Monday, December 12, 2011

Library thoughts derived from the book, Where good Ideas Come From

A couple of years ago, I was able to go to a presentation by Steven Berlin Johnson. (I remember the Berlin part of his middle name, because there are A LOT of Steve Johnsons out there.)  Anyway, he was at DU talking about his 2006 book, Everything Bad is good for You. That was way back on March 31, 2009 for a Bridges to the Future (video) event.  (He was also selling his 2009 book, The Invention of Air.) Just this year, he wrote Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation.  This book also looked interesting, so I checked it out from Penrose.  In short, I was able to glean lots of great perspectives and insights that could be applicable to the library world.  Here are some:

Concerning open systems - "When one looks at innovation in nature and culture, environments that build walls around good ideas tend to be less innovative in the long run than more open-ended environments. Good ideas may not want to be free, but they do want to connect, fuse, recombine. They want to reinvent themselves by crossing conceptual borders." Page 22.

"Innovative environments are better at helping their inhabitants explore the adjacent possible, because they expose a wide and diverse sample of spare parts--mechanical or conceptual--and they encourage novel ways of recombining those parts. Environments that block or limit those combinations--by punishing experimentation, by obscuring certain branches of possibility, by making the current state so satisfying that no one bothers to explore the edges--will, on average, generate and circulate fewer innovations than environments that encourage exploration." Page 41.

"The trick to having good ideas is not to sit around in glorious isolation and try to think big thoughts. The trick is to get more parts on the table." Page 42.

Concerning the supposed wisdom of the crowd vs. herd mentality - "This is not the wisdom of the crowd, but the wisdom of someone in the crowd. It's not that the network itself is smart; it's that the individuals get smarter because they are connected to the network." Page 58.

Concerning browsing and serendipity - "But serendipity is not just about embracing random encounters for the sheer exhilaration of it. Serendipity is built out of happy accidents, to be sure, but what makes them happy is the fact that the discovery you've made is meaningful to you. It completes a hunch, or opens up a door in the adjacent possible that you had overlooked." Page 108-109.

Bill Gates from Microsoft used to take annual reading vacations.  He (and his successor Ray Ozzie) would "cultivate a stack of reading material--much of it unrelated to their day-to-day focus at Microsoft--and then they take off for a week or two and do a deep dive into the words they've stockpiled." Page 112-113.

More on browsing and serendipity - "But it [browsing on the web] is much more of a mainstream pursuit than randomly exploring the library stacks, pulling down books because you like the binding, ever was.  This is the irony of the serendipity debate: the thing that is being mourned has actually gone from a fringe experience to the mainstream of the culture." Page 118.  I am not sure that I agree with this.  There is a bit of research that shows that browsing and serendipity was important in the print world of the library, too.  Here is one good article, final version is behind a paywall...

Concerning the market of ideas and intellectual property - "All of the patterns of innovation we have observed in the previous chapters--liquid networks, slow hunches, serendipity, noise exaptation, emergent platforms--do best in open environments where ideas flow in unregulated channels.  In more controlled environments, where the natural movement of ideas is tightly restrained, they suffocate." Page 232. Yes, yes, yes.  Let's get scholarly research out from behind paywalls.

"Most academic research today is fourth-quadrant in its approach: new ideas are published with the deliberate goal of allowing other participants rerefine and build upon them, with no restrictions on their circulation beyond proper acknowledgement of their origin." Page 233.

Concerning walled information gardens - "Participants in the fourth-quadrant don't have those costs; they can concentrate on coming up with new ideas, not building fortresses around the old ones." Page 235.

"Whatever its politics, the fourth quadrant has been an extraordinary space of human creativity and insight.  Even without the economic rewards of artificial scarcity, fourth-quadrant environments have played an immensely important role in the nurturing and circulation of good ideas--now more than ever." Page 239.

Thomas Jefferson noted: "That ideas should freely spread from one to another over the globe, for the moral and mutual instruction of man, and improvement of his condition...."  Johnson noted: "Ideas, Jefferson argues, have an almost gravitational attraction toward the fourth quadrant.  The natural state of ideas is flow and spillover and connection.  It is society that keeps them in chains." page 241.

Another good line concerning the Internet - "There are good ideas, and then there are good ideas that make it easier to have other good ideas." Page 243.

Overall, I liked the book.  I highly recommend it.

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