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Steven Berlin Johnson: good ideas

On October 20, I caught Steven Johnson’s talk at Book People in Austin. I’ve known Steven since the 90s – we met when he was operating Feed Magazine, one of the early web content sites. After Feed, Steven created a second content site, actually more of a web forum, called Plastic.com.

Starting with Interface Culture, Steven has mostly written books, and is generally thought of as a science writer, though I think of him as a writer about culture as well. His book Emergence: The Connected Lives of Ants, Brains, Cities, and Software was a major influence for those of us who were into social software and the percolation of “Web 2.0.” I related it to my earlier “nodal politics” thinking, and it influenced the collaborative paper created by Joi Ito et al., called “Emergent Democracy.” Steven wrote an analysis of the Howard Dean Presidential Campaign for the book I edited with Mitch Ratcliffe, Extreme Democracy.

When Steven wrote The Ghost Map, he came to realize that the story breaking the cholera epidemic in London in 1854 was more complicated than he had realized. John Snow is credited with identifying the source of the cholera (in water, not airborne as many thought), but he wasn’t working in a vacuum. Among others, Reverend Henry Whitehead assisted him, and it was Whitehead that located the index patient or “patient zero” for the outbreak, a baby in the Lewis House at 40 Broad Street. Ultimately the discovery that cholera was water-borne, and that the 1854 outbreak was associated with a specific water pump in London, was collaborative, a network affair. Realizing this, Steven wanted to know more about the origin of great ideas and the spaces that make them possible in both human and natural systems.

Before he got to his current book, Where Good Ideas Come From, Steven looked at the history of ecosystem science and found himself studying and writing about the life of Joseph Priestley, and publishing The Invention of Air. Ostensibly about Priestley, his discovery that plants produce oxygen, and his other contributions to science and nascent American democracy, the book is also about the conditions that contribute to innovation in science and elsewhere, including, per a review in New Yorker, “the availability of coffee and the unfettered circulation of information through social networks.”

These books form a trilogy about worldchanging ideas and the environments that make them possible. From what Steven learned in researching and writing them, he’s ready to dismantle the idea of the single scientist or thinker reversing or disrupting common paradigms with a eureka moment or flash of insight. That flash of light is the culmination of a longer process, 10-20 years of fragments of ideas, hunches that percolate and collide with other hunches. And there’s usually no thought of the impact of an idea. Tim Berners-Lee didn’t set out to create the World Wide Web, he was just scratching his own itch.

Good or great ideas emerge from what Steven calls “liquid networks,” clusters of people hanging out and talking, sharing thoughts in informal settings, often in coffee houses. The people who innovate and produce good ideas tend to be eclectic in their associations – they don’t hang out with people who are just like them, they’re exposed to diverse thinking.

This aligns with my own thinking that we should have idea factories that bring these diverse sets of people together… this is what I’ve seen as the real promise of coworking facilities and various other ways of bringing creative mixes of people to rub their brains together and produce sparks.

Here are three stray thoughts expressed that I really liked, that came up in Q&A:

  1. Error and noise are important parts of the process of discovery. You can’t advance without ’em.
  2. A startup is a search algorithm for a business model.
  3. There’s a thin line between saturation/overload and productive collision.

Photo by Jesús Gorriti

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