BookPeople Q&A with Kevin Ashton

The subject of creativity – the how, why and what of making something from nothing – is a popular topic. Dozens of books are published every year that promise sure-fire advice on how to “unlock” your creativity, tap your “inner genius”, and turn those “flashes” of brilliance into a meaningful work of art or The Next Big Thing.

Kevin Ashton, Austin author and tech pioneer, is here with a hard truth: it’s not that easy.

His new book, How to Fly a Horse, shares stories from the scope of human history to analyze how humans create and to dispel common myths about the “creative genius”. We asked Kevin a few questions about the stories he turned up and the truth about the creative process. This book is a fascinating, thought-provoking read that makes one thing abundantly clear: creativity is work.

How to Fly a Horse hits our shelves January 20. You can pre-order a signed, personalized copy of the book exclusively through BookPeople now.

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BOOKPEOPLE: How to Fly a Horse covers enormous stretches of history in exploring how humans invent and create – from early Homo Sapiens to Fleetwood Mac and David Foster Wallace. With all of human history at your fingertips, how did you approach so much background and supporting material? Where did you begin? How did you settle on a structure?

KEVIN ASHTON: I always wanted How to Fly a Horse to be about the common threads that link all creative activity, from science and technology to music and art, so I knew I would need to include evidence and examples from all those fields. I’m a total wanderer when it comes to reading, and I always have been, so my brain was already crammed with lots of possible stories. I wrote far more stories than I could use, then picked the best ones, and built a chapter out of each them. It was clear early that the story of Edmond Albius, which I won’t give away here, was going to come first. It is not well known, but it should be, and it introduces all the themes of the book.

BP: What’s one of your favorite stories you dug up while researching this book? 

KA: I love them all, but of the ones that are in the book, I have a particular affection for Rosalind Franklin’s. It is better knowN today than it used to be—she discovered the structure of DNA and her work and credit was stolen from her because she was a woman—but recent scientific discoveries have given it an extra twist, that I won’t spoil here, that makes it tragic and poignant. She was a brilliant scientist, and, like so many women before and after her, was disregarded because of the horrible sexism of science. One of the stories that did not make the cut, and that I will have to find some other way to tell, is of Gordon Dobson, who discovered the importance of atmospheric ozone, and made little ozone sensors in his backyard to measure it, that he then deployed all over the world. Much later, when other scientists began to suspect that there was a hole in the ozone layer, it was Dobson’s sensors that detected it. NASA’s satellites missed it completely, and if we hadn’t had these decades-old Dobson sensors in Antarctica, we may not have discovered how much trouble we were in until it was too late to do anything to save ourselves. The consequences could have been catastrophic. Gordon Dobson saved the world about as much as any one person ever could, simply because he was passionately curious about nature, and determined to understand something for its own sake. We can all learn a lot from that.

BP: How to Fly a Horse challenges many popular preconceived notions of creativity. Why do you think so many myths surround the concept of creativity and the creator? 

KA: Two reasons. First, it’s natural to think that extraordinary creations might be the result of extraordinary, almost magical processes, like special kinds of people called “geniuses,” or divine intervention in the form of “inspiration,” or thinking about things by not thinking about them. None of that is true, and we can show that fairly definitely, but it’s easy to understand why that might be attractive.

The second reason is more sinister. For thousands of years, people have classified one another based on superficial distinctions like gender, skin color, nationality, and so on. The most powerful people—for the longest time, in much of the world, that has been white men of European descent—have presumed that they are innately superior, and that their superiority is correlated with their color, gender, and region of origin. Until recently, their presumptions were explicit and incontrovertible—you don’t have to go back many decades before you find powerful, important people writing about the natural superiority of the “Anglo-Saxon man”— today they still dominate, but they are more covert because they are less acceptable. And, just as those ideas were being made pseudo-scientific, around the end of the nineteenth century, we see this whole myth about “superior natural ability” and “hereditary genius” emerging too. Why? One problem the privileged and powerful had at that time was that, during the nineteenth century, everybody learned to read. Another was Darwin, who showed that we are a species of mammal, and we all evolved in much the same way, and we therefore are far more alike than we are different. So powerful people needed new ways to assert their supposed superiority over everyone else.

The myth of genius—which coincided with eugenics, which led to the genocide of the Holocaust—and the myth of “creativity” were very attractive ways to explain why, despite the fact everybody could read now, and lots of people were suddenly going to school, certain people were still much “better” than others. They were magical, “gifted” people who created extraordinary things using mental processes unavailable to everybody else. It was all nonsense, of course; powerful nonsense, but nonsense nonetheless.

BP: It feels as if we live in an age of non-stop creation. New gadgets flood the market, putting devices in our hands that often seem to operate on inscrutable magic. Do you think we’re living in a golden age of invention and creation, or does it only feel as if we’re living in hyperspeed because, well, this is the only part of world history we empirically understand? 

KA: Human beings are non-stop creators: that is how we adapt and survive as a species, and it is what makes us human. The apparent acceleration of creation is due to several things: first, there are more of us; second, we are building on, and benefitting from, all the tens of thousands of years of creation, invention, and discovery that came before us. (This has lots of benefits: for example, it gives us more time, and more tools, with which to invent, and more ways to communicate with and learn from our fellow inventors.) Third, as you mentioned, we don’t know as much as we could about all the change of previous generations. The middle ages, for example, so often called the “dark ages,” saw a huge energy revolution with the development and deployment of watermills, then windmills. Don Quixote did not mistake windmills for giants and attack them because he was an idiot, but because they were a strange new technology that he had never seen before. So yes, we are creating more than ever, but only because there are more of us and because, thanks to our ancestors, we have a deep foundation upon which to build. The pace of innovation will continue to increase, too. I am sorry to have to tell you this, but in a few decades you will look back on today as a slower, simpler, gentler time.

BP: What advice would you give to someone who has a burning idea to create something new, but isn’t sure where to start?

KA: It doesn’t matter where you start. It matters that you start. Begin. Do something clueless, crappy, infuriating, and frustrating. Then make it a little better. Just make sure you can survive, physically, financially, and emotionally, through all the years of failing and flailing. It is not enough to be willing to fail; you must also to be able to. Do not quit your job on the assumption that your series of fantasy novels, or debut album, or new business, or better spaghetti sauce, is going to make you millions of dollars, or even a living, in the next six to twelve months, or three to five years, or ever. Expect instead to have to return to it every day for a very long time, even though you are throwing nearly all of it away, and it is not working, and it is much harder than you thought. If you keep learning, and looking for problems, and solving them, and do all these things continuously, eventually you will succeed. And no matter how great the pain of failure, the feeling of actually doing that thing you are most passionate about doing, that thing that has been gnawing at you forever, that thing that you always wanted to get around to, is the best feeling in the world. So, begin. Then don’t quit. Ever. It’s that easy and that hard.

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Kevin Ashton led pioneering work on RFID (radio frequency identification) networks, for which he coined the term “the Internet of Things,” and cofounded the Auto-ID Center at MIT. His writing about innovation and technology has appeared in Quartz, Medium, The Atlantic, and The New York Times.

Copies of How to Fly a Horse will be on our shelves January 20. You can pre-order a signed, personalized copy of the book via bookpeople.com.

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