From time to time I find myself invited to brainstorm for people. This
usually involves coming up with new ways my hosts might "add value to
their revenue chain" or "leverage their brand." To be perfectly honest,
I’m not very good at it. I’ll explain why in a moment. First, though,
here’s a little history of brainstorming.
Brainstorming is a creative problem-solving strategy launched in 1953 in a book called Applied Imagination
by Alex F. Osborn, an advertising executive. The basic idea is that
when judgment is suspended, a bold and copious flow of original ideas
can be produced. It’s very much a team effort — rather than getting
bogged down in the judgments, personal criticisms and ego clashes that
accompany the ownership of, and investment in, certain ideas, the team
When you’re brainstorming, ideas belong to no one and come from anywhere. Anything goes.
1950s America, with its hysterical anticommunist witch hunts, might
seem like the kind of place where ownership and individuality would be
valued more highly than nonproprietary teamwork. But the template for
Osborn’s emphasis on collectivism wasn’t communism, it was the Army. In
1953, World War II was still a very recent memory. Brainstorming, said Osborn, was using the brain to storm a creative problem "in commando fashion, each stormer audaciously attacking the same objective."
I published an article in AIGA Voice last year entitled "Creativity and the Sputnik Shock."
In it, I traced the links between the explosion in creativity research
in the 1950s and the crisis in American self-confidence triggered by
Soviet successes in the space race.
I pointed out how Bob Dylan’s scattershot liner notes to his second
album, The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, wouldn’t have been possible without
Osborn’s ideas about suspending judgment to encourage ideational
fluency; even the term freewheeling is Osborn’s, one of the advertising man’s four stages of brainstorming (deferring judgment, striving for quantity, freewheeling and seeking combinations).
A couple of weeks ago, I was invited to attend an "ideation session"
at an address on Park Avenue in New York. The client was a prestigious
hotel, and the setting was appropriately sumptuous. Beneath
chandeliers, attended by discreet waiters serving coffee and amuse-bouches,
a dozen artists, journalists, management gurus, game designers and
hotel bigwigs spent eight hours with a "facilitator" called Mike, who
guided us through the session according to principles Osborn would have
recognized and approved.
We were teamed up, asked to cover whiteboards with elements of
ideas, shuffled around, asked to elaborate on other people’s ideas,
re-teamed, asked to make sensible business propositions ("in the
$200-300 million a year range") out of nonsensical gobbledygook, made
to free-associate, made to come up with the worst idea possible and
then find a good idea buried in it, and so on.
Thinking in teams, and pitching other people’s ideas rather than my
own, I quickly found my freshest thoughts blending into a kind of
generalized banality, a dollar-green cookie dough. Quantity there was,
but the lack of a personal moral framework and the impossibility of
being negative took quality off the agenda. Like the Sundance Kid, I
wanted to ask the facilitator, "Can I move now?"
Why, 50 years after Osborn’s book, do I find that brainstorming, far
from unleashing hidden originality in me, blocks and banishes all my
most interesting ideas? Put it down to the most important difference
between 1953 and 2006: the internet. More specifically, the way the
internet has encouraged games with personality and personae, with
avatars and animus.
In his 1968 book, Frames of Mind, the humanist psychologist Liam Hudson looked at British schoolboys, concentrating on whether they were convergers or divergers
— his terms for two different thinking styles, characterized
respectively by convergence toward "one right answer" on the one hand
and a kind of riffing, improvisational style on the other.
Hudson thought convergers tended to head toward the sciences and
divergers toward the arts. But he wasn’t sure if these differences were
innate, or came with the job. So he asked his subjects to role-play two
characters, a mad and shocking artist called McMice and a controlled,
conventional scientist called Masters. He found that these masks, or
avatars, could change the boys’ characters completely.
Playing McMice, the convergent science types could produce material
every bit as shocking, original and even obscene as their divergent
Long before the internet allowed us all to play with personae and
avatars, it was the need for sexual privacy that most recommended the
wearing of masks. "Man is least himself when he talks in his own
person," said Oscar Wilde. "Give him a mask, and he will tell you the
In the same spirit, Yukio Mishima entitled one of his books
Confessions of a Mask. Even after homosexuality had been widely
decriminalized, it was still sexual personae, asCamille Paglia pointed out in her 1990 book of the same title, that most people wore masks to conceal … or reveal.
And then the internet came along, and we were suddenly all in chat
rooms, on bulletin boards, in newsgroup discussions, using the kinds of
aliases that previously only pornographers, gays, satirists and
songwriters had adopted. We were suddenly all, in Thomas de Zengotita’s
And what developed, I think, was a new way to be original, a new way to be oneself, or selves.
For instance, here I am talking to you as iMomus. My real name is Nick
Currie. I became Momus in order to make pop records, then I became
iMomus for various kinds of conversation online.
By Nick Currie