Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘Steven Johnson’

01 AUGUST, 2011

Networked Knowledge and Combinatorial Creativity

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Why creativity is like LEGO, or what Richard Dawkins has to do with Susan Sontag and Gandhi.

In May, I had the pleasure of speaking at the wonderful Creative Mornings free lecture series masterminded by my studiomate Tina of Swiss Miss fame. I spoke about Networked Knowledge and Combinatorial Creativity, something at the heart of Brain Pickings and of increasing importance as we face our present information reality. The talk is now available online — full (approximate) transcript below, enhanced with images and links to all materials referenced in the talk.

TRANSCRIPT

These are pages from the most famous florilegium, completed by Thomas of Ireland in the 14th century. Florilegia were compilations of excerpts from other writings, essentially mashing up selected passages and connecting dots from existing texts to illuminate a specific topic or doctrine or idea. The word comes from the Latin for “flower” and “gather.” The florilegium is commonly considered one of the earliest recorded examples of remix culture.

In talking about these medieval manuscripts, Adam Gopnik writes in The New Yorker:

Our minds were altered less by books than by index slips.”

Which is interesting, recognizing not only the absolute vale of content but also its relational value, the value not just of information itself but also of information architecture, not just of content but also of content curation.

You may have heard this anecdote. Picasso is sitting in the park, sketching. A woman walks by, recognizes him, runs up to him and pleads with him to draw her portrait. He’s in a good mood, so he agrees and starts sketching. A few minutes later, he hands her the portrait. The lady is ecstatic, she gushes about how wonderfully it captures the very essence of her character, what beautiful, beautiful work it is, and asks how much she owes him. “$5,000, madam,” says Picasso. The lady is taken aback, outraged, and asks how that’s even possible given it only took him 5 minutes. Picasso looks up and, without missing a beat, says: “No, madam, it took me my whole life.”

Here’s the same sentiment from iconic designer Paula Scher on the creation of the famous Citi logo:

(You’ll see, by the way, a number of QR codes – these link to the content being mentioned, so you can read the full article or watch the full interview later.)

Both of these stories captures something we all understand on a deep intuitive level, but our creative egos sort of don’t really want to accept: And that is the idea that creativity is combinatorial, that nothing is entirely original, that everything builds on what came before, and that we create by taking existing pieces of inspiration, knowledge, skill and insight that we gather over the course of our lives and recombining them into incredible new creations.

This is what I want to talk about today, networked knowledge, like dot-connecting of the florilegium, and combinatorial creativity, which is the essence of what Picasso and Paula Scher describe. The idea that in order for us to truly create and contribute to the world, we have to be able to connect countless dots, to cross-pollinate ideas from a wealth of disciplines, to combine and recombine these pieces and build new castles.

Kind of LEGOs. The more of these building blocks we have, and the more diverse their shapes and colors, the more interesting our castles will become. Because if we only have one color and one shape, it greatly limits how much we can create, even within our one area of expertise.

Einstein famously attributed some of his greatest physics breakthroughs to his violin breaks, which he believed connected different parts of his brain in new ways.

And iconic novelist Vladimir Nabokov was a secret lepidopterist — he collected and studied butterflies religiously. And he believed this scholarly obsession is what helped him develop his deep passion for detail and precision, which is what made his writing so crisp and vivid.

This concept of combinatorial creativity and the cross-pollination of disciplines, of course, isn’t new. In the past century alone, it’s been iterated and reiterated, over and over and over again, in just about every cultural discipline.

In 1952, iconic designer Alvin Lustig wrote in an essay:

I have found that all positions men take in their beliefs are profoundly influenced by thousands of small, often imperceptible experiences that slowly accumulate to form a sum total of choices and decisions.”

In 1964, neuropsychologist Roger Sperry drew an analogy between neurons and ideas:


Ideas cause ideas and help evolve new ideas. They interact with each other and with other mental forces in the same brain, in neighboring brains, and thanks to global communication, in far distant, foreign brains.”

In 1970, French molecular biologist Jacques Monod proposed what he called the “abstract kingdom” — a conceptual place analogous to the biosphere, populated by ideas that propagate much like organisms do in the natural world.

