Good ideas from Steven Johnson

As a thank you for pre-ordering Steven Johnson‘s new book Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation, I was invited to listen in on a special webinar where he spoke about the book and some of its ideas. Here are my (raw) notes from the webinar. Lots of good nuggets to be mined, lots of things to think and talk about.

= = == === =====

Started off talking about how his book Emergence: The Connected Lives of Ants, Brains, Cities, and Software came about. He was working on a book about brains, then received as birthday gift a book of old maps. He noticed that the map of Hamburg looks like cutaway of the human brain. What if it’s not a book about cities or brains, but a book about cities AND brains? The hunch was there, but he had no idea what to make of it. Vague sense that there was something promising. Kept the hunch alive, explored the connections between the two. Several drafts where the connections weren’t well formed, he finally came up with it after quite a bit of research.

The key thing is that he was able to keep the hunch alive and work through it.

We all have hunches like that, we think it might be promising but we don’t know what to do with it. We need a way in our organizations for these hunches to be kept alive and cultivated.

For the past six years he has kept a “sparks file”. A single Word document (now Google Doc, so he can access from anywhere), he puts every half-baked (or less) idea he has about a book or story in it. No organization, no sorting at all. If you spend too much time putting it in order – folders, etc – you will miss the connections. Reread it every couple of months. [A lot like how I use my own notebooks, which reminds me it is time to go through them again.] The document is 6 years old, some ideas have grown into books, some are not so interesting.

When you reread the document you come across a snippet that you had forgotten about, or that didn’t make sense at the time, that now makes some sense. Allows you to network with your past ideas.

Do it with other people’s ideas, too. Talked about the idea of the Commonplace Book from the Enlightenment. People would copy bits and pieces from influential works that they’ve read. “Commonplacing”. Same function as your own sparks file, except it has other people’s ideas and writing in it.

It is not enough to just take notes, you have to revisit them. Getting easier now with technology – Kindle, blogs, social bookmarks. Revisiting is important, so you can renew old thoughts and find new connections.

DevonThink is the tool that he uses. I remember seeing him talking about this many years ago when I first read one of his books. Allows you to dump just about anything into it as an open database. Mac only still? [Yes] Looks at a snippet of text and finds other snippets that are related. It’s smart, but not too smart. It is a bit fuzzy, and it is this noise that really helps make connections. “My outboard memory of all the things I’ve read.” Sometimes, types in something that he wrote to see what it returns.

Who had the idea, me or the software? A little bit of both. It took him to curate the tidbits, the software to make the connections, and him to put together the final thought.

Bill Gates takes a “reading vacation” to read. Ray Ozzie does the same thing. A very interesting strategy; usually when we read it is at night, when we are tired and have 20-30 minutes before we go to bed. Takes a couple of weeks to read, you lose the possible connections between the books you read.

[This is why 52 in 52 is so important, read in rapid succession. This explains why ideas come so fast and furious when I am reading a lot.]

Could be a great value to companies to give their employees a week of reading vacation every year. Need to make sure that the suggested reading list has some diversity, and is not just focused in one new area.

Diversity of ideas is key to innovation. An idea from one area provides the insight that creates innovation in another. In nature this is called exaptation.

A look at the extended social networks of innovative people. Unusually innovative people have very diverse weak-tie networks; not just a lot of weak-ties, but very diverse weak-ties. An exceptionally powerful idea and tool.

Have to be open and fluent in those different fields, catholic in your tastes. [I think this is the first time I have ever heard someone use “catholic” in this generic, non-church sense.]

Discussed the importance of coffee shops as multi-disciplinary hubs in the 18th century, which he talked about in The Invention of Air. Social network software is helping serve this function. He uses Twitter as a way to get recommended reading items, his daily digest of things to read. Set up your social network life to follow a diverse group of people, you can get a very interesting reading list curated for you every morning. A serendipity engine.

Unusually innovative people have a lot of hobbies, always working on a bunch of different things. Used Darwin as an example; his side projects allowed him to create an “internal coffee house”.

Where Good Ideas Come From is intended to provide an interdisciplinary look at things.

