Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Clues to the Runes

Note: This is an artilce I wrote for an IBM magazine I created and edited, Creativity!, in 1989. Creativity! was a success in that it greww to a circulation of 60,000 readers inside of and outside of IBM, Except for the reference to Fax's (how quaint that seems now), it's all still relevant. Perhaps even more relevant now if you consider that we're moving away from the literate to post literate society.

"Clues to the Runes" as a title to a column in an IBM publication may raise questions in your mind. The reference may be obscure, or even unknown to you. I briefly explained the choice in the first column written for the second edition of Creativity, 1983. But now, Creativity is seven years old, readership has expanded from 3,000 to 19,000, and the column has evolved. Especially for new readers, I thought it worthwhile to explain the reasons for the choice of the name. Then, I will close with some observations which I hope will be of interest and value to you, as I hope all the Clues columns are.

The purpose of the column is to provide some insight into the current and future business world, elucidating the forces for change, or explaining the present. The vehicle used for this purpose is personal observations and experiences, or the detection of weak signals of impending change buried in the avalanche of information that cascades on us daily.

Runes are an ancient written language. The language was discovered in the modern era, but not deciphered for some time. Since it was one of the early written languages in the West, and as I will discuss later in this column, important for other reasons, great interest existed in the interpretation of the runes. The runes have also been associated with magic and mystery, being tied to ancient religious ceremonies. This is true of most creative discontinuities. Unable to be understood by the majority of people, and demonstrating immense power, they become magic.

Consider the FAX machine in this context. The use of FAX machines has exploded just in the last year, and now they are common business tools. FAX machines can be found in the most unusual places, including many airports. A cartoon in a recent New Yorker showed two businessmen being escorted to their table in a restaurant. The maitre d' asks, "Do you want a table with or without a FAX?" We take the FAX for granted, a few may even know how it works. But consider a literate person of a few hundred years ago. Bring them to the present and show them the FAX. It would appear magical to them. Unaware of the actual physical workings, they could only assume that a letter was dematerialized and put back together before their eyes. To them there would be no difference between the Star Trek transportation system and the FAX machine.

If we now conspired to hide the secrets of FAX technology from everyone, we would be doing what the ancients did with languages such as the runes. They wanted the language to appear magical, with the power remaining in a few hands. Today, some authorities are concerned that we are creating the same two class society‑those that understand technology and those who do not. And as technology accelerates, the gap widens.

In addition, our society has honored "zero sum" activities more highly than technical activities, accentuating the problem of interesting students in technical careers. (See "Manufacturing and Product Innovation," Creativity 7:4, Dec. 1988). To a growing percentage of the population, an increasingly greater part of today's world is indistinguishable from magic.

The word "rune" itself is derived from the Norse word "runar," which meant "magic sign." It also has its roots in the German "runa," meaning either "to whisper" or " a secret." So the rune was a magical secret that was whispered only to those with a need to know.

In mythology, the origin of the runes is credited to Odin. Odin was the Norse god known in Germany as Woden or Wotan, and as Grim in Anglo‑Saxon England. He was a ferocious warrior who represented the wilder aspects of the dark forest of the northlands. He frequently was ascribed the powers of the all‑father, the creator of gods, nature, and men. Known as the one‑eyed warrior, who had given one of his eyes to Mimir, who guarded the well of wisdom and knowledge‑a caldron of inspiration, Odin had to go through a terrible ordeal to arrive at the runes. He was, in addition, as the myths say, the first to be able to communicate it to other beings. From the myths we are told,

"I know that I hung on the windy tree.
Swing there nights all nine,
gashed with a blade,
bloodied for Odin,
myself an offering to myself,
knotted to that tree,
no man knows
whither the roots of it run.

None gave me bread. None gave me drink.
Down to the depths
I peered
to snatch up the Runes,
with a roaring scream
and fell into a dizzied swoon.

Well being I won,
and wisdom too.
I grew and joyed in my growth.
From a word to a word,
I was led to a word,
from deed to another deed."

It is not clear when the runes originated, or whether they were the first phonetic alphabetic language. Unfortunately, runes first were written on wood, which often does not survive. Runic script is angular, with straight lines‑thus easy to carve on wood. Surviving records of the language exist in stone and bronze executed by Neolithic and Bronze Age artists.