Ideas have retained some of the properties of organisms. Like them, they tend to perpetuate their structure and to breed; they too can fuse, recombine, segregate their content.” ~ Jacques Monod

Monod said ideas have “spreading power” and propagate “infectivity” — we see this today with the language of “viral” ideas.

In 1976, Richard Dawkins, in his iconic book The Selfish Gene, which by the way I highly recommend, coined the word “meme” for a similar concept:

Examples of memes are tunes, ideas, catch-phrases, clothes fashions, ways of making pots or of building arches. Just as genes propagate themselves in the gene pool by leaping from body to body via sperms or eggs, so memes propagate themselves in the meme pool by leaping from brain to brain via a process which, in the broad sense, can be called imitation.”

And I like this last part. Because it makes me think about the cliche we’ve all heard a million times, “Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.” But in the context of this domino effect of ideas, it seems imitation might well be the sincerest form of ideation.

In 2010 Steven Johnson writes in his excellent Where Good Ideas Come From:

The great driver of scientific and technological innovation [in the last 600 years has been] the increase in our ability to reach out and exchange ideas with other people, and to borrow other people’s hunches and combine them with our hunches and turn them into something new.”

I like to think of it this way: We take information, from it synthesize insight, which in turn germinates ideas.

And then we take these ideas, ours and those of others, we toss them into our mental reservoir…

…where they sit and sort of just float around until one day they float into just the right alignment to click into a new idea.

Now, implicit to this idea of combinatorial creativity is the admission is that nothing is truly original, at least not in the sense of being built from scratch, and that can be hard. There’s a lot of resistance in the creative ego to that idea. But there is plenty of evidence for this ecosystem of influences and inspirations.

In art, Nina Paley photographed archaeological artifacts from the Metropolitan Museum of Art and animated them to illustrate her point: All creativity builds upon something that existed before and every work of art is essentially a derivative work.

In animation — in his visual essay entitled Versions, Oliver Laric explores the reappropriation of images by looking at how Disney recycles animation.

In design — there’s a Flickr set called Similarities that exposes examples of graphic design that borrows heavily from older work.

Just recently, this brilliant Joy of Cycling poster for the Transport of London made the rounds. It’s based, of course, on illustrations from Alex Comfort’s iconic 1972 manual, The Joy of Sex.

And of course, the mother of all remix culture studies, Kirby Ferguson’s excellent 4 part series, Everything Is A Remix, in which he explores influences across just about every genre and art medium. Here’s a short excerpt from Part 2, that drives the point home with one of the world’s most celebrated examples of creativity in entertainment.

There’s so much buzz and excitement about the open-source movement today, and many of these principles are hailed as revolutionary, as a sign of the times. But at their core lies something ancient. I believe creativity itself is the original open-source code.

So what enables this derivative creativity and cross-pollination of ideas is a rich pool of mental resources to derive from. And I believe the two main mechanisms of how we fill that pool are curiosity…and choice. Curiosity is one of the most fundamental human drivers. Just look at little kids – this hunger to know the world is deep in our species’ DNA.

Jim Coudal, one of my big creative and curatorial heroes, once said:

Our number one value isn’t in any of the skills we have. It’s that we’re essentially curious.”

But curiosity without direction can be a taxing and ultimately unproductive endeavor. Choice is how we tame and channel and direct our curiosity, where we choose to allocate our time and energy, and ultimately, what we choose to pay attention to.

Harvard’s Clay Christensen writes:

Your decisions about allocating your personal time, energy, and talent ultimately shape your life’s strategy.”

Here’s Susan Sontag, one of my absolute favorite authors and minds:

Do stuff. Be clenched, curious. Not waiting for inspiration’s shove or society’s kiss on your forehead. Pay attention. It’s all about paying attention. Attention is vitality. It connects you with others. It makes you eager. Stay eager.”

Much of Buddhist philosophy centers around this same idea, this balance between what’s being phrased as “intention” and “attention” – our intentional curiosity about knowledge and growth, and our choice of where to focus our awareness, what to pay attention to.