Questions from the audience:

Public education – positive, negative, neutral? Historically, it has not been an environment particularly open to innovation. But I think we are at an inflection point where we can rething how things should work. A lot of innovation happening in that area right now. Let’s not break it into different subjects, but use topics to include all of the subjects. Games and simulations, as he mentioned in Everything Bad is Good for You, also have a lot of promise.

How will innovation change because of the internet, and being so spread out? The web is a huge innovation hub. Exploring the idea of a social commonplace book. [I have to wonder how this is different from social bookmarking?]

How do small organizations cultivate hunch-making? By definition, a startup is kind of experimental anyway, so you don’t really have to cultivate the hunches. In some ways, it’s 100% hunch. Along these lines, he mentioned the growing idea of coworking:

One of the most interesting things that has developed recently is coworking spaces. Small startups, freelancers, people between jobs, or people that just don’t want to go into the main office. It gives you infrastructure, gives you other people. A “liquid network” that I talk about in the book. Interesting related ideas but not too much structure. For a young business to share a physical space with another young business, that’s a great opportunity.

===== === == = =

Advertisements

Life skills for knowledge workers

In his post Some qualities of a knowledge worker, which I also mentioned yesterday, Jack Vinson (@jackvinson) mentioned a few skills needed by knowledge workers and notes

These are things that aren’t part of the standard training curriculum.  Maybe these things should be in the next generation of “life skills” classes they teach in high school.

This gets right at the heart of a question I’ve pondered for several years: How do knowledge workers learn how to become knowledge workers?

Is “knowledge work” something that should be taught in school, in high school as Jack mentions or maybe in college? Or is this something that individual workers need to learn on the job, as part of their professional growth, as part of their development of their craft?

Schools are, for the most part, set up for you to learn the skills/knowledge that you need (or they think you will need) to do your job. But they don’t really teach you how to actually do the job. (It’s been a while since I’ve been an undergrad, so maybe this has changed somewhat?) I think, though, that with a little bit of thought and a lot of effort these skills could be incorporated into a schools curriculum, either formally or informally by individual teachers. The case for social media in school provides some good ideas on this front.

The other approach is to look at knowledge work as a craft. Obviously, “knowledge work” is much too general of a description to be a craft in and of itself [my dad is a knowledge worker!]. But just like the trades – plumbing, carpentry, electrician – you can look at the various forms of knowledge work as a craft – accountant, engineer, lawyer, software developer.

If the idea of knowledge work as craft sounds familiar, it’s not because of me. I first remember coming across that idea several years ago in Jim McGee’s (@jmcgeeKnowledge Work as Craft Work.

All along the way in this old style process, the work was visible. That meant that the more junior members of the team could learn how the process unfolded and how the final product grew over time. You, as a consultant, could see how the different editors and commentators reacted to different parts of the product.

More recently, Jim has written about this in the context of observable work (#owork). His recent post Finding knowledge work practices worth emulating and adapting has some excellent insights that expand on the idea of craft work, putting it in concrete terms of knowledge work, in this case the “trade” of software development.

My brothers both work in a trade (plumbing and electrician), and I’ve had many conversations with them about the process within the trade unions of developing young plumbers and electricians from apprentice through the master grade. It’s made me wonder how I ended up where I am, how I learned to do the job I do. A bit less structured than their experience, that’s for sure.

How did you learn how to be a knowledge worker? Did you spend your early years in an “apprenticeship” or were you just thrown into the fray? How do we help new knowledge workers learn their craft? How do we get knowledge workers, new or otherwise, to accept their profession as a craft? And how do we, as experienced knowledge workers, become even better at it?

For knowledge workers, solving problems is the easy part

I read – and highly recommend – Garry Kasparov’s book How Life Imitates Chess a couple of years ago, and am thinking I should pick it back up again. If not to read in its entirety, then at least to skim through my dog-ears and margin notes. There are a lot of good insights into the nature of work today, especially what we call knowledge-work.

