Book Notes & Thoughts: Where Good Ideas Come From


I’m not sure what is more geeky: my favorite chemistry graph itself or the fact that I have one. But seriously, the phase diagram is so elegant! In one picture, it explains how temperature and pressure relate to the states of matter. The lines are phase transitions (like condensation, sublimation, and solidification), interesting edges for investigation to understand how the particles behave.

What does this have to do with my reading? Steven Johnson, in his book Where Good Ideas Come From, draws from many examples of innovation across history and across disciplines, many of which are from science, but in particular he uses the analogy of “liquid networks.” In a liquid, there is enough structure for particles to mix and combine but enough energy for them to move around and slide past each other whereas in a solid they would just be stuck in place and in a gas they would collide and fly away. In his analogy, the particles in a liquid social network are ideas and people.

Another analogy that he uses is the coral reef. In this book, Johnson changed my understanding of reefs in a few ways. I knew that the coral plants literally built the atolls, but not in the way he describes here. Darwin first gave the ideas of this, but it is now generally understood that the original ocean volcanoes were slowly sinking by erosion and the rising of the oceans after last ice age, and as they did, the corals built on top of them and kept doing this until it was coral just building on top of coral. The conception of coral plants as recyclers was also new to me: they were using the dissolved carbon dioxide waste from other organisms in the water to repurpose into aragonite (CaCO3) and themselves emitting oxygen as waste, which was beneficial for other forms of life. The theme of recycling materials and ideas run throughout this book, as something that is possible in the ecosystem of the reef, but this also expands evolution as not just a story of survival of the fittest but also one of interdependence. In an individualistic society, we often focus on the first, as if it were somehow at odds with the latter.

Finally, the mystery of the coral reefs became known as Darwin’s paradox: why would there be such an island of biodiversity in the middle of nowhere? In the reef, you have the platform, built by the coral; the evolution of biological life, which as a result of errors in DNA replication, sometimes results in positive adaptions; and the liquid network of water to mix it all up: you have an innovation space that is a story of adaption and survival but also connectedness.

So what does this all have to do with educational leadership???

A large part of my research interests so far has had to do with networks and their role in innovation and change in educational systems. This is why I attended the Carnegie Summit in March, read Connected, and the work on Social Network Theory. I had read this book when it first came out in 2010 and it was largely the conceptual frame for teaching SimCity, particularly the analogy of cities as living superorganisms, which is why we also listened to the RadioLab about cities. It was suggested to me to reread it this summer, particularly as I build my own capacity to be part of engineering the platforms for liquid networks of innovation.

Johnson reiterates this point many times, and I will do so here: “we are often better served by connecting ideas then we are by protecting them.” (p.22) “Good ideas … are, inevitably, constrained by the parts and skills that surround them. We have a natural tendency to romanticize breakthrough innovations, imagining momentous ideas transcending their surroundings, a gifted mind somehow seeing over the detritus of old ideas and ossified tradition. But ideas are works of bricolage; they’re built out of that detritus. We take the ideas we’ve inherited or that we’ve stumbled across, and we jigger them together into some new shape.” (p.28) “A good idea is a network. A specific constellation of neurons – thousands of them – fire in sync with each other for the first time in your brain, and an idea pops into your consciousness.” (p.45)

Much of the book goes through many examples of innovations and ideas, how they were fed by networks, and how they were not the stereotypical siloed, flash of insight that we have mythologized. Johnson gives the reason that “one of the major failings of traditional studies that rely on retrospective interviews: people tend to condense the origin stories of their best ideas into tidy narratives, forgetting the messy, convoluted routes to inspiration that they actually followed.” (p. 60)

Another theme throughout, going along with the idea of a liquid as enough structure with enough movement, is the balance between order and chaos. I love the examples he uses of buildings that are continually repurposed, whether it’s Building 20 at MIT or the Sackett-Wilhelms building in New York City. It made me think of the classrooms and schools I’ve visited for our personalized learning study where they’re not afraid to tear through a wall, turn a gym/cafeteria space into a 4th/5th classroom, or use furniture to carve out learning spaces. “The challenge, of course, is how to create environments that foster these serendipitous connections, on all the appropriate scales: in the private space of your own mind; within larger institutions; in across the information networks of society itself.” (p.109) P57 “A society organized around marketplaces, instead if castles or cloisters, distributed decision-making authority across a much larger network of individual minds.” (p.57)

Johnson writes about the tradition of keeping a “commonplace book,” where in the Enlightenment-era, thinkers would write down important quotes or notes to be remembered. There were even elaborate yet simple systems for organizing and indexing the notes: some order, some chaos. My blog has really become my commonplace book, though I have the distinct advantage of being able to not only tag and categorize posts but also to search it. The fact that my blog is public, makes it sort of a commonplace book for the commons, as others can search it or bookmark it as their reference.

My blog has become part of my learning process. My writing has certainly improved – I’m less self-conscious of having others read my thoughts and I proofread more – but more importantly it is a space for documentation and reflection. I will often look up old posts to remember what I thought about certain books or conferences. “Reading remains an unsurpassed vehicle for the transmission of interesting new ideas and perspectives… the problem with assimilating new ideas of the fringes of your daily routine is that the potential combinations are limited by the reach of your memory. If it takes you two weeks to finish a book, by the time you get to the next book, you’ve forgotten much of what was so interesting and provocative about the original one. You can immerse yourself in a single author’s perspective, but then it’s harder to create serendipitous collisions between the ideas of multiple authors.” (p.112) “If the commonplace book tradition tells us that the best way to nurture hunches is to write everything down, the serendipity engine of the Web suggests a parallel directive: look everything up.” (p.123) I think my process of taking down quotes while I read, then writing a blog post at the end, deepens my conceptual understanding of content or helps process my experience. This commonplace book in the commons puts those thoughts in a place for easy recall, hopefully supporting those serendipitous collisions.

The importance of failure in the learning process is quite trendy right now, and I wrote earlier this spring about double-loop learning that Argyris explains. Johnson makes “a more subtle case for the role of error in innovation, because error is not simply a phase you have to suffer through on the way to genius. Error often creates a path that leads you out of your comfortable assumptions…. Being right keeps you in place. Being wrong forces you to explore.” (p.137) To me, this goes along with, “encouragement does not necessarily lead to creativity. Collisions do – the collisions that happen when different fields of expertise converge in some shared physical or intellectual space.” (p.163)

Finally, a few last quotes:

“If mutation and error and serendipity unlock new doors in the biosphere is adjacent possible, exaptations help us explore the new possibilities that lurks behind those doors.” (p.156)

“Diverse, horizontal social networks that extended outside their organization and involved people from diverse fields of expertise … were three times more innovative than uniform, vertical networks.” (p.166)

“From the perspective of innovation, it’s even more important that the information arriving from one of those weak ties is coming from a different context, … “idea-space”: a complex of tools, beliefs, metaphors, and objects of study. A new technology developed in one idea-space can migrate over to another idea-space through these long-distance connections.” (p.167)

“A slow multitasking mode, one project takes center stage for a series of hours or days, yet the other projects linger in the margins of consciousness throughout. That the cognitive overlap is what makes this mode so innovative. The current project can exapt ideas from the projects at the margins, make new connections. It is not so much a question of thinking outside the box, as it is allowing the mind to move through multiple boxes. That movement from box to box forces the mind to approach intellectual roadblocks from new angles, or to borrow tools from one discipline to solve problems in another.” (p.173 ) – like listening to Hardcore History podcasts about WWI

“Chance favors the connected mind.” (p. 174) – my favorite quote from the whole book. It’s why I tweet and blog. It’s why I took a MOOC on being a Networked Scholar.

“Ecosystem engineers” –  keystone species because they actually build the habitat ex. beavers, coral (p.182)

“Genres supply a set of implicit rules that have enough coherence that traditionalists can safely play inside them, and more adventurous artists can confound our expectations by playing with them. Genres are the platforms and paradigms of the creative world.” (p.191)

“When you don’t have to ask for permission, innovation thrives.” (p.209) – like working at an independent school.

“Open networks of academic researchers often create emergent platforms where commercial development becomes possible.” (p.234) – seems quite relevant in the impending loss of tenure here in Wisconsin.

“Ideas rise in crowds, as Poincaré said. They rise in liquid networks where connection is valued more than protection. So if we want to build environments that generate good ideas – whether those environments are in schools or corporations or governments or our own personal lives – we need to keep that history in mind, and not fall back on easy assumptions that competitive markets are the only reliable source of good ideas. Yes, the market has been a great engine of innovation. But so has the reef.” (p.245)

“This is the beauty of the long-zoom perspective: the patterns recur at other scales. You may not be able to turn your government into a coral reef, but you can create comparable environments on the scale of everyday life: in the workplaces you inhabit; in the way you consume media; in the way you augment your memory. The patterns are simple, but followed together, they make for a whole that is wiser than the sum of its parts. Go for a walk; cultivate hunches, write everything down, but keep your folders messy; embrace serendipity; make generative mistakes; take on multiple hobbies; frequent coffeehouses and other liquid networks; follow the links; let others build on your ideas; borrow, recycle, reinvent. Build a tangled bank.” (p.247)

P.S. I tried to put in as many hyperlinks as possible, hoping Steven Johnson would appreciate the effort to increase serendipitous paths possible from me to many other idea-spaces for exploration.

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