Thursday, October 21, 2010

Bigger Johnson

The September 27 issue of Publishers Weekly features an interview with Steven Johnson discussing his new book (see below) and the future of the publishing industry. It's well worth a read. I was particularly struck by Johnson's conception of ideas as networks, since it chimes in with some of the arguments advanced by Manuel Castells in his Information Age trilogy, the first volume of which is titled The Rise of the Network Society.

When I gave the book to Kevin Kelly to read, he wrote back, "It's a book about how ideas are networks that are made up of a network of ideas." I love that. An idea is not a single thing. It's literally a network in your brain, and it's almost always a network in terms of the flow of information that leads to the idea. A solitary moment of inspiration is absolutely the exception, not the rule.

Until I encountered your description of the Web as a developing city, complete with homage to Jane Jacobs, I hadn't realized how much I wanted a visual analogue to understand how the Web is evolving.

You know how people talk about American exceptionalism? I think there's a kind of Web exceptionalism, where people say the Web and the Internet have these magical properties, where open source software can happen and people can collaborate and make Wikipedia, but that these kinds of things never happen in the real world. Part of my argument is to show how these patterns of innovation have a long history in the so-called real world. When you think of the organizational structure that sustained Renaissance development as being partially the city states, you have to understand the particular quality of cities: they're not really owned by anybody. They're collectively built, and although they are the seat of commercial activity that is closed and propriety and market-driven, the space the city creates is not. When you push the analogy over to the biological systems and you can see the innovation that develops in those environments, you start to see deep patterns. People often talk about the Web like it's this 1960s commune—"Oh, the Web, weird things happen there!"

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