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Creative Critical Thinking

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The chaotic bustle of loud voices, stomping feet, and fragrant spices mixed with sweat attracts all kinds of men to the Athenian agora. In 400 BC, shopkeepers engaged in a fierce bidding fight try to get rid of their dried fish, olives, sandals, dirt on local politicians, amphorae, goat milk, lawsuits, givers of evidence, figs, and bread. You want something, they got it. In the midst of the yelling and cursing, a stocky and aging man—barefooted and flat-nosed, almost unkempt—felt right at home. Socrates loaded every single being he encountered with annoying questions during his daily strolls in the vicinity of the agora. His motto was know what you don’t know.

On the other side of Athens, sophist teachers specializing in subjects such as mathematics, music, philosophy, or—the Gods forbid—a craft, were busy teaching virtues to the few wealthy Greeks that could afford it. Sophists, traveling experts and skilled talkers, had one thing in common: whatever they did not know, they pretended to know to impress or persuade their audience. A few sophists even claimed to have the answers to all questions.

Who to turn to in dire need of knowledge? A weird old man pretending to know nothing, posing question after question, or a deceitful wordsmith assuring you he’s got all the answers? Socrates' know what you don’t know was during his lifetime mostly met with disdain. Athenians were easily seduced by the many (and almost exclusively manly) rhetorical speeches of the sophists. Even Socrates at one point admitted to being less skillful than some genuine sophists, sending one of this pupils off to learn from them. Plato would later depict the sophists as stingy instructors teaching nothing but deceit.

Twenty centuries later, the hollow clunks of empty bottles carelessly pushed against each other fills an otherwise silent laboratory in Paris, France. Louis Pasteur, preoccupied and bent over a small cup of souring wine, would need just a few more weeks before summarizing his thoughts on alcoholic fermentation, or the lack thereof in sterilized and sealed flasks. Instead of agreeing with fellow chemist Justus von Liebig who thought fermentation was simply the result of “organic decomposition”, Pasteur proved it was the naturally present yeast that produced alcohol from sugar.

During the 1850s, the almighty presence of micro-organisms such as yeasts and lactic acid bacteria was up for heavy debate. How can something we cannot see nor smell be part of fermentation, an ancient and important phenomena usually attributed to the gods? Louis Pasteur and his sterilized bottles shook up the nineteenth century—surprisingly sophistic—narrow minded way of thinking by demonstrating the process, ultimately winning countless of awards and financial support, enabling the expansion of his laboratory into the Pasteur Institute it is now.

People unwilling to believe in micro-organisms weren’t the only ones to partake in (self-)deceit. The now legendary genius Louis Pasteur also had dirty secrets to hide, only trusted to his laboratory notebook, which was kept private for another century, until Gerald L. Geison published The Private Science of Louis Pasteur. The work revealed several misleading and deceitful tricks Pasteur employed to keep ahead of his adversaries, including stealing ideas and discoveries. This resulted in a life-long plagiarism battle with Antoine Béchamp, a chemistry professor in Montpellier, who (of course) regarded himself as the first discoverer of the role of micro-organisms in fermentation.

Fast forward another century. The almost hypnotizing humming of several heavy-duty computer fans slowly but steadily filled a nondescript office with heat. The computers and employees of Grove Street Games, stationed in Gainesville, Florida, are working overtime to increase textures, clean up meshes, improve lightning, and introduce superior weather effects to their upcoming game Grand Theft Auto: The Trilogy - The Definitive Edition, in association with Rockstar Games.

Except that the efforts—mainly automated by AI upscalers1—produced uglier textures, too many meshes to run fluidly, harsh contrasts that break the game’s atmosphere, and rain effects that look like God spilled a few jugs of milk. Remastering classic Grand Theft Auto games (GTA III, GTA Vice City, and GTA San Andreas; see my other post on how not to do a remaster) by porting assets from RenderWare into Unreal Engine 4 was initially met with high expectations. Messing with nostalgia can have devastating consequences—as can neglecting to critically review the 100,000 AI-powered upscaled assets.

See that bolt to the right of the donut in the original San Andreas screenshot? It somehow became a tire, killing the joke in the process.

The game has reportedly been in development for over two years before it got slammed with negative responses, both from gaming critics and from gamers themselves. The Definitive Edition turned out to be far from definitive. Worse yet, Rockstar Games decided to pull the original GTA games from the digital stores, leaving gamers with fond memories of cruising cars on the beach while listening to the eighties-inspired Flash FM with no choice but to scour the second hand market. Tuff Nut indeed.

What is the greatest common divisor between Socrates' overabundant (self-)questioning and the sophists' lack thereof, the critical but wrong reception of micro-organisms after its discovery, and Grove Street Games' failing to critically review the generated assets of their video game resulting in a total bust? All three examples showcase various degrees of critical thinking—or a total lack thereof.

New inventions or ways of doing things are usually first met with skepticism. Athenians found Socrates' endless questioning method weird. It took a long time before the arrogant attitude and accumulated wealth of the sophists led to the resentment of their practices. Louis Pasteur wasn’t the first to discover living micro-organisms, and yet once again denial was the easier option. Once we finally acknowledged his genius, it turned out that he was more of a conman, stealing creative ideas from others.

Grove Street Games' reliance on creative but imperfect AI tech, probably combined with a hefty deadline pressure from Rockstar, caused them to release an unfinished game, universally destroyed by critics. Another month of intensive play-testing might have given GTA Trilogy the polish it very much needs. One day after its release, gamers posted videos of silly bugs, ruined jokes like the one above, and random crashes, proving these issues weren’t that hard to find.

Creative thinking alone is not enough: both creative and critical thinking are requirements to be genuinely creative. Critical thinking to validate or reject ideas, to make timely adjustments to the creative process, to ask for and correctly interpret feedback, and to overcome the many cognitive biases formed in our heads.

This is part three of my creativity story. Be sure to also read part 1: collective creativity, part 2: constraint-based creativity, part 4: from curiosity to creativity, part 5: a creative state of mind, part 6: technical knowledge brews creativity, and part 7: the creative techniques toolbox.

  1. See The Gamer interview with Rockstar producer Rich Rosado at↩︎

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I'm Wouter Groeneveld, a Brain Baker, and I love the smell of freshly baked thoughts (and bread) in the morning. I sometimes convince others to bake their brain (and bread) too.

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