For example, Jack Vinson’s (@jackvinson) recent post Some qualities of a knowledge worker reminded me of the following excerpt:

Knowing a solution is at hand is a huge advantage; it’s like not having a “none of the above” option. Anyone with reasonable competence and adequate resources can solve a puzzle when it is presented as something to be solved. We can skip the subtle evaluations and move directly to plugging in possible solutions until we hit upon a promising one. Uncertainty is far more challenging. Instead of immediately looking for solutions to the crisis, we have to maintain a constant state of asking, “Is there a crisis* forming?”

Solving a puzzle that you know has a solution may require knowledge, but it is knowledge that already exists. Figuring out if there is a solution to a problem, or even if there is a problem at all, requires the manipulation of existing knowledge, the gathering of new knowledge / information, and the creation of something new.

This is when knowledge work becomes art.

Rehearsal is editing in pre-production

Last week Seth Godin wrote that rehearsing is for cowards. My first thought when I saw that headline was, “Seth Godin just called me a coward!”  If you’ve read my The importance of rehearsal, you know what I mean.

Like most of Godin’s writing, though, you have to take this one in the spirit in which it is written – deliberately extreme headline to catch your attention and then a very specific context in which it applies. In this case, his definition of rehearsal is very narrow and, to me, is really a definition of memorization.

At the end of the article he says that “A well-rehearsed performance will go without a hitch.” As if that is a bad thing. If you are trying to create your art live, then obviously it is bad. But not all art is created live and unfiltered, unedited.

Some art is created in post-production, when the book / album / film is edited into it’s final form.

And some art is created in pre-production, during rehearsal as things are tried and discarded, tried and changed, or new things added.

Rehearsal is simply editing in pre-production.

William Gibson on…

This past weekend I had the pleasure of meeting author William Gibson when he came through St. Louis promoting his latest book, Zero History. He started off  by reading a bit from the book and then opened it up for questions from the standing room only crowd.

Here are some notes from the conversations that ensued:

…dystopia

When asked if he saw the world as bleak as the dystopias he depicts in his books, Gibson made the comment to the effect, “Dystopia is in the eye of the beholder”. From the perspective of the affluent, who have a strong interest in maintaining the status quo, his worlds may be dystopic, but there are plenty of people in the world who would see those worlds as a big step up.

…brands and marketing in his writing

Gibson references many real brands as part of his stories, and when asked said that you can’t really write a book about current times, especially in a big city like London, without branding and marketing being brightly on display. That is the world we live in, to not include it would make the whole story feel a bit false. This ties into his overall philosophy of naturalism in his writing.

…his career

When asked if his career turned out how expected, or hoped, it would, Gibson glibly commented that he never thought he’d have a writing career at all. His first novel, the best-selling Neuromancer, was written on commission and he fully expected that the first small printing would also be the last. All in all, I think he’s very happy with how it turned out.

…didactism

Asked about whether his writing reflects his own ideas that he is trying to spread, Gibson quickly said no. Didactism is a legitimate approach to writing, but he’s found that if you do that it is at the expense of the story and the characters. On the subject of characters and character development, he went on to say that if you – as an author – know what your characters are going to do before they do it, then you are also shortchanging the story. “I never know what my characters are going to do, and sometimes they do things that I wish they hadn’t.”

…freelancers vs. salaried workers

Gibson noted that his stories tend to have freelancers as the good guys and “salaried workers” as the bad guys, and said that this wasn’t really intentional (see comments on didactism above). He did note that not everyone that “works for the man” is bad, and in fact one of the key good guys of the current book is one of those salaried workers.

…twitter

When I asked him how he came up with his own Twitter handle, Gibson explained that a friend had told him about it so he figured he’d check it out, fully expecting to think it stupid and not worth keeping up with. When prompted for a user name, he looked up on his shelf and saw a book about The Great Dismal Swamp; hence, @GreatDismal. After about 5 minutes with Twitter, he found that he loved it. For the first time, he said, authors could get the same direct feedback – good and bad – from their fans that those in sports, film, etc did.

Gibson also made some comments about cultural history and cultural memory, noting that today’s generation of young adults have no idea what it was like to live in constant  fear of nuclear annihilation.  Whether this is a good thing or not remains to be seen. I  have a few other notes, but unfortunately even I am unable to read the scribble that I hurriedly wrote down.

(Just one more reason, as if I need one, that I want an iPad.)

