Keats, Negative Capability and Digital Ideation
John Keats died very young (at 25) and a very long time ago (1821). To his contemporaries he was a sickly Romantic poet (Tuberculosis) whose lyrical genius (his dying wish was that his gravestone be engraved with ‘Here lies one whose name was writ in water’ – how great is that?) was deeply underappreciated in his time (Shelley insinuated Keats’ ‘fiery particle’ was extinguished by a particularly critical review).
Keats was born a hundred years too early.
Alive today, he would be out-Mark-Zuckerberg-ing Mark Zuckerberg. He would have more Twitter followers than Lady Gaga, Justin Beiber and Jeff Koinange…combined. Klout would be renamed Keats.
In his letters, Keats – who died too young to have a real shot at developing the sort of comprehensive, mature poetic themes you see in older poets – was a giant ideas machine, churning out moment after moment of inspired thought. One of these moments – his idea of ‘Negative Capability’ – convinces me he would thrive, if not dominate, a digital world.
Negative Capability is a state of mind where we are ‘content with half-knowledge’, ‘capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason’. For Keats this state of mind was critical to the creative act. To create, a creator needs to live in the shadows of his mind; to accept a lack of definition as temporary and, counter intuitively, helpful.
In other words, Negative Capability perfectly describes the attitude of the Hackathon expert. To deal with the preposterous timescales, delicate relationships and the constant destabilizing influence of mentors and facilitators that are Hackathons, a Hacker needs a nimble mind au fait with uncertainty, mystery and serious doubt.
The only way to get from zero to Hackathon hero is to accept that the ideation process is long and it starts with nothing. That the temporary frustration which defines the early creation process – where so many participants seem drop away physically or mentally – is hugely significant and, weirdly, crucial to the end result. In other words, a mind prepared to accept mystery and uncertainty is primed to succeed.
Here at the Culture Shift Hackathon, all 6 groups have been perfect examples of the Keats philosophy. Each of them struggled in the beginning with the squishiness of their ideas. As I move through the iHub talking to each of them, I hear a lot of frustration, understandably, at their circumstance. But I have noticed the most flexible participants, the ones who embrace the fickleness of the process are the ones, three days later, who have the clearest, cleanest and most exciting ideas. Sometimes the practical needs a dose of impractical to get going.
Also, Keats for Internet President!
-Ryan Bowman (ryan (at) circle.co.ke)