The Usefulness of Useless Inventions
Ever heard of Gary Dahl? If you have; kudos, but it’s not strange if you haven’t. When Gary died in 2015, however, it made headlines in the New York Times. Gary was a freelance advertising copywriter, which he reportedly stated was “being another word for broke”. Gary eventually became a creative director, an award-winning copywriter, and an agency owner. His father was a lumber mill worker, his mother a waitress. As a student, he attended what is now known as Washington State University. Gary was sued for millions by his investors, two thirds of his marriages ended with divorce, and for some time, he ran a saloon and a sailboat brokerage. Gary lived in Northern California, and he wrote the book Advertising for Dummies that was first published in 2001, and one year, he even won the Bulwer-Lutton Fiction Contest, which honours deliberately bad prose.
However, none of these are reasons for his death making headlines. The headline read, “Gary Dahl, Inventor of the Pet Rock, Dies at 78”, and this says it all, really. Gary Dahl was a man with dry humour, inclined to taking a liking to stupid shit, and it made him a millionaire.
Obviously, there are two words in that headline that stand out: pet and rock. The picture you now see in your mind is correct: it is an actual rock, functioning as a pet. The idea presented itself, like a lot of stupid ideas, in a bar. It sprang from a sentence he had said in passing as a joke, upon which his lightbulb went off. The result? A little cardboard carrying case with breathing holes containing a small, ordinary rock laying on a bed of hay, accompanied by instructions on how to take care of your “pet”. During the 1975 holiday season, it was the most popular gift in the US, and 1.5 million Pet Rocks were sold in a span of a few months.
Yes, business was booming; he had to hire people. Phones rang continuously, they drowned in orders. Why so many people actually wanted it though, is a mystery. But the aspect of the product’s absolute uselessness is perhaps more interesting. Why bother using so much of your professional time on something so meaningless in the first place?
In his acclaimed essay titled “The Usefulness of Useless knowledge”, first published in Harper’s Magazine in 1939, author and influential educator, Abraham Flexner writes, “Throughout the whole history of science, most of the really great discoveries which had ultimately proved to be beneficial to mankind had been made by men and women who were driven not by the desire to be useful but merely the desire to satisfy their curiosity.”
Although a Pet Rock is hardly a scientific discovery, and neither is it rooted in beneficial knowledge, the observation applies to Gary’s case as well. Curiosity is universal; a key factor in all human success, and a crucial factor for creativity. But why use so much time on an idea that is fundamentally useless? Because it is fun, goddammit. It is spontaneous and explored freely without being over evaluated. No rules, no goal; that is the law of true freedom, and thus, true creativity. Not only is the Pet Rock proof that anything can sell as long as it’s wrapped creatively enough, it’s a prime example of how something completely useless can generate meaningfulness, however quirky.
Considering its fundamental uselessness, it’s interesting—and hard not to consider—how Gary’s success doesn’t quite resonate with our universal nature of evaluation—which goes for the way in which we assess any object, product, or service: what does it do, how does it function, and is it useful? This analytical process goes through the mind like the flick of a switch, ultimately guiding our brains to decode its meaning and thus to decide whether we’d care for it or not. It’s not just a case of individual evaluation, of course, it permeates everything, from education and art to business. Back when I was as a creative copywriting student, my classmates and I were constantly drilled in terms of justifying and explaining our choices—from choosing a typeface for an article to a colour theme in a presentation. Essentially, coincidences were frowned upon. Everything had to have a meaning, a function, a purpose. Preferably on several levels. Although, constantly justifying our choices as students, in a practical sense, resonates with decision-making in a marketing context and basically teaches us how to think and behave in future professional endeavours, I can’t help but wonder whether the continuous act of justification builds walls of limitation rather than encouraging creative freedom. And if so, what are the consequences? The point here being: If Gary Dahl was my classmate, he’d probably have a hard time justifying the Pet Rock to our teachers, and the world might never have been witness to his beautiful creation.
On the other hand, to be conscious of the evaluation process is practically, in some ways, a decoded and evaluated version of our natural, biological process of constantly connecting the dots—to search for coherence and purpose, no matter what we’re presented with. Needless to say, we all have a basic need to understand, which is one of the reasons why Hollywood, with their simple and efficient plots, are commercially more successful than experimental niche films: anyone can interpret and understand them, and when the dots are connected, it’s easier to accept the expression. This brings us to abstract art, the dot-connectors’ greatest enemy.
When the acclaimed Norwegian photo artist Dag Alveng held his debut exhibition in Oslo in 1979, both the audience and the press were outraged. The exhibition was titled Vegger (Walls) and consisted of a series of photos displaying the exact spot of the wall where the photos were hung in 1:1 size. Reportedly, the atmosphere was tense, and the criticism was so harsh that Alveng almost didn’t dare to show his face in public. Back then, conceptual photo art had no foothold in the Norwegian art community and was evidently regarded as completely meaningless, thus the outrage. Later, however, the series had been described as a landmark in Norwegian photo art. Jonas Ekeberg, the director of Preus Museum (Norway’s National Museum for Photography), has stated that the series is “a milestone in the history of Norwegian photography” and that it “pushed the concept of art”. Today, Dag Alveng is one of the most prominent artists in Norway, and a single photo from the Vegger exhibition now goes for over 100,000 Norwegian kroner.
