Colliding Nothing into Nothing: Where Good Ideas Won’t Come From

I’m a big fan of Steven Johnson, and have a lot to thank him for. His book Emergence was massive for me in terms of my thinking in so many areas, and The Ghost Map is still one of my favourite books – particularly because I know the streets that it talks about so well.

His latest book Where Good Ideas Come From has been out for about a year now, but I’d not seen this animation of its core ideas before today. It’s a very good summary, but I think it holds a warning too.

Johnson is famously techno-positive. He LOVES the web, and for him interconnectedness is absolutely where it’s at. This, he argues, is where good ideas come from: the interactivity of human minds, sharing and feeding one another.

In the video he uses the example of the coffee house – a place where people met and minds worked together – and from this collision of ideas the missing parts for people’s hunches were found.

I think this is great – and I love his thesis – but my concern is that when I look around the day-to-day of social networks, in the excitement about connections, we may miss the point that one has to have something to connect. There is no point trying to make connections unless one has something solid, some beginning of some idea, to bring to the table. And these initial ideas, the founding hunches and raw materials from which good things will come, tend to come through reflection and reading away from the buzz of interconnection.

And it this time – the time away from the hive of connections around the web and social networks – that I am worried is perilously eroded. If people are not reading in depth any more, or properly immersing themselves in a subject, then the proper base materials simply can’t be there to create something new when collisions occur.

In other words, you can make an awfully big bang slamming paper bags together, but all you’ve really done is smash nothing into nothing… got an attention-grabbing ‘pop’, with nothing else to show for it. And that’s, for example, what I think we see a lot in much of the hot air that comes out of media debate at the moment: comment based on comment based on a tiny tweet. Sometimes it’s time to get back to the (metaphorical perhaps) library, the quiet space away from the noise, and spend time immersed in something.