I am unreasonably saddened by David Bowie’s passing. To understand why, it is helpful to know a little bit of network theory and to understand the implications of neuroplasticity.
On the network theory front, the “Rule of 150” states people can easily keep track of about 150 people in their lives. This is, by some reckoning, the size of traditional hunter-gatherer bands. In our modern lives, celebrities fill some of the 150 for many people. David Bowie was one of my 150. He was the Kevin Bacon of my musical universe. One degree to Brian Eno, Talking Heads, Arcade Fire, Mick Jagger, John Lennon, Bing Crosby, Annie Lennox, Luther Van Dross, Pat Metheny, Secret Machines, LCD Sound System, TV on the Radio… And two degrees to anybody you choose.* He was, as Sylvester Stallone said of Rocky Balboa at this year’s Golden Globes, “The best imaginary friend I ever had.” In one concert I attended, Bowie described himself as having been in his Nietzsche phase when he wrote a particular song. He said, “You remember your Nietzsche phase, when you carried your pocket Nietzsche in your trench coat?” Was he talking to me? Yes, I had a pocket Nietzsche! I seriously doubt there was anyone else in the audience that night who had a Nietzsche phase.
I only saw him live three times over the years: on the Serious Moonlight Tour in ’83, on the Glass Spider Tour in the late ’80s, and for 2004’s Reality — which came on the heels of Heathen (one of Bowie’s most listenable records — start to finish). The last tour showcased a man who had found his groove. He laughed. He was comfortable. And he was entertaining. He was at the height of his success as a person. He was a happy father and spouse. But throughout his career, I felt his evolutions and realized deep truths about what creates happiness, excellence and ongoing innovation**.
The documentary David Bowie: Five Years in the Making of an Icon, points out that Bowie was uncanny in his selection of collaborators (a few are even listed above). And as Josh Groban tweeted on his death, “He bent genres, genders and our minds.” This is why I was attracted to David Bowie — for his purported ability to bend minds. How did he do it? He was a network designer par excellence. He deliberately designed his network to create novelty, integrating unlikely influences that, at the risk of incongruence, kept us all guessing in a way we fell in love with. As network science and our cover story suggest, greatness comes from a search space filled with a network of uncanny “stepping stones,” and cannot be planned. Underlying Bowie’s greatness was a master exaptation based on the desire to combine theater and music, because as he told the BBC, his true aspiration was to write musicals.
Bowie’s ongoing success reflected another network principle: the notion of strange attractors (that what’s trending keeps trending) and the reflexiveness that occurs in co-arising networks. Over his career he took pleasure in spotting emerging talent. But some critics would say some of those acts were remarkable only because he called them out as remarkable. When he recorded Scary Monsters (the album that some say invented the ’80s), Bowie reached out to London’s New Romantic Movement to create the video, thus embracing the avant-garde that had in turn been inspired by him. By incorporating their movement back into his art, he found a mechanism to fulfill his lifelong quest of staying at the edge of the avant-garde.
When Steve Jobs died, I read somewhere in the mourning blogosphere that his real contribution was as a Lifestyle Design pioneer. The same could be said of Bowie with his invention of Bowie Bonds and his pioneering use of the web. One could in that sense say that Bowie’s greatest contribution was in the field of personal brand management and lifestyle design.** Both seem to require the ability to sense distant connections in the network of public opinion, reject the obvious paths, and hear the weak signals of untapped novelty as opportunities to innovate. Of course we know that David Bowie was not a network scientist, and we can’t know the degree to which he consciously considered how he was redesigning a network of musical influence and fandom. Irreverence may be a requirement for influencers — they have to be willing and able to avoid the endless feedback loops of fame and simply be themselves.
Identity stood at the heart of Bowie’s career. As The Atlantic said on his passing, “Creating as many characters as David Bowie did over the years means having to also imagine their destruction, a fact that, uncomfortably, has a lot in common with all kinds of human relationships.” And it is this that stands at the heart of the pain that I feel. As one critic said on Bowie’s passing, quoting Gorky on Tolstoy, I cannot be “an orphan on the earth, so long as this man lives on it.”
To understand the neuroscience of this, consider the following simple hand tapping experiment: Tap a table and tap a subject’s hand under the table simultaneously. After a few minutes, you can smack the table and a galvanic skin response shows the subject responds as if they have been struck. Why? Because, as neuropsychologist Donald Hebb coined, “Neurons that fire together wire together.” Put yourself in the subject’s shoes. You aren’t hurt when the table is struck. Yet you think you are because your brain associates the tapping with the sensation. It is this innate empathy which allows us to play the game of life. But it is also this that causes us suffering. We aren’t actually in the picture. We don’t actually get hurt. Our body doesn’t sustain blows when the table gets smacked. But we react as though we did because we are, in cyborg-like fashion, wired into this stimuli. We have inadvertently begun to identify with the table. And neuroscientists tell us there is a special sensitivity when our mirror neurons activate — when we experience a sense of “I/me/mine.”
We have all sorts of things we are attached to inside, but one of the most basic or largest is our identity. David Bowie became a part of mine — for 38 years. That is longer than many friendships. And I know we shared a Nietzsche phase. That is why I am so sad … because as Bowie sang in “This is Not America” — “a little piece of me, a little piece of you… has died.”
* Yet, strangely in a perfect illustration of being trapped in our past preferences by the internet, the David Bowie Station on Pandora on the afternoon of his death repetitively plays the Kinks (Lola six times), the Beatles, the Stones, Led Zeppelin, and Talking Heads. It is like some kind of transitional 70s music ghetto. I don’t discover anything new.
** Bowie was so successful as a teenager that he surpassed in his early youth the struggle for success that consumes most of our lives. Yet he stayed productive through his entire life. As Maslow said we climb to the next level by filling the needs at the current level. Of course what drove him was his artistry. There are a few lessons here: he was inner-directed. Maslow when he interviewed people he identified as Self-Actualizers, found they all spent at least an hour alone each day. It might have been meditating or gardening or sitting by a stream. Bowie said in many interviews he was completely detached from the music industry and scene.
Mark de L. Thompson is d4e’s publisher. He is CEO of Dialog Group, an Austin-based digital agency, and co-founder of Panarchy, a network design firm.