Self Starter’s Guide, Synthesis, and the Future-Optimist Toolkit

By January 7, 2014Uncategorized

There are many complex terms for the simple yet powerful act of putting multiple things together in creative, novel, and interesting ways. You may have heard discussion of the act of synthesis, of juxtaposition, of recombinatory processes; you may have read about the rise of multimedia, or even of the theoretical applications of what’s referred to as multimodality. Combining disparate source material, preexisting ideas — this has been a guiding principle of modern artistic practice for the last century or more; it has gained traction in the worlds of business and marketing as companies and individuals seek innovative ways of reaching an audience; and it’s now making inroads in myriad other areas of our lives and culture. This sort of synthesis and combination is changing educational philosophies and classroom practices, affecting national and global policy and social innovation, and spawning new technologies and sources of entertainment at an increasingly rapid rate.

It’s cliche and, while true, not of itself useful to say that the world we live in now is a very different place from how it was a decade ago, two decades ago, last century. The world is always evolving, and has been for as long as it’s existed. The important thrust of the popular sentiment seems to be that it’s speeding up, to a degree that’s simultaneously invigorating or empowering and a bit worrisome. The former because it opens up tremendous new opportunities and enables us to do lots of great things that not so long ago were impossible, and the latter because it’s easy to get the feeling that we’re gradually starting to get outpaced or left behind by the rapidity of all this relentless, scary, wonderful, insane progress.

So yes, the world is changing, human culture and society and technology are all changing, as they always have been. But there are a few things that truly are novel, that are bringing about not linear progress but stepwise jumps and exponential sea change in evolutionary trajectory. There’s no one tipping point; we haven’t yet encountered any singularity; but many things taken together are causing lots to happen and become possible all at once: scientific advances in molecular biology and computing enabling revolutions in health and medicine, communications, and many other fields; the mass-connectivity of broadcast technologies leading up to and including the Internet which have enabled the world to be woven together into somewhat of a whole (not yet completely — but it’s finally possible to see humanity as a singular collective entity, both alone on our planet and all in this together) and increased productivity and improved education have left more and more people with time and ability to pursue art, innovation, and big ideas.

We’re not there yet, far from it; there are many problems in the world and much suffering, and I’m not saying we’ve crossed some line in the sand to a new period of enlightenment. But many of us, at least, can now see it in the distance — we have the ability to understand complex systems and processes, make cognitive and creative leaps across vast chasms separating disciplines, and perfect fusion not only of physical particles but of thoughts and actions, to create new things. Once, it was possible to be the sort of thinker, public intellectual or scholar, who was well-versed in most all subjects of human knowledge, carrying expertise in (or at least high-level familiarity with) geometry, philosophy, poetry and drama, rhetoric, art, engineering, and the various other foundations of the canon of accumulated human knowledge. Lately though, in the past several decades or maybe even past century or two, we’ve entered the so-called age of specialization where so much data and knowledge and information exists that it’s nigh impossible for someone to be an expert in all of the fields of study (or even all major ones) that now blanket the earth and occupy our collective intellectual consciousness.

I think, though, that we are returning to a place where it’s not only possible, but essential to our progress, to study widely in addition to deeply, to broach broad channels and extend tendrils in many directions at once, to absorb insights and essential ideas from many areas simultaneously. Our collective ability to begin to navigate complexity and chaos, to at least start to comprehend near-infinities and harness computing power and algorithms to trawl massive repositories of data, sort and rank and triage an incredible wealth of resources, and climb the tree of knowledge by swinging from branch to branch, to approach problems from many directions and be able to instantly find information on potential connections — all this burgeoning capability gives us the power to diversify our interests and inquiries, not diluting them but harnessing the power of synthesis and consilience to actually combine them into important and engaging and useful and valuable ways.

That’s my premise, and it’s somewhat optimistic and long term, but I think reasonable given what we know about the state of the world and our current abilities. And I think it’s a position that’s shared by many others with a futurist bent. The problem (or at least the question) is, given that this sort of tremendous potential and power exists in some latent form, how do we put it into action? How do we figure out a plan for creating and exploring, how do we harness our available resources and figure out the best way of working to actually be able to use the powers of synthesis to make and do great things? It’s a simple premise, but of course a complicated process; there are multitudes of available frameworks for thought and action, tremendous numbers of great books and important thinkers and areas in which one might begin study, an infinite variety of ways one might practice creating or designing or writing on the path to great discoveries and breakthroughs.

What I feel like I need is a sort of toolkit or toolbox — not just a guide or roadmap, but a full collection of resources where I can find helpful advice and insights from the world’s top thinkers and practitioners (interviews), creative examples and starter projects for exploring new ideas and modes of creation and problem solving, breakdowns of how people have successfully applied this stuff before (case studies), ways to connect with other people who might share similar interests or want to collaborate on problems/explorations (community), mentorship from people who share affinities for curiosity and exploration, and more. But this does not currently exist. So I’m building it myself, and making it available to you, too.

My first idea was to do a series of books, each of which would explore what I perceive to be a particularly important general topic for creating, navigating, learning, and doing in this ecosystem of evolving potential in which we find ourselves immersed. But as I see it now, I’m not sure that makes sense. A book series is fine for topics that are more or less separate or siloed into different verticals, but the more I read, learn, think, and explore, the more I realize that what we need to be mastering are a complex web of interconnected frameworks, competencies, and literacies. So, for example, it’s important not only that we learn about storytelling, and media, and design, and complexity theory, and physical making, and new forms of writing, and community-building, and a whole host of other things — but also that we learn about all these things as they relate to one another.

So my current goal is to build a platform where people can have access to all sorts of resources that span many of these different topics, which are all important and are all interrelated anyway. What they share is an increasing relevance to our future, not only economically and practically, but in how we create and build sense and meaning into our lives, experience feelings of connection and fulfillment, and thrive. Self Starter’s Guide will be more than just a single book or even a series of books, but a platform and a library and a research lab for exploring new modes of thinking, interacting, innovating and creating for generations to come.

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