Liquid Environments

I was eighteen when I first heard this song, in the summer before my freshman year at the Evergreen State College in Olympia. Evergreen was, always has been, and is a haven for weirdos. I love it dearly for that.  I started college the day Nevermind was released, in the city where Nirvana lived, at the college where they’d just recently played in the dorms. Olympia in the Fall of 1991 was hot with ideas, basking in afterglow of the recent International Pop Underground festival, the Riot Grrls a couple months away from national attention. Music exploding everywhere, at shows and house parties, kids turned on to local sounds that had been invented in the rain.

I’m reading Steven Johnson’s Where Good Ideas Come From. He writes about how “liquid” environments that encourage sharing and the free flow of ideas are where innovations are born. Early nineties Olympia was one such environment, and the primary conduit was music. It provided a reason to gather, literally rub up against one another, and audiences encouraged experimentation and risk.

This is the kind of environment that Seattle’s VR community wants. It’s the reason there’s so much goodwill these days toward HTC and Valve, which announced this week that its tracking technology will be open sourced. Creative people gravitate toward sources of empowerment. In return, those sources of empowerment gain loyalty.

I’m thinking about how collectives foster creativity. Or, conversely, how creativity gets squashed in a collective, which is unfortunately something collectives are really good at. Creativity in collectives is stifled when norms are too rigorously enforced. The phrase “We don’t do it that way here” is a sure sign that an organization is killing creative ideas.

I just got off a Skype call with a Finnish VR developer. We talked about creating a VR exchange program between Helsinki and Seattle. He mentioned that Finland feels isolated in Europe, and I could empathize, being that sometimes it feels as though Seattle is isolated from the rest of the United States. I came away from the call feeling that Finland is eager for sharing and exchange.

In the video for “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” those kids in that gymnasium are hungry for empowerment and restless with energy. I remember what that felt like then. The emergence of this new medium makes me feel that way now.