in defense of generalism

For my birthday last fall, my brother gave me a copy of Steven Johnson's Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation. I finally got around to reading it a month or so ago and really enjoyed it. Turns out my big bro knows me well! Since I thought of his books more than once while reading it, I wondered if Austin Kleon had shared any public opinions about the book. And he did

Here are a few sections that resonated with me.

On the relationship between cities and creativity:
Between deep political divisions in this country that seem to run along urban/rural lines, and the fact that the coronavirus hit the former areas first and, still I'd argue, hardest, cities have been getting a bad rap lately. But consider this: "A city that was ten times larger than its neighbor wasn't ten times more innovative; it was seventeen times more innovative. A metropolis fifty times bigger than a town was 130 times more innovative." And later: "...despite all the noise and crowding and distraction, the average resident of a metropolis with a population of five million people was almost three times more creative than the average resident of a town of a hundred thousand."

In short, "cities...are environments that are ripe for exaptation." Furthermore, the "shared environments" of cities "often take the form of a real-world public space, what the sociologist Ray Oldenburg famously called the 'