Written by Tomas Träskman, ProPrefekt and Lecturer in Cultural Management, Department of Culture and Media, Arcada UAS

Published also 15.2.2019 in Arcada Inside -blog.

This text discusses innovation and surprise. Surprise denotes both an internal feeling and an external event. We are, after all, surprised by something. Yet, how do we understand and depict that something? And if we are surprised by something (that we then try to explain), does that imply that surprise is both a tool to detect and depict: some kind of mimetic tool? In this text, I use surprise as a ‘tool for thinking’ (Douglas & Isherwood, 1979).

The thinking starts from a personal experience during an European Social Fund (ESF) project called ‘Creathon’. Arcada is a research member of the project, and the idea of Creathon is simple: bring together two peers who meet too seldom. In this case, the peers are the ICT-industry and the Creative industry. The motto of Creathon is: “When Tech meets Culture.”

In a course on innovation, we did some prototyping about how to create a match between these industries. However, when the discussion started to go “sideways”, I realised that what I had ignored is that generally, ‘When Tech meets Culture’, it is not always a happy occasion. Quite quickly, three of the groups started to focus on what happens in the interface between ICT and Culture but instead of focusing on the potential, focused on the wrongs that technology and culture has caused them, as individuals: digital addiction, acceleration and insomnia. -“How did we end up here?”, I remember wondering in a slight panic.

In a study on the dynamics of innovation, Silvana Revellino and Jan Mouritsen (2015) explain that in innovation, “planning works less than change and possible disconnections between intentions and effects may generate serendipitous surprises”(p.455, emphasis added). Research has spoken: in innovation, there is surprise, and I was now the subject experiencing ‘surprise’.

“Surprise me”

So what is surprise? How do you identify it? Can you learn to manage it? Can you eliminate it? Let us look at some instances of surprise. The book ‘Surprise: The Poetics of the Unexpected from Milton to Austen’ starts from contemporary instances of surprise, such as Amazon.com’s search function ‘Surprise me’. In the book, this banal experience is contrasted to surprise in the time of the publication (1719) of Daniel Defoe’s ‘Robinson Crusoe’ when: “surprise was conceived of as a fully corporeal emotion: a sudden seizure, a violent physical or sexual attack, a temporary condition of muteness, a petrifaction of the body, an intimation of death” (Miller, 2015, p. 1).

At that, time surprise was also a reaction to “be stoically guarded against” and “a paralysis of rationality” (Miller, 2015). In modern narrative media, surprise is according to Christoffer Miller, “most commonly associated with the kind of unexpected event that the ‘spoiler alert’ is meant to preserve” (2015).

A lot of the literature on surprise is written from the perspective of the military: the Trojan horse created ‘an element of surprise’, and Pearl Harbor took a whole nation ‘by surprise’. In the book ‘Avoiding Surprise in an Era of Global Technology Advances’ the Committee on Defense Intelligence Agency Technology Forecasts and Reviews, and Research Council National identifies the launch of Sputnik in 1957 as a surprise, but they also suggest that things were simpler then. For instance, today:

“… reality imposes a new burden on the technology warning community, generating the need for it to search in different places and in different ways for the information needed to warn against technology surprise” (Committee, 2005).

There is a community focused on surprise, and surprise, seems according to these accounts, like something you do not really want to happen to you. So why would we, as in innovation, engage in and design for surprise? For a project with a motto: “When Tech meets Culture” the answer to this question is: we might need surprise for tech to actually “meet” culture. In this case, surprise is a “meeting”: a space of constant, random collisions (Miller, 2015).

My personal surprise, was certainly more of a collision and a temporary condition of muteness in line with 17th century Defoe, than a ‘Surprise Me’ moment. My immediate reaction was also interesting, since I started thinking in military terms: how could I have avoided the surprise? Could I for example have made a more specific brief: “create XR (or AI, IoT) solutions where Tech meets Culture.” Such behavior is quite common in innovation processes according to my experiences. Sometimes it can be in the small details. As with one colleague who first proclaimed that we want the participants in a Hackathon to be creative in their presentations. Yet, in their next breath, when contemplating the practicalities, that same colleague announced “but the presentation must be in PowerPoint.”

