Genius wanted

Albert Einstein

Where have all the geniuses gone? A lot of people have been asking this question.

Well, they all seem to be in tech these days, if you believe reports. As former Facebook whiz turned Internet critic Jeff Hammerbacher has (in)famously said, “The best minds of my generation are thinking about how to make people click ads. That sucks.”

Others have also complained of a “brain-drain” in fields aside from tech, and even “tech” isn’t the right word for so much of what we’re talking about here, for as Mr. Hammerbacher points out, this is not about the creation of new technologies or the significant advancement of existing technologies; this is getting people to click on dancing emus or make them want to buy sneakers or Land Rovers.

Why are the Best and the Brightest developing yet another way to organize your iPhone photos? Because they’re selling their “companies” (if a company can be called three kids on laptops in a Starbucks) for a billion dollars, and VCs are funding it with the pensions from people who used to have real brick and mortar jobs, telling said people when the pyramid scheme collapses that their promised pensions are “unsustainable.” The trucker who put into his retirement for 37 years and would like to get back $60,000 is being unreasonable; the 28-year-old who sold his startup that has no revenue model  and has never made a cent for a billion dollars is not.

But where are the geniuses in other fields? Where are the Kerouacs, the Hemingways, the Kubricks and the Picassos and Diego Riveras of today? Where are the Gertrude Steins, the Bloomsbury Groups, the Pannonica de Koenigswarters, the Maxwell Perkins? The patrons, the enablers, the intellectual cliques who questioned, who saw things in new ways?

The answer I think is three-pronged: they’re designing those apps that tell K-Mart whenever you walk in the door so that you can start getting all sorts of ads pushed at you through your phone. They’re sitting in coffee shops alone, staring at the wall and babbling to themselves because society today tends to regard mavericks as close to “nuts.” And they’re simply not there at all, because more and more we’re funneling people into more and more rigid molds. Look at how ridiculously tight the requirements are for any job position. They want a very very narrow skill set, and recruiters have their software parameters set to reject any resume coming through that does not push all the buttons. They’ve pre-digested everything. That makes accidental discoveries, eurekas, harder and harder to come by. They think this is good because it is efficient. Well, ants are efficient too.

It’s no different in the “arts.” Publishers all want the next Twilight or Fifty Shades or Harry Potter, completely forgetting that before these came along, they did not want them. They “knew” they wouldn’t work. How do they know now they will? Because someone broke through the mold, the old mold. Now they’re the new mold.

“No kid is going to read a 500 page book with no pictures,” one publisher allegedly told J. K. Rowling about her first Potter book before giving it a rejection.

Trend-following is nothing new, of course. But before there were always branches in any industry that allowed for a certain randomness, knowing full well that today’s randomness could be tomorrow’s blockbuster solution. Today this sort of experimentation is rejected as too “willy-nilly,” and willy-nilly wastes money. Sure it does, but that’s also how great discoveries are made. All the preliminary research showed movies audiences would hate a sci-fi picture about a young farm boy, a princess and a galactic empire. Alan Ladd Jr. of 20th Century Fox ignored the “data points” and trusted years of instinct, something coders can’t simulate, though they’ll probably claim they can. Market research showed Absolut Vodka’s bottle design would fail because it was a clear bottle, and bartenders wouldn’t be able to see it against the mirrored background of the bar. The person in charge of marketing at Absolut didn’t listen. Today almost all vodka bottles are clear.

We are choked with “metrics” that purport to tell us exactly what results will be before we even attempt a creative idea. People take this voodoo seriously. As Warren Buffett once said, certain things get measured a lot because they are measurable.

Someone has just come up with a software algorithm which supposedly creates pitch-perfect advertising copy on its own after you feed in data. Its creators brag that it removes the random, unpredictable factors in creativity. Yes, they actually said this, and they’re happy about it. If only we could have removed random creativity a hundred years ago, we wouldn’t have had Virginia Woolf, Jackson Pollock, Thelonious Monk, Relativity or penicillin. Think how much better our world would be.

Our educational system seems to be the latest embracing this “metrics” fetish with the new Common Core curriculum. “Educators,” which in this case means business leaders with lots of money, political influence (I know, redundant) and a huge financial stake in the game, believe studying “soft” things like literature and creativity are a waste of time. We should be teaching kids how to write apps and repair smartphones from the getgo…what the hell’s all that about playtime for kindergarteners and social studies for junior high students? What value does Shakespeare have today? The dude lived 400 years ago. What’s most interesting about this belief is that the most famous entrepreneur in Silicon Valley and perhaps of all time vehemently disagreed.

But data drives the world today. (Apparently we’ve forgotten the famous quote often attributed to Disraeli.) This may be the biggest reason for the “genius drain.” Predictable, measurable results don’t produce breakthroughs in art, literature, music, or thinking in general. Instead of tilting at windmills, our geniuses are writing code to animate windmill gifs. More than one business leader has been quoted as saying if you can’t track it with metrics, it’s not real. I’ve never heard a more idiotic sentiment in my life.


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