“Imagination is more important than knowledge. For knowledge is limited to all we now know and understand, while imagination embraces the entire world, and all there ever will be to know and understand.” Albert Einstein
When we imagine we use our mind to conjure images and ideas – we can speculate what might happen based on previous experience by building hypotheses based on reason. We can combine our experiences of having visited other tropical beaches with what we have read about Thailand to imagine and predict what a short break in Koh Samui might be like.
Dr. Jim Davies’ TED talk is a great introduction to thinking about Imagination as a way of knowing. In trying to understand imagination Davies discusses research that seems to suggest that our perceptual memory and written language actually affect the way we imagine.
Some say that human’s ability to imagine is one of the faculties that sets us aside from all other animals. Yet some recent research suggests this idea may be pure hubris. We use our imagination to visualise the future based on our experiences of the past. We can use our mind’s eye to speculate about physical phenomena, to generate new ideas and designs, we can plan our future and even fantasise about pleasurable holidays or reflect on those we have had in the past. But is imagination really a separate way of knowing?
Different ways we imagine ….
Imagining the Future
Imagining the immediate future is usually quite easy. What is going to happen this afternoon is quite predictable and easy to visualise. On this particular day I am sitting writing at Red Shoe Dance Co whilst my daughter has her “Jazz Dance” lesson. I was able to plan how the afternoon would unfold. I actually imagined where I wanted to sit (near the power – my macbook was running low) and also made a flask of coffee to enjoy whilst I made this page. Imagining the future some time ahead is more tricky. Especially now, with the exponential developmental rate of technology. It is difficult to imagine how best to prepare for the use of learning technologies in the new Island School which will not be completed until 2021.
In fact these drawings (below) from TCAL/SHL of the concept design for the new Island school are based purely on imagination. Do they help you to have knowledge of what the future school will be like?
As the Drucker quote above suggests the best imagineers do not just predict the future, they create it. Steve Jobs and Apple needed not only to recognize patterns in consumer needs and to understand the potential of emerging technologies, they also needed the creativity to imagine how the world could develop and to add a more radical way of visualising what could be. Of course we should acknowledge the great Jonathan Ive here, as he contributed much of the design vision that made Apply products the success they are. But hold on, did Apple foresee the explosion of the apps industry and how the iPhone would revolutionise reportage? Did anyone see how twitter would enable and support popular uprisings in the early 21st century? Who predicted that the BBC and CNN would be vociferous users of twitter? In the same way the designers of the internal combustion engine and the men behind promoting the car as a form of mass transport, did not imagine the future wars fought over international oil fields, the health impacts of roadside pollution, the demise of local shops as out of town shopping centres undercut their trade and meant that people needed only do one or two food shops a week. It is very difficult to imagine forward when we deal with unknowns like new technologies and new social phenomena. We can only imagine the future based on what we know now?
I like this parody of a microsoft vision for the future …
How important is it for us to imagine alternative futures or different situations? A recent film release is an adaption of Phillip K Dick’s 1960s novel The Man in a High Castle. The story line is set against the imagined backstory of what life might have been like if Germany and Japan had won the second world war. The ‘new’ USA is split between Germany and Japan.
The bestselling book “The Plot Against America” by Philip Roth deals with the same subject matter.
Someone even produced this highly detailed map that imagines what New York might have been like if Germany had won the war.
Have a look at some of these images from the early to mid 20th century. They show how people imagined we would get around in the late 20th and early 21st century. Not all these predictions came true!
Click on the following two images to enlarge and read
This film claims that trains of the future will take over from the private car and air travel – do you think they are right?
Key questions ….
- To what extent to people who imagine the future, plan the future and bring it into being? Some argue that those writers and filmmakers who envisage future ages actually help to bring them about. Star Trek predicts the future.
- What are the limits of imagination when foreseeing the future? How can we imagine unintended consequences and unforeseen events?
Marshall McLuhan remarkably predicts the internet in 1965. This man’s writing is still so relevant today. His imagination and reflections around the developments and impact of technology were way ahead of his time.
James Burke and Matt Novak ponder the future and why we are terrible at predicting it.
Predicting the future – resources
- The Bigthink – Futurism is awesome
- BBC – How we imagined a New York of the Future
- Paleo-Future – a look into the future that never was
- Reddit: Futurology
- 2011: “Living in the Future” by Geoffrey Hoyle
- IFTF – The Institute For The Future
- Guardian article on Futurology
- Flying Cars: BBC Future
- “The Black Swan: The impact of the Highly Improbable” by Nassim Nicholas Talib NY times review
Imagining the Past
Archeologists and anthropologists not only study unearthed ancient artefacts and observe archaic rituals and practices to arrive at notions of what the past might have been like. They also have to use their empirical findings as a platform from which to imagine. The thumb of the Iguanadon was once imagined as a nose horn (like a Rhinoceros’s). imagination (or was it speculation) was left wanting! Finally palaeontologists realised that the horn like structure was located on the creature’s claws.
- How useful is imagination in visualising the past?
- Are we bound by our current paradigms and schemas when reflecting on what the distant past might have been like?
- To what extent is imagination separate from memory when we reflect on our own past?
Imagining Other Worlds
What do I mean by this?
- How often have you tried to imagine what is going on in someone else’s mind?
- Why do people imagine the existence of places like Heaven and Hell?
Imagination and the Arts
Arguably the novel is fuel for the imagination. To read a book without visualising the characters and places would be impossible. Also the novelist themselves has used imagination to create narratives and to imagine the experiences of a range of fictional characters. What inherent value does this have? How does the author’s vision have value for us and help us to build a deeper understanding of the world?
Read these excerpts from the novels of Sebastian Faulks and Pat Barker about the First World War. To what extent does their imaginings enrich and extend our understanding of history in ways that a history textbook could never do?
Esref Armagan – The Blind Painter
Whilst much research suggests that our imagination is bound and circumscribed by our sensory experience, the painter Esref Armagan’s work would suggest that we can visualise without seeing. This video is amazing and I recommend you watch it.
Imagination in Science
As the Einstein quote at the head of this post suggests, often Scientists claim that imagination is at the heart of the scientific method.
What is the role of imagination in Science? Similar to our recent discussion on intuition, is effective imagination predicated on expert subject knowledge and years of experience?
- Cornellcast – Cornell Professor of Science Communication Bruce Lewenstein presented a talk entitled “Imagination in Science,”
- “Taking Imagination Seriously” – Janet Echelman
What is beyond imagination? List some ideas – here’s a starter
- Interstellar distance
- Being a baby
- Empathising with a frog
- How big is our solar system? Interactive