So that, I think, is the role of information curators: They are our curiosity sherpas, who lead us to things we didn’t know we were interested in until we, well, until we are. Until we pay attention to them — because someone whose taste and opinion we trust points us to them, and we integrate them with our existing pool of resources, and they become a part of our networked knowledge and another LEGO piece in our combinatorial creativity.

So if information discovery plays such a central role in how we fuel our creativity and thus in our creative output, then information discovery is a form of creative labor in and of itself. And yet our current code of ethics for respecting and crediting this kind of labor is completely inadequate. We have clearly defined systems for what’s right or wrong in terms of crediting creative products across text, image, video, and different media, from image rights to literary citations. But we don’t have the same ethical principles for sources of discovery. And yet, in a culture of exponentially increasing overload, it’s through these nodes in the information ecosystem, these human sensemakers, human synapses if you will, that this very text or image or video finds its way into our mental pool of resources.

So when we choose to take that recognition away, to not acknowledge content curation or information discovery or whatever we call this, we’re essentially robbing someone of their creative labor, and perpetrating another form of piracy. Whether we call it link love or the via crediting, giving credit online is incredibly simple, it’s much easier than doing a proper literary citation or clearing image rights, and yet there’s precious little of it online. And for publishers and curators, it’s not about “getting traffic” or “monetization” or any of those dreadful SEO terms. It’s about something much more deeply human, the same thing that I believe underpins every human aspiration and action, and it’s as true of suicide bombers as it is of the greatest artists and poets: And that is the desire to matter in the world, to be seen, to know that our existence makes a difference, that our creative and intellectual labor is of value to the world.

It’s quite telling, I think, that the amount of work that went into florilegia in the Middle Ages made them the most lavish and expensive books to produce at the time. And I have to wonder, when did we lose this sort of creative meritocracy in how we treat dot-connecting content curation and today’s culture? When did we stop valuing the enormous amount of effort and time and thought that goes into culling and connecting ideas that shape humanity’s creative and intellectual direction?

Here’s Kevin Kelly, futurist and Wired founder and brilliant, brilliant man, pondering the future of the book:

Over the next century, scholars and fans, aided by computational algorithms, will knit together the books of the world into a single networked literature. A reader will be able to generate a social graph of an idea, or a timeline of a concept, or a networked map of influence for any notion in the library. We’ll come to understand that no work, no idea, stands alone, but that all good, true and beautiful things are networks, ecosystems of intertwingled parts, related entities and similar works.”

So it’s my hope that we’ll find a way to respect these human synapses of networked knowledge and enablers of combinatorial creativity, and to codify that respect, and indoctrinate it and integrate it with our cultural framework, with how we think about creativity and intellectual property and human labor.

We live at a time when we have a rare opportunity to make up the rules, because they haven’t been invented yet. To set the standards and the norms and the honorable way of doing things. And this, I believe, is our responsibility as publishers and curators and consumers of information. Again, it comes down to choice: The normative models we choose today will shape how much our culture will value this form of creative labor tomorrow.

I love these words from Gandhi:

Our thoughts become our words, our words become our actions, our actions become our character, our character becomes our destiny.”

How we choose to pay attention, and relate to information and each other shapes who we become, shapes our creative destiny and, in turn, shapes our experience of the world. And, in my mind, there’s nothing more important than that.

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26 MAY, 2011

Follow For Now: A Time-Capsule of Contemporary Thought

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What the changing guard of design has to do with evolutionary theories of network dynamics.

Much of today’s fixation on retrofuturism and the paleofuture meme has to do with the pleasure we take in fact-checking the visions and predictions of the past against the commonly agreed upon reality of the present. And while there’s an undeniable luster to the shiny jetpack visions of yesteryear’s gadget-dreaming, what I find even more fascinating are the cultural and intellectual movements that powered these visions. In Follow for Now: Interviews with Friends and Heroes, Roy Christopher collects over seven years’ worth of conversations with contemporary cultural luminaries, including TED founder Richard Saul Wurman, street artist and remix culture frontman Shepard Fairey, science fiction author Bruce Sterling, Brain Pickings favorite DJ Spooky and 39 more.