‘No alarms and no surprises’ (Radiohead)

In Omtänk, which was an innovation competition and a collaboration between Arcada UAS, the Swedish School of Social Science (HU) and Södertörn University. The goal was to ideate and create new concepts for a field that experiences major changes and disruption: the media industry. Omtänk was held for four consecutive years (2015-2018). The very first time surprise struck some of the organizers and participants when the winners (chosen by an external jury) were “not journalism”. This was an unpleasant surprise since some of the involved represented academic departments of journalism. In the case of Omtänk, in order to address this surprise, the following competitions were done with narrower briefs, and stricter instructions for the jury. Thinking of it in retrospect, this narrowing of briefs was one way of attempting to create a script that eliminated surprise. The consequence of avoiding surprise was that Omtänk often ended up in the obvious – by default, innovation was limited too.

Now if we use surprise as a tool for not only thinking but also a mimetic tool, then what was the ‘something’ that surprised me in the Creathon experience? It was, as in Omtänk, something that might disrupt, if not the whole world, as we know it, than at least a fragment of a reality (for which I had unconsciously named boundaries). That is why my alarm bells started ringing.

In innovation, ‘thinking out of the box’ is encouraged to an extent where the notion suffers from jargon monoxide. Arguably, the ‘dark’ territories where the meeting of tech and culture do us harm are ‘ripe for innovation’. For instance, surprise seems much more likely to happen when Rachel Botsman, in order to learn about trust, instead of exploring the internet, dives into the darknet. In her case, it turns out that traits of trustworthiness like reliability, capability and honesty apply to pizza delivery as much as drug vendors (Botsman, 2017). Maybe not so surprising when you think about it, but it still surprised both her (and me when I read her work). Sometimes we think we know the answer, but are still surprised by the actual result. The students in my course acknowledged that they knew that some things were not good for them, but they still kept trusting technology. It is now widely acknowledged that when we face uncertainty about the functioning of a technology, even though we know there might be risks involved, trust reduces those feelings. The concept of ‘system trust’ (de Vries, et al., 2015) is crucial in understanding people’s decision to rely on technology. In the students’ research, hundreds of respondents recognized that they spend too much time in front of screens. They simply cannot stop consuming the culture there – even if they also recognise the health challenges in that space. It is a surprise that so many continue to engage despite that. Surprise revels in the flipside of our inventions as does (hopefully less harmful) innovations.

Works Cited

  • Akerloff, G., 1970. The market for “lemons”: Quality uncertainty and the market mechanism. The Quarterly Journal of Economics, 84(3), pp. 488-500..
  • Botsman, R., 2017. Who Can You Trust: How Technology Brought Us Together- and Why It could Drive Us Apart. UK: Penguin Random House.
  • Committee, o. D. I. A. T. F. a. R. a. R. C. N., 2005. Avoiding Surprise in an Era of Global Technology Advances. s.l.:National Academies Press, Ebook Central.
  • de Vries, P., van den Berg, S. M. & Midden, C., 2015. Assessing Technology In The Absence Of Proof: Trust Based On The Interplay Of Others’. Human Factors The Journal of the Human Factors and Ergonomics Society, 57(8), p. 1378–1402.
  • Douglas, M. & Isherwood, B., 1979. The world of goods. New York: Basic.
  • Kornberger, M., Pflueger, D. & Mouritsen, J., 2017. Evaluative Infrastructures: Accounting for Platform Organization. Accounting, Organizations and Society (Forthcoming).
  • Miller, C. R., 2015. Surprise : The Poetics of the Unexpected from Milton to Austen. s.l.:Cornell University Press.
  • Revellino, S. & Mouritsen, J., 2015. Accounting as an engine: The performativity of calculative practices and the dynamics of innovation. Management Accounting Research 28, Volume 28, pp. 31-49.