view of the world are refreshing. Pragmatic and creative, the animated inventor and archetypal boy genius is no longer a boy, but he wants to live forever.

He forages on information and produces ideas, books, talks, real-world products, start-ups and consulting gigs. His terrain includes computer science, optical character recognition, speech recognition, and electronic keyboard instruments; health, artificial intelligence, life extension technologies, nanotechnology, robotics, and biotechnology. Unlike most so-called futurists, he has a solid track record of long-term prediction.

While Kurzweil’s inventions have helped to transform several fields, he also has Edison’s knack for commerce, churning out patents and co-founding companies.

Speaking at the Big Data for Productivity Congress in Nova Scotia, the director of engineering at Google takes us on an intellectual road trip back to our small rodent-like ancestors.

Kurzweil zeroes in on the neocortex that first appeared in the brains of small mammals 200 million years ago. About the size of a postage stamp, it allowed these creatures to create a new behavior on the fly–and remember it. Zigging as a predator zagged, for example. Their brethren could watch and learn.

Most of the time the environment changed slowly, allowing less intelligent animals to evolve, he explains Then 65 million years ago there was a catastrophic event, the Cretaceous extinction. Dinosaurs and many other life forms went extinct. Mammals could cope with that scale of change and grow the neocortex.

“But we still have primitive drives for conquest that we sublimate by writing books and giving talks.”

A key step in our evolution was the large forehead where the expanded cortex allowed language, the arts, science and technology. Cognitively, our brain is a pyramid where each level is more abstract than the one below. The higher levels allow us to get creative. This is where we find a sense of irony and a love of poetry and music.

Now we can expand the power of the brain by connecting it to the cloud, he says. We will invent new forms of music. By 2030 our thinking will be a hybrid of biology and technology. Implanted devices are already improving the performance of those with Parkinson’s.

Big data and the cloud are just the latest flavours of what Kurzweil calls the law of accelerated returns, the exponential growth curves that characterize information technology. This insight has led him to make a host of predictions.

He saw, for example, that ARPANET would expand to something we now know as the Internet and the World Wide Web. He foresaw the need for search. “Many researchers were working on it, but I did not anticipate that a couple of kids in a Stanford dorm would take over the world.”

Most decisions today are made by linear thinking: 1+ 1 +1 = 3, and so on, he says. Our rodent-like ancestors were able to calculate a possible escape route from a predator because it was all about straight lines.

“Exponential growth is not intuitional,” he says. “We have a brain to predict the future but we evolved to make linear predictions — our linear intuition fails us today.”

Moore’s Law, based on transistors, predicts that computing power doubles roughly every couple of years. This is just one iteration of a deeper trend, he says, slapping up slides that show the exponential nature of technology. He calls Moore’s Law the fifth paradigm of a pattern that can be tracked back to the census of 1890. This pattern continued even through the disruptions of the World Wars, the Depression and recessions.

Growth in IT is the driver of the economy today, he says. It infiltrates every sector. “The total bits shipped is increasing exponentially and it is very cheap to make bits. Innovation is coming up with new uses for bits.”

He has turned his fertile mind to biology, including what he considers the outdated information processing system of DNA. Health and medicine are now based on information technology. Biology is an information process. Genes are software.

“In the past, by age 25 the adult human was using up the precious food of the tribe. There was no need for longevity.” He would like to update this out-dated software. [DNA is not written in C++, he jokes. Maybe in COBOL.] DNA sequencing is growing exponentially. Now we can turn genes on and off and add new genes.

He would like to turn off the insulin receptor gene that helped our ancestors get the maximum energy from a limited food intake, but now it helps to make us fat. “It was a great idea 10,000 years ago, but now we do our hunting at the supermarket.”

We have doubled life expectancy, he says. The first baby to live to be 150 has been born. Health and medicine will increase longevity by reprogramming outdated information processes. Nanobots will patrol the bloodstream, attacking disease and repairing the body. We will print out human organs like lungs and kidneys. By the 2030s we will be augmenting the immune system with new T cells.

Every year that you live you will add more than one year of potential life. [“Google is doing its part. Self-driving cars mean we will be less likely to be hit by the proverbial bus.”]

For all his idealism, Kurzweil warns that we are in the hype stage of the technology cycle. “Exponential growth is transformational but not instantaneous.” Still, by 2020 3D printing will transform manufacturing. There will be open source design of clothing the way it has transformed music, movies and books that can now be sent as email attachments.

People will still pay for products and services. The traditional economic model will coexist with open source. “It is a leveler. Kids in Africa can afford a phone. Critics say you can’t eat technology, it can’t build a house. But that will change.” IT is transforming all sectors.

Kurzweil says he finally got a day job after being hired by Larry Page, one of the founders of Google. While this would be a dream for most in the tech world, it wasn’t in his plan. He approached Page to invest in one of his start-ups, and Page turned the tables and offered him a job.

Kurzweil’s optimism is tempered with a broad sense of responsibility. “We have a moral imperative to improve technology to reduce damage to the environment and reduce poverty.”

Yes, there will be implications for white collar and other jobs, he says, in the same way farming and manufacturing no longer dominate the economy. But technology will create new jobs in fields like renewable energy.

“There are always short- term issues, but if you look at the broad trends we are headed in a good direction.”