Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘Steven Johnson’

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.

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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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23 SEPTEMBER, 2010

Steven Johnson on Where Good Ideas Come From

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“Chance favors the connected mind.”

After their animated exploration of capitalism, the RSA are back with a visual distillation of one of the most important questions in creative culture: Where do good ideas come from? Steven Johnson tackles the grand question with insights from his latest book, Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation, and a historical perspective on innovation throughout human civilization.

Johnson’s answer strongly echoes the Brain Pickings mission — to build a rich and wide-spanning pool of mental resources that serve as the building blocks of creativity.

That’s the real lesson: Chance favors the connected mind.” ~ Steven Johnson

Also worth watching: Johnson’s recent TED talk, one of our favorites this year:

Where Good Ideas Come From comes as a fine addition to these must-read books by TEDGlobal speakers.

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Brain Pickings has a free weekly newsletter. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s best articles. Here’s what to expect. Like? Sign up.