I bumped into an acquaintance at the grocery store the other day. He said the previous weekend he’d attended a conference for writers. What he learned from one book agent surprised him. According to her, some authors are finding inspiration by using Google’s search engine. They look for trends and wrap stories around them. I was surprised by what he told me, but it explained the mystery of how Abraham Lincoln got mixed up with vampires.
Creativity, for the most part, stems from re-assembling what we already know, I admit. The painter, Pablo Picasso, having discovered African art, altered his style. Science, too, feeds upon the research of others. Computers have helped accelerate the sharing. With or without artificial intelligence (AI), these machines consolidate and reassemble vast quantities of the known at a speed beyond anything the human mind can accomplish. AI, some theorists contend, will become an external form of our brains one day, an enhancement to our existing capacity to formulate ideas. (“The Future of Good Taste, by Paul Tullis, Town&Country, March, 2018, pgs. 145-147)
Socrates warned against externalizing knowledge in one of his Dialogues. (Phaedrus) Writing down our thoughts, he insisted, weakened memory. (“The Last Word,” The Week, 4/13/18, pg. 37, reprint from Atlantic Monthly.com.) What might he say about the vast stores of information we collect today?
Few of us are blessed with eidetic memory, so many of us welcome having vast amounts of knowledge a mouse click away. In the good old days, I’d have paged through an encyclopedia or worn a reference librarian thin. How many of us, I wonder, stop to think our brains expunge data as well as gather it. Not every experience gets filed away. Rather, we define ourselves by what we chose to remember. Forgetfulness, apparently, has its purpose as does memory. The space it creates leaves holes from which new thought emerges. I think of these holes as places where the unconscious and conscious minds meet.
Think of AI and human intelligence as the difference between salad makers and chefs. Salad makers assemble dishes from items found in the refrigerator. Chefs invent new foods, like ice cream. Inspiration, we may discover, springs as much from what we forget as from what we remember. Black holes of the mind may be places of revelation.