I had gone through this vale of tears thinking that the root of brainstorm was meteorological: that the brain is encouraged to “rain down” ideas. But this week, I have learned that storm was meant, by the coiner of the phrase, to evoke soldiers storming a position. In other words, the brain was to be considered a sort of grenade, and the brainstormers were to be considered commandoes rushing at a problem.
The coiner of the phrase was an advertising man. Naturally. Name of Alex F. Osborn. Now, a lotta folks blame everything that’s been crapped up on Ayn Rand’s malign influence. Few (or maybe nobody) blames Alex F. Osborn. But I think a case can be made that Osborn’s brainstorm baby – set sailing on a sea of Babbitry and business uplift – has had a larger effect on the American elite’s cognitive style than the firebreathing Rand, who had the good sense to see that under the suit or casualware of the business school graduate beats a heart just yearning for someone to mistake him for a hero in a Harlequin Romance. Good way to sell books. And if daffy Silicon Valley types weave a philosophy from Rand’s romances, well, pretty much tells you about the level of Silicon Valley types.
But Osborn was serious.
“It was in 1939 when I first organized such group-thinking in our company. The early participants dubbed our efforts “brainstorm sessions; and quite aptly so because, in this case, “brainstorm” meas using the brain to storm a creative problem— and to do so in commando fashion, with each stormer audaciously attacking the same objective.” [Applied Imagination]
Osborn is quite excited by the sheer quantity of brainstorming results. A group at his agency developed over 800 ideas for one of his clients. 800! Imagine, as they would say today, the disruption!
Osborn gives four rules for brainstorming:
“1. Judicial judgment is ruled out. Criticism of ideas is withheld until later.
2. Freewheeling is welcomed. The wilder the idea, the better. It is easier to tame down than to think up.
3. Quantity is wanted. The greater the number of ideas, the more the likelihood of winners.
4. Combination and improvement are sought. In addition to contributing ideas of their own, participants should suggest how ideas of others can be turned into better ideas; or how two or more ideas can be joined into still another idea. “
If the surrealist idea of automatic writing were turned into a parlor game for servants of capital, I guess it would look like this.
However, my point here is that the breathless idea of being “freewheeling” and putting out all these ideas out there – the more there are, the more likely we are to find “winners” – has become the unfortunate cognitive style of the Executive branch in its ultra testosterone mode. In a sense, Trump’s tweets are the ultimate brainstorm. They wheel so free that the wheels come off; they flurry, they multiply. And they both judge and ask not to be judged – exposing the contradiction between 1, where criticism is given its division of labor instructions to stay away, and no. 4, where we are trying to make an idea better, which is truly hard to do if we can’t judge its worth at all. Meaning that we end up with excitable inanity, the usual form in which exec speak happens. It is all very uplifting and, as Osborn likes to say over and over again, creative. The American cult of the creative may not have started with Osborn, but he was a votary.
Osborn indicates with some satisfaction (in the book I’ve been quoting) that the military has taken up his ideas and run with them. I think some glimmer of brainstorming is behind the cockeyed sense of intellectual entitlement that pervades both Silicon Alley and Wall street: that the making of software apps for taking pictures of cats, or slicing and dicing a financial instrument so that nobody understands what it is about, is very creative. Trump, that old joke, with his art of the deal, otherwise known as cheating at cards, is very likely convinced that he is a brainstormer par excellence. He and Kushner and Bannon – can’s you see these fatuous men putting their heads together to solve, say, the problem that miiiinoooorities are still allowed to vote in this country. Etc.
I don’t blame Rand. Poor Osborn is the guy I blame.