A special thanks to Left Bank Books and the Schlafly Branch of St. Louis Public library for hosting this stop on Gibson’s book tour, and to Dennis Kennedy for making me aware of it. And, of course, to William Gibson for coming to town.

Social Media + Family

I’ve blogged for many years, shared photos on Flickr and video on YouTube, and more recently joined Twitter and Facebook. Finding the line for any parent is challenging, but as the parent of an autistic son the question of how much – and what – to share about my family in public (the blog, twitter) and even in “private” (facebook) takes on a whole different dimension.

Later this week, Chris Heuer from Social Media Club is bringing their Fall Tour 2010, Social Media + Family, to St. Louis to talk about these questions and more.  To get an idea of how the conversation may go, take a look at Amani’s recap of the Atlanta event. To get ready, St. Louisan Todd Jordan (aka @tojosan), a parent and speaker at this week’s event, has posted his “bio of an online Dad“.

I don’t know how much, if at all, the discussion will go towards families of kids with disabilities, but even if it doesn’t go there at all  I have a feeling it is going to be a great evening of conversation and a great excuse to get out and socialize in person (as if an excuse is ever really needed).

Autism and “I”

Since I signed up today for the Strange Loop software developer conference here in St. Louis, it seemed fitting to repost this article, originally published on my autism blog nearly three years ago.
– – — — —– ——–

Earlier this summer [2007] I read Douglas Hofstadter’s new book, I Am a Strange Loop. As Hofstadter mentions early in the book, a more appropriate title would have been “I” is a Strange Loop; the book is about the nature of consciousness, that elusive concept of “I”, and not an autobiographical work as the actual name of the book suggests.

Hofstadter’s works have been among my favorites since I read his first book, Godel Escher Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid, in high school. The new book is, in fact, an updating of the ideas he first expressed in GEB. I have long hoped that he might address issues of the mind and consciousness in terms of atypical minds (such as autism), but aside from some passing discussion of those minds, I Am a Strange Loop does not provide any real insight into how the concept of “I” fits with autism.

On Monday, I was pleased to find a paper that specifically addresses the question of autism and “I”, Self-Referential Cognition and Empathy in Autism, co-authored by Michael V. Lombardo, Jennifer L. Barnes, Sally J. Wheelwright, and Simon Baron-Cohen. From the paper’s abstract:

Background. Individuals with autism spectrum conditions (ASC) have profound impairments in the interpersonal social domain, but it is unclear if individuals with ASC also have impairments in the intrapersonal self-referential domain. We aimed to evaluate across several well validated measures in both domains, whether both self-referential cognition and empathy are impaired in ASC and whether these two domains are related to each other.

Conclusions/Significance. We conclude that individuals with ASC have broad impairments in both self-referential cognition and empathy. These two domains are also intrinsically linked and support predictions made by simulation theory. Our results also highlight a specific dysfunction in ASC within cortical midlines structures of the brain such as the medial prefrontal cortex.

Instead of looking at autism as a syndrome of self-focus (the Kanner approach), the paper starts from the concept of “absent-self” put forth by Uta Frith in her book Autism: Explaining the Enigma. I had not heard of Frith before reading this paper, so I can’t really comment on her ideas. But the paper itself seems to make sense. I’m still going through it, trying to understand all that they are studying and what their results mean. (I did learn a new word:alexithymia – difficulty identifying and describing one’s own emotions.)

My first time through I Am a Strange Loop was to soak in the big concepts. I typically wait a few months before re-reading something like this so I can get into the details, but I think I’ll start again sooner than that. (At the moment, I’m reading Steven Pinker’s latest book The Stuff of Thought.) Now that I have a bit more information about autism and “I”, I’ll have a better context for processing what I read.

Another interesting note about the paper, it was originally published by the Public Library of Science under a Creative Commons license. The PLoS home page describes it as a “A new way of communicating peer-reviewed science and medicine”, so I will assume the paper has been appropriately peer reviewed. But I think I will do a bit more checking just to be sure. (Of course, any insight from readers here would be greatly appreciated.)

——– —– — — – –
Chances are very good that I will re-read I Am a Strange Loop again before Strange Loop; curious to see what I get from it this time.