The Wellspring of American Creativity

Nexi, from the Personal Robots group at the MIT Media Lab.
Nexi, from the Personal Robots group at the MIT Media Lab. robot computer technology

In these early days of 2010, we at CBS News are assessing "Where America Stands." We're examining many of the problems of our time . . . and looking at any number of creative solutions. But what about creativity itself? Could we Americans ever find THAT in short supply? Our Cover Story is reported by Susan Spencer of "48 Hours":

A new idea . . . a new approach . . . a new technique . . . creative breakthroughs can come like a bolt of lightning, or in the whisper of a muse.

Or, sadly, not at all. Many of us would welcome any sign of creative inspiration.

"Creativity is the ability to give the world something it didn't know it was missing," said Daniel Pink. "Create something fundamentally new, like the iPod. You have tens of millions of people now who carry around an iPod. Eight years ago I don't think they knew they were missing an iPod."

Even without your iPod, author Daniel Pink's views may be music to your ears. A former speechwriter for Vice President Al Gore, Pink now writes about creativity, and believes we all have at least some potential.

"You have it 'cause you're a human being," Pink said. "Now when I say everybody's creative, doesn't meant that everybody is a budding Picasso or a budding Edison or a budding Toni Morrison. But the human species is defined by its ability to create."

See More Stories and Videos From CBS Reports: Where America Stands

And he thinks this country's got a pretty good track record of doing just that:

"What's happened the last 10 years that has changed the lives of people all over the world? The iPhone: USA. Twitter: Started by a guy from Nebraska. Facebook: Started by a guy from Florida who went to Harvard and dropped out."

And not just because America is a rich country with more time to think and create. Pink also credits what's been a nurturing environment.

"In this country failure is less stigmatized than in other countries," he said. "If I start a business and it fails, I don't shame my entire family, okay? In fact, the bankruptcy code in this country affords me, quote, 'a fresh start.'"

"What the American experience offers when it comes to imagination is that we're a melting pot of so many different types of people," said Walter Isaacson, who runs the Aspen Institute, a think tank in Washington. He has written biographies of two creative geniuses, Albert Einstein and Benjamin Franklin.

"You see it at the founding of our republic," Isaacson said. "You've seen that great Industrial Revolution where people were inventing the telephone, the telegraph, the light bulb, and everything else, the phonograph. You've seen the push that came because of the Internet and the digital revolution. And now we're looking for what's going to be the engine or the driver of a new creativity."

The challenge for the U.S. is how to keep up that momentum.

"You can kind of feel it in our society that there's no new burst of innovation or imagination happening," Isaacson said.

"Is it an attitudinal thing? Have we become complacent? Are we too greedy?" asked Spencer.

"I think one problem we've had is that people who are smart and creative and innovative as engineers went into financial engineering," he replied. "They decided to go Wall Street and create derivatives and hedge funds, and all sorts of CDOs that didn't really help our economy, and I think may have really hurt the economy.

"When the financial sector sucks up all or your creativity, I don't think you're going to have the most creative society," Isaacson said.

So, is the creative spirit in America less-than-spirited these days?

Certainly not at the M.I.T. Media Lab in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where work is underway on more than 300 inventions - everything from stackable cars to sociable robots.

In fact, e-books, car navigation systems, even the popular video game Guitar Hero, sprang in part from research done right here.

Cynthia Breazeal is in charge of social robots research at the Media Lab: "I think I am very fortunate to be in a place like the Media Lab, where, I mean, we are brimming over with creativity. I mean, this is like the Mecca, I think!"

Her creative vision: Robots as helpers in homes . . . in five to ten years. The key, she says, is making them, well, as people-like as possible.

Take Nexi . . .

"I can tell you that I'm sad, mad, confused, excited or even bored just by moving my face," "she" said. "But I hope you can see that I'm very happy to have met you."

"Unbelievable!" exclaimed Spencer. "But in terms of feeling like there is a connection - it's amazing."

Nexie - and all other Media Lab inventions - begin with what Breazeal calls the "secret sauce" of creativity: getting people in different fields to share ideas.

"It's not just about multiple sciences and multiple engineering," she said. "It's like you've got designers and artists and musicians. I mean, we're all under the same roof."

And if the key to working under the same roof is getting along, then creative types may have a leg up. Psychiatrist and creativity specialist Dr. Nancy Andreasen says creative people often have similar personalities.

"They're not just curious about what they do, they're curious about all kinds of things," Dr. Andreasen said. "They're adventuresome. They push the envelope. They are rebellious. They have a sense of humor."

"I want to meet one of these people someday, they sound terrific!' Spencer laughed.

And they have one more thing in common: The structure of their brains, which Dr. Andreasen recently started studying.

"I've only done a smallish number, but what I have found so far is that, yes, people who are highly creative do have different patterns of activity in their brain, a much more highly developed capacity to see relationships, to make associations."

Americans seem to agree the country could use more creative minds. A CBS News Poll found that about one in four (24%) thinks our education system needs it the most, while another 26 percent points to health care, and 28 percent says alternative energy.

Read the Complete Poll

But to keep thinking big as a country may require a new attitude toward those really creative souls among us.

"The beauty of our founding generation, founders of our country, was that they loved science," said Isaacson. "And nowadays, when people are a little bit wary of science, they don't realize it's beautiful. They don't realize a mathematical equation is just the Good Lord's brushstroke for painting something in physical reality."

"We need to celebrate people - not people who try to get into balloons to go on reality television and not people who lose, you know, 300 pounds on a television show," said Pink. "We need to celebrate the inventors and the scientists and the creators in this country."

So that, when the lightning strikes, or the muse whispers, someone will answer the call.

For more info:
MIT Media Lab
Walter Isaacson (The Aspen Institute)