The book was originally published in 2007, which makes it a rare, paradoxical and infinitely fertile cross between sort-of-contemporary cultural critique of the present and near-prophetic time-capsule of the recent past, swiftly fluttering across disciplines and ideologies to deliver a powerful cross-pollinator of modern intellectual and creative curiosity.

I love Steven Johnson, so it’s no surprise his interview is one of my favorites. Here, he captures precisely where I stand on the debate on what the internet is doing to our brains and the future of information:

Popular culture, on average, has been growing more cognitively challenging over the past thirty years, not less. Despite everything you hear about declining standards and dumbing-down, you have to do more intellectual work to make sense of today’s television or games — much less the internet — than you did a few decades ago.” ~ Steven Johnson, No Bitmaps for These Territories

The time elapsed since the book’s publication makes it particularly fascinating to reverse-engineer how the ideas in recent popular books by these thinkers originally germinated. For instance, Albert-László Barabási‘s interview presages his excellent 2010 book, Bursts: The Hidden Pattern Behind Everything We Do:

For many decades we believed that networks are random. Whenever we had to face a very complex system, such as people are connected by social links (society), chemicals in the cell connected by chemical reactions, webpages connected by URLs, we assumed that the links are thrown randomly around. In the last few years, we learned that this is not the case. Instead, networks hide wonderful order and are described by rather rigid evolutionary laws. These laws lead to the emergence of hubs, nodes with an extraordinary large number of links, that partly dominate real networks but they also keep them together.” ~ Albert-László Barabási, Think Networks

And as a longtime fan of Shepard Fairey‘s (whose portrait of Blondie’s Debbie Harry is my favorite piece of art that I own), I enjoyed this 2002 peek inside his creative reservoir, pre-Obama notoriety.

I like people who blur the line between fine art and graphic design. There are a lot of people who have grown up with a lot of advertising and sensory over-stimulation from video games and MTV, who are making very smart and engaging art and graphics. I don’t know what to call this movement [but] I really think the changing of the guard in the art and design world is beginning.” ~ Shepard Fairey, Giant Steps

Relentlessly stimulating and insight-packed, Follow for Now is the kind of book I’d like to see published every decade, and devoured every subsequent decade, from now until the end of humanity.

Donating = Loving

Bringing you (ad-free) Brain Pickings takes hundreds of hours each month. If you find any joy and stimulation here, please consider becoming a Supporting Member with a recurring monthly donation of your choosing, between a cup of tea and a good dinner:





You can also become a one-time patron with a single donation in any amount:





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15 DECEMBER, 2010

The Best Books of 2010: Business, Life & Mind

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Time thieves, irrational pragmatists, and what bike-sharing has to do with coming out in science.

We reviewed a lot of books this year and here are our 10 nonfiction favorites in Business, Life and Mind, a continuation of our end-of-year best-of series. (Earlier this week, we covered the best albums and the most compelling long reads published online this year.) Tomorrow, we’ll be complementing with the best books in Art, Design and Photography, so be sure to check back.

WHERE GOOD IDEAS COME FROM

Steven Johnson is one of our favorite cultural synthesizers, the prolific author of some of the best nonfiction of the past decade. Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation is practically a manifesto for the founding belief of Brain Pickings — that creativity is a combinatorial force — and traces the building blocks of innovation throughout all of human history. Where Good Ideas Come From was one of our 7 must-read books by TED speakers and you can sample it visually here.

COGNITIVE SURPLUS

Clay Shirky may just be the Marshall McLuhan of our day, only with saner vocabulary and less of a penchant for LSD. (At least as far as we know.)

Cognitive Surplus: Creativity and Generosity in a Connected Age, one of our 5 curated summer readings, takes a fascinating look at how new media and technology are transforming us from consumers to collaborators, harnessing the vast amounts of free-floating human potential.

WHAT TECHNOLOGY WANTS

Futurist Kevin Kelly may be best-known as the founder of Wired, but he’s also one of the most compelling big-picture thinkers of our time. What Technology Wants begins with a brilliantly broad definition of “technology” — encompassing everything from language itself to augmented reality — and unfolds into ten insightful universal tendencies that give technology direction.

