If you want to succeed you must fail first, says the man who dreamt up the Internet of Things

Discussing the vital parts genius and failure play in creation.
Written by Colin Barker, Contributor

Kevin Ashton is credited with coming up with the Internet of Things (IoT) which Wikipediadefines as a "network of physical objects or 'things' embedded with electronics, software, sensors and connectivity to enable it to achieve greater value and service by exchanging data with the manufacturer, operator and/or other connected devices".

Kevin Ashton: "It's no coincidence that the kids who are most creative are often labelled 'rebellious' or 'maverick'."

He coined the term back in 1999, and it is only now that the technology is catching up to the point at which this network of smart things may become a reality.

Now the IoT is big news and has become the latest subject of interest with anybody who can claim an interest in technology, consumer goods, household products, in fact, almost anything.

Ashton's latest project is a book which develops his ideas about innovation called How to Fly a Horse: the Secret History of Creation, Invention, and Discovery.

ZDNet: You are credited as the man who dreamed up the IoT and, by your own admission, you don't particularly like the name. If you were doing it today what would you call it?

Ashton: I think it's a good name. I sometimes joke that internet "for" things would be more grammatical, but internet "of" things deliberately describes something deeper: the interconnectedness of all our tools and supplies.

That's important, even though it makes it a harder concept for a lot of people to grasp. The interconnectedness of humanity's creations is something I talk about a lot in How to Fly a Horse. Our web of creation is so ubiquitous, and so complicated, that a lot of people don't see it all.

The IoT integrates the interconnectedness of human culture - our "things" - with the interconnectedness of our digital information system - "the internet." That's the IoT.

Education prioritises control, compliance and conformity not freedom.

ZDNet: You use the story of how the world first adopted vanilla, a flavour derived from orchids, and adopted it as an all- pervasive product, to illustrate your theory on how ideas come about.

Ashton: The story of vanilla shows how a 12-year-old slave, Edmond solved the problem of how to grow vanilla outside of its native Mexico. This was a problem many of Europe's greatest botanists had been trying and failing to solve for hundreds of years.

The point if the story is that anyone can make an important creative contribution. That's because creating is innate, and instinctive, and, as a result, we see it in all children.

The same is true of trying to understand technology. All children have an instinct to explore technology, just as they have an instinct to explore nature. That's why you see them playing telephone about the same time as you see them getting excited when they see dogs or birds. The role of education should be to enable and enhance that innate, instinctive ability, and otherwise get the hell out of the way of its development.

Instead, sadly, we have an education system that prioritizes control, compliance, and conformity, frankly for its own convenience. Those things stand in direct opposition to creation. Education stomps all over a child's creative nature. It's no coincidence that the kids who are most creative are often labelled "rebellious" or "maverick". They are creating instead of complying.

The emphasis should be on iteration.

ZDNet: What sort of method, strategy or even campaign can we put in place to teach the art of thinking without the constraints of what is considered normal?

Ashton: Starting in early education, there's this tacit focus on doing things right first time that makes absolutely no sense for anything remotely creative. You hand in your essay, you get a grade. You draw a picture, it goes up on a wall. That makes sense for very young children, but by the age of about eight, we should be shifting to a first draft, second draft, final draft model where the teacher provides constructive comments, not a grade, for several rounds, over several weeks, and those are incorporated before the work is considered final.

That should be true in any subject where something new is being made - creative writing, art, engineering, anything like that. We need to teach that the key to creating is improving, or that "perfection" is a result of perfecting, rather than rewarding the idea that you can make anything good the first time you try.

In that system, "failing" becomes learning. It goes from being the most catastrophic thing that can happen, to the most constructive thing that can happen.

ZDNet: The thesis of your book appears to be that there is no such thing as genius -you argue that anybody can come up with the sort of idea that we would define that way. So where does someone like Einstein fit into this?

Ashton: We are not all equally talented, at least not in any given area. But the results that Einstein achieved were the product of the same processes we all use to solve problems; he just happened to have an aptitude for theoretical physics.

There are several problems with calling that "genius."

First, it suggests that Einstein used some kind of thinking that is unusual. He didn't. He achieved extraordinary results, but the steps he took were the types of steps we all take when trying to solve a problem.
336 pages, Publisher: William Heinemann, ISBN-13: 978-0434022908, £20.00.

Second, it implies that "genius" is some kind of capability that can be detected in advance. It isn't. No one thought Einstein was a 'genius' until after he accomplished extraordinary things. Much of what we know about him today is post-rationalisation that happened late in his life, or after his death. He fought hard against the idea that he was a "genius".

We curse children at an early age by telling them they are 'gifted' or 'not gifted' even though all the evidence is that there is no way of knowing exactly what anyone is capable of. The 'gifted' ones think there is no point in working, and so do the 'non-gifted' ones.

All this talk of 'giftedness' and 'genius' is demonstrable bullshit. As soon as you realise that alleged 'geniuses' do things in the same way everybody else does things, and that they are only called "geniuses" after the fact, this idea of genius as some kind of innate and general specialness disappears into vapour.

There really is no such thing, which is why we can have a conversation about what exactly the definition is. It's a nebulous, poisonous term.

We should reclaim the originalmeaning of the word genius instead: the Romans used it to mean that unique spark of special that everybody has. The question I ask in How to Fly a Horse is what will you create with your wonderful spark of special. Everybody has genius, and it is a gift to be given, not kept.

Further Reading:

How to Fly a Horse, book review: Debunking the myth of genius

Search, book review: The new 'hinge' linking people and machines

A Female Genius, book review: Lord Byron's daughter and the dawn of the computer age

London: The Information Capital, book review: Data visualisation done right

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