Communication is the process that fuels progress. Innovations in communication have always driven major improvements in the human condition. No one knows when we first began to speak. No record has been left. The first art that we have records of is about 30,000 years old. The paintings on the walls of the caves in France are about 15,000 years old. These appear to be our first attempts to communicate ideas and feelings through media outside of our bodies, extrasomatically.

It took another 12,000 years before writing began in Sumeria and the hieroglyph was invented in Egypt. The pictograph‑based hieroglyph was a great step forward, a shorthand notation that facilitated communication greatly. But written and spoken languages remained separate. A student of the language had to memorize many symbols to represent important concepts. In addition, he or she had to memorize the sounds that went along with the symbol. The phonetic‑alphabetic language was a way to merge the two. The symbol set was based on pictographs or ideographs, but with sounds associated with them. This was a giant step. Now the student of the language could learn some rules, string the symbols together to represent the concept, and be able to pronounce the word. It also limited the number of symbols that had to be learned. Instead of thousands of characters, only 24 in the Runic alphabet, or the 26 in our modem English alphabet, need be memorized.

The first alphabetic writing has been attributed to Syria in about 1500 BC, and the runes may have derived from that invention. Many argue that the runes were independently created, and if transfer occurred, it was the other way around. The cultures of Babylon and Egypt left a history, a record of what they did. The early northern Europeans did not. The continuous and persisting society of the Near East thus became the basis for our historical perspective on our development, the fountainhead of our historical memory. No living memory links us with the inventors of fire, the cave painters 15,000 years ago in France, or the builders 4,000 years ago of Stonehenge. They left us signs of their intent. They left messages, but we do not clearly understand their meaning.

Runes then, in the context of this column, are secrets that are only vaguely understood, messages that must be interpreted. But the messages do not come only from the past. They come from the future, or our already complex present.

Runes are also symbolic of innovation and creativity arrived at through a process of hard work and struggle. According to legend, Odin struggled, gave up some of his life blood, and sacrificed an eye to achieve. Then, going deep within himself, from where all creativity must originate, he brought forth with a cry, symbolic of the birth cry of a mother, the runes. After the struggle, he felt joy as we all still do after having a creative idea. Then, he reaped the benefits as he applied his creation to one use after another.

We now know that the two hemispheres of our cerebreum are specialized. The right hemisphere is intuitive, holistic, spatial. The left is rational, linear, temporal. Our right and left fields of vision are also segmented and reversed. The right field of vision is interpreted first by the left hemisphere, and vice versa. Intuitive wisdom of the ancients is represented here also as Odin had to give up one of his eyes, symbolic of having to give up one of the ways of perceiving in order to develop the symbol oriented alphabetic language. Before the development of the alphabetic language, man was a dominate r‑mode perceiver and thinker. The alphabetic Language required the development of l‑mode, and western society has steadily progressed toward l‑mode dominance.

Since most of us live in a society that uses an alphabetic language system, it is hard to imagine what a great creative leap it must have been to originate the first alphabetic phonetic language. History does not tell us how the idea originated. But if the development was like others of major significance in recent times that have been documented, it probably was thought about by many people, and even tried out haltingly by some. After many tentative and abortive attempts, some individual put it all together, and the new language was born. It probably evolved then, making it better, more efficient. The improvement likely was a group process, with many people suggesting improvements.

Imagine the struggle of the lone individual groping with concepts only vaguely comprehended. The process of stretching the mind to new concepts is difficult, even painful. New neuronal connections must be made. A totally different way of thinking about language had to be forged; while interaction may have taken place with others, it was probably, as it is still today, a lonely individual process.

The epic poem that describes the myth tells us that Odin sacrificed himself for himself, symbolic of our nature. Creativity must arise from within us. We are creative because we have a need to be creative. We are creative for ourselves, not for anyone or anything else. Yet, Odin was tied to a tree and slashed with a knife, his life blood flowing out to nurture the tree. Trees are the oldest living thing on earth. To ancient man, the tree was symbolic of growth, and eternity, for the tree outlived several generations of mankind. So while creativity is driven from within, its purpose is outside the individual. In our highly structured society, the tree is symbolic of our institutions, made up of many individuals joined together for a common purpose that the individuals hope will outlive them individually.

In the mythical stories of Odin we are told that he was the first one to understand the power of the runes and be able to explain them to others. Creativity has no social purpose unless its results can be taught to others. This then is the essence of professionalism, driven from within to exercise innate creative powers, tied to a social or institutional purpose, capable of teaching what has been created to others and compelled to do so.

Creativity!, March 1989

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