Kelly and Johnson (see above) discussed the role of technology in innovation and the origin of good ideas in this excellent Wired article — we highly recommend it.

WHAT’S MINE IS YOURS

We’re big proponents of de-ownership. Or, as we called it in one of this year’s most-read articles, having more by owning less. The lovely and brilliant Rachel Botsman went ahead and wrote a book about it: What’s Mine Is Yours: The Rise of Collaborative Consumption — a compelling investigation of the emergent cultural shift from consumerism to community. From bike-sharing to house-swapping to book exchanges, the book concocts a potent antidote to the modern maladies of wastefulness and access, a bold and hopeful constitution for a new era of relating to the world and one another.

I LIVE IN THE FUTURE & HERE’S HOW IT WORKS

From New York Times columnist Nick Bilton comes an ambitious exploration of where the media landscape is going and how our brains are adapting to it. I Live in the Future & Here’s How It Works: Why Your World, Work, and Brain Are Being Creatively Disrupted dissects our analog past to find the roots of our digital future and our ambivalent present, illustrating with meticulously curated historical anecdotes that new technology has always been met with resistance but has inevitably effected progress that betters human life. People didn’t resort to never leaving their homes again when the telephone came out, as the front page of The New York Times declared that year, nor did the invention of the phonograph lead to mass illiteracy at the abandonment of books. These fears, Bilton argues, were natural but unfounded, as are their contemporary counterparts.

It’s the necessary antidote to Nicholas Carr’s decidedly techno-dystopian (and, we dare add after years of neuroscience studies, largely misinformed) The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains

THE UPSIDE OF IRRATIONALITY

After the Predictably Irrational slam-dunk, behavioral economist Dan Ariely outdid himself in The Upside of Irrationality: The Unexpected Benefits of Defying Logic at Work and at Home — not only a powerful research-driven look at the practical applications of irrationality, but also a personal story of the youthful accident that left Ariely scarred and sent him into years of painful physical therapy. We featured the book as one of our favorite 5 perspectives on the psychology of choice.

THIS IS NPR

Since its inception in 1970, NPR has “always put the listener first” — a mission not always friction-free at times of political turmoil, government overregulation and divided public opinion. This year, the iconic public broadcaster celebrates its 40th anniversary with This Is NPR: The First Forty Years, a beautifully designed anthology of behind-the-scenes photos, essays and original reporting, and NPR: The First Forty Years, a companion 4-CD compilation featuring some of the most memorable moments from 40 years of news, culture, conversation and commentary. We reviewed it in full, complete with a video trailer, here.

A LAB OF MY OWN

Dr. Neena Schwartz is one of the world’s most influential reproductive biologists, whose seminal work in endocrinology has changed the way science thinks about the relationship between the brain and the reproductive system. A Lab of My Own, is cultural landmark not only as a fascinating look at the feminist plight in science, but also as Schwartz’s deeply personal, powerful and graceful coming out story, with six decades of secrecy revealed for the first time on the pages of the book. We reviewed it in full here.

THE THIEF OF TIME

The Thief of Time: Philosophical Essays on Procrastination is an absorbing anthology featuring essays by a wide range of scholars and writers spanning from the entire spectrum between theoretical and empirical. From the morality of it (is procrastination a vice?) to its possible antidotes (what are the best coping strategies?), the book is an essential piece of psychosocial insight. We first featured in one of this year’s most popular Brain Pickings posts, spotlighting 5 perspectives on procrastination, where you can find it reviewed in full.

PORTRAITS OF THE MIND

A remarkable intersection of art and science, Portraits of the Mind: Visualizing the Brain from Antiquity to the 21st Century takes us on a gripping visual journey through humanity’s understanding of the brain, from Medieval sketches to Victorian medical engravings to today’s most elaborate 3D brain mapping. Author Carl Schoonover delivers a book that sources its material in solid science, roots its aesthetic in art, and reads like an ambitious literary anthology. Our full review, complete with stunning images from the book, can be found here.

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