Still, when it comes to the abstract and the conceptual, the initial reaction Alveng received is hardly rare. “I could’ve done that myself” is a typical sneer heard in context of the abstract, which is a statement that arguably emerges from one of two things: The artwork doesn’t trigger what the viewer might consider an art-worthy emotional response, or the motif is quite simply too hard to interpret as having any meaningful function. Most likely, it’s a combination of the two. Either way, if the viewer is unable to connect any meaningful dots, it seems likely that the art will be regarded as worthless and a waste of time. Put briefly: Not understanding is so unacceptable to our programming that we tend to get angry.
In an interview conducted in context of Alveng’s recent retrospective exhibition at the Henie Onstad Kunstsenter in Oslo, he stated that “My good friend and mechanic once asked me, ‘are your pictures just about mood or do they have deeper meaning?’ I think… a tiny moment, a mood, a path through [the woods], the shadow of something on a field of grass… Giving the viewer a feeling of being there is enough. I think it’s important to exist in the moment, without searching for something different. I think people should stop being so obsessive about meaning all the time.”
The story of Alveng’s Vegger is a classic example of the evolution of taste, which could easily be hailed the evolution of understanding. The art world is full of artists who achieve success long after their own time. The same goes for science, which is the basis of discussion in Abraham Flexner’s “The Usefulness of Useless Knowledge”. Just like Gary Dahl, they were all driven by curiosity, and they were all initially regarded as useless.
Embrace the ridiculous
However, the artist is rarely bound by rules and restrictions. Not in the same way as a creative who is selling services to clients. In context of the latter, the process of justification takes shape as custom guidelines developed based on who the client is, and what they’re looking for. Some find these limitations to be the essence of creativity itself; to find the best solution in order to achieve a given goal within a certain framework. Others find such a limitation to be just what it is.
One of the others is Matthias Farwick. Matthias is many things: a rock climber, a doctor of computer science, and the founder and CEO of Txture, an IT company specialising in developing complex IT solutions. Apart from his serious startup business, he is also a true embracer of useless ideas, an interest that materialised itself as he co-hosted the Innsbruck, Austria edition of what has come to be known as The Stupid Hackathon—a convention dedicated solely to the development of the most stupid ideas that one can come up with. Amongst the brilliant ridiculousness that has emerged out of the Stupid Hackathons worldwide are concepts such as a Beer Selfie Stick that lets you pour beer in your mouth while taking a selfie, a meditation aid that shocks you when you don’t relax, an analog augmented reality experience that makes everything intestinal, a non-ad block that blocks all web site content that isn’t an ad, and a VR doorbell that allows you to get the attention of someone in virtual reality.
As Matthias’ company Txture is an offshoot of the activities of the University of Innsbruck, the initial idea was to bring the university’s department of computer science and the department of entrepreneurship together in an event to inspire collaboration and idea development. A classic Hackathon was the initial idea, a concept based on the same thing, minus the stupid part. But Matthias and his team had no use for that.
“Generally, I don’t like the way Hackathons are done these days,” Matthias explains. “They’ve been hijacked by big companies and are used as a recruitment tool and as a means to gain new profitable ideas. Often, you have to sign a waiver beforehand saying that all the ideas developed are the property of whatever company is hosting the event. Hackathons used to be about a bunch of nerds coming together to have fun and try stuff out. I think the original idea has been lost.”
The aspect of «stupid» originally started in the US, created and hosted by artist and creative director Amelia Winger Bearskin and Adjunct Professor at the Interactive Telecommunications Program at the NYU, Sam Lavigne. The original Stupid Hackathon has now inspired numerous different editions all over the world. They all have in common, a history of attracting tech heads, computer engineers, designers, and general creatives alike. For Matthias, a stupid Hackathon can also be viewed as a critique of capitalism.
“Everything around us is created for someone to make money. Everything is created based on a return on investment principle, and we’re all stuck in this, it’s just the nature of our society. With the Stupid Hackathon, we can come together and escape this by revisiting that old childish approach where we just created stuff for the fun of it without the urge to make money.”
Although the Stupid Hackathon rewards the ideas with the least purpose, to actually walk away as the winner of the most useless invention is no easy task. To make something stupid isn’t necessarily easier than to make something smart.
“It’s really a challenge,” Matthias comments, “Even though all attendees sign up with a goal to create something really stupid, almost 50% of the ideas have some kind of purpose. So then I have to tell them this makes too much sense, he laughs.”
Why do you think so many people find it appealing to be stupid?
“Because everything around us is business, and we all need a break sometimes. It’s just like live music events, or drug culture for that matter; people need an escape from their daily routine. In a professional context, people’s roles are often narrowed down, in many cases extremely specialised, which I believe to result in very limited creativity. By removing all purpose, you get to be truly creative again.”
“If you talk to a highly trained musician, for example, she will tell you that at some point in her career, she had challenged everything that she’d learned and broken the rules in order to come up with something new and push the boundaries. I think this applies to any creative process: If you’re stuck in a day to day routine only doing what you’re trained to, breaking out of that pattern can be very beneficial for creativity.”
Just like working towards a specific goal—be it becoming an artist, delivering the best possible service to your client or writing a novel—to break out of your routines is easier said than done and it takes true commitment, as we are undeniably trained and programmed not to break out of routine. In spite of this, many scientific discoveries and cases of hyper creativity emerge from pure curiosity. However, fully pursuing this curiosity is an act of ignoring your critical self by not thinking about whether your work is good enough. In that sense, being useless is a matter of just doing, and when you just do, you start a process, and then who knows what can happen? Sometimes, it pushes the boundaries of art, and other times, it makes you a millionaire. The point here being: Be more like Gary Dahl; get out there and crack open a can of uselessness. Be stupid, be great.