Friday, 18 May 2012

Academia suppresses Creativity

The Scientist has currently published an online article Academia Suppresses Creativity by Fred Southwick, which, together with some of the comments, is well worth a read. I have posted the following comment relating to my own experiences.
I read the article with interest as I have very much been the victim of the way that creativity can be suppressed.

When computers started it was a technology rat race to get systems up and running, and in the beginning all the creativity was to build bigger and faster systems, and because programming reliable systems very difficult, designing more and more layers of support software to hide the inherently unfriendly nature of the central processing unit. No one stopped to do the basic blue sky research to look at the alternative starting points. By the time people seriously started to worry about the human interface computers were so successful – and showed such promise – that everyone took it for granted that starting with a glorified calculating machine which required a predefined global model of the task was the answer.

In 1967 I was a new boy in computers, having previously worked in a complex manual management information system. As part of my training to become a computer systems analyst I was told to look at a very large (250,000 customer, 5,000 product) offline sales package and make suggestions as to how it might be rewritten for a new (but by today's standards very primitive) interactive system. Not knowing any better I analysed the main problems of the old system as the difficult interface between the sales management and an incomprehensible black box and the fact that as the real world was always changing requirements any system which require pre-definition was always going to be cumbersome and out of date. So I came up with a solution loosely based on my experience of providing managerial level information in a very complex manual system. I suggested a way to put sales staff in direct control and make 90% of the conventional systems analysis and programming redundant. I had no idea that I was suggesting anything controversial until the approach was vetoed.

However six months later I was working with the computer firm which pioneered commercial computing in the UK (under the LEO pioneers David Caminer and John Pinkerton for those interested in the history) looking at future systems. I ended up leading a small team doing some of the missing blue sky research. Rather than start with a system which was based on the idea of a preprogrammed calculating machine manipulating numerically addressed numbers I found it would probably be very little harder to build an information processing “central processor” that worked with associatively addressed words, using a simple human-friendly psychological model, which worked on a bottom up rather than top down basis. Philosophically it was poles apart from the stored program computer model – with no formal subdivision of information into program and data – and the possibility of the human and computer working symbiotically together when unforeseen situations turned up.

Patents were taken out and the initial somewhat primitive trials were more successful that the target set in my original specification. However the project was bull-dozed into the ground, without proper assessment when the company ICL was formed as a result of a government inspired merger to try and beat the big American market leaders at their own game.

At the time I still did not fully realise how unconventional the approach was, and how difficult it would be to get support and funding for something which, in effect, was questioning the foundations of a significant section of the computer industry. As someone who is naturally a quiet back-room type of person who needs a good front man to provide support and encouragement I ended up in a totally unsuitable hole – becoming more and more depressed. Despite having made significant progress in demonstrating the idea, and getting a top professional journal accept a detailed paper, the research was eventually abandoned due to lack or funds, exhaustion, depression after a family suicide, and vicious bullying by a head of department who considered that research meant following the leaders. One aggravating factor was that that the task was steadily becoming harder as each new generation was being indoctrinated at school to “think” stored program computer while the investment in both hardware, software and databases makes any serious rethink unthinkable to the establishment.

In effect I gave up 25 years ago because everyone says that “exceptional claims need exceptional proof” and when you are even hinting that some of the theoretical foundations of human-computer systems are unsound, the cost of the “exceptional proof” is such that any creative attempt to explore the foundations is going to be buried. The more science grows the harder it is to do genuinely creative research which questions the foundations, unless you are very lucky to end up in a suitable supportive environment.

However I now suspect that the work I did modelling and alternative type of human-computer interaction could touch on the problem of relating what goes on at the neuron level in the brain to childhood learning, language and human intelligence. OK at 74 I don't have the energy to fight yet another battle with the establishment again but I have decided to recorded my ideas on the blog and if any young scientist is interested in doing some really creative research which challenges the establishment mind set I am happy to pass on what I have learned. But remember that if yo try to do something genuinely creative and it goes pear-shaped you have probably ruined your prospects of ever getting a top establishment position.

When the above post did not appear as a comment I posted the following a couple of dags later, when about half a dozen more recent posts had appeared. Interestingly this second post appeared immediately!:

Does the moderator of these posts understand the subject of the heading article relates to the suppression of creativity, and that creativity often means thinking and doing things outside the establishment box?

I am a retired senior academic from a British University, who has had numerous peer-reviewed papers published in highly respected journals. I also worked on a project which was so far outside the accepted establishment viewpoint that it proved impossible to get enough support to complete the research – although the purely scientific evidence was good as far as funds allowed it to go. In fact the project makes a good case study of the problem creative thinkers can have.

Two days ago I posted a brief summary of what had happened, and it has still not appeared
I don't think I have ever posted to The Scientist before, so perhaps I broke some unstated convention. However I suspect that the non appearance of my post is due to the moderator deciding that because the research I described questions the theoretical foundations of some extremely well established technology it must simply be nonsense because posts must never suggest that the establishment view might be wrong.

I hope that on seeing this the moderator will unblock my original post, or at least get the opinion of Fred Southwick as the author of the heading article, who clearly understands the problem of suppressing creativity. Failing that I hope he will allow this message to stand and append his reason for rejecting the original post.

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