Home > Librarianship > The Slow Hunch (MLA12 Seattle: Plenary 2: McGovern Award Lecture by Steven Berlin Johnson)

The Slow Hunch (MLA12 Seattle: Plenary 2: McGovern Award Lecture by Steven Berlin Johnson)

After the president’s lecture (and a break) came the John P. McGovern Award lecture.  This was, I have to say, my favorite presentation at MLA12.  Steven Berlin Johnson is the author of popular science books aka science for the layman aka one of my favorite genres!  I was super-excited to get to hear him speak and honestly, his intelligence and wit are even more evident in person.  His books that were referenced in the lecture include: Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation and The Ghost Map: The Story of London’s Most Terrifying Epidemic–and How It Changed Science, Cities, and the Modern World.  I now present to you my notes from his amazing lecture that I like to call “The Slow Hunch.”

The Eureka Moment Myth

  • Truly disruptive ideas do not have a eureka moment.  The eureka moment is a myth.  The best ideas almost always start as a hunch.
  • Oftentimes, the external conditions need time to catch up to the idea.
  • Darwin had the theory of evolution before he realized it.
  • Commonplace Book–collection of quotes that mean something to the owner.  They’d then reread them and out of this their own intellectual sensibility would take shape.

How Coffee Changed the World

  • What environments support collaboration and fluidity of ideas?  Liquid networks, such as libraries and coffee houses.
  • Almost every key breakthrough in the Enlightenment featured a coffee house.
  • It is no accident that as the population went from imbibing a depressant (alcohol) to a stimulant (coffee), the Enlightenment happened.
  • There is a lot of diversity of people in a coffee house.

The Evolution of Ideas

  • An idea is a network of other ideas brought together in a new configuration.
  • exaptation–some feature/trait/aptitude that evolves for a specific purpose but serendipitously turns out to be good for something else when the environment changes (wings for warmth work for flying)
  • Exaptation often happens when one industry takes something from another industry, adapts it, and uses it in their own. (Use of wine presses for printing)

The Key to Innovation

  • We will be smarter and better as a society if we surround ourselves with those who are different because it provides the opportunity for exaptation.
  • The more innovative group has connections to different careers than their own. (Don’t just be friends with librarians)
  • Make twitter your diverse coffeehouse.  If you just follow people just like you, you get an echo chamber.  Value diversity because of the openings it allows us.

Information Should Be Open

  • Value connecting information over protecting information.
  • 311 is a city concierge.  People can call and report problems and also ask for information from it.  Meanwhile, the city is gathering data from the citizens who call.  The city is sharing information but also is taking in information.  This democratizes and diversifies problem-solving.
  • Open information architecture rives innovation.
  • Chances favors the connector.

Q and A

  • Remind people that surprise and serendipity is happening with the new information tools.  It doesn’t just happen when browsing physical stacks.
  • Core ideas are ideas that were simultaneously and independently discovered within the course of two to three years.  This happens because of the adjacent possible.  The adjacent possible is possible moves you can make at that moment in time.  The possibilities are limited.  You couldn’t invent computer programming before computers.  Thus when something in the world changes, the adjacent possible changes, leading to core ideas.
  • Create a culture of amateur inventors and innovators (lay experts).
  • Release early, release often.
  • There is a non-linear relationship between population size and innovation (10x population size = 17x innovation).  The thing to remember in modern times, though, is that the internet is big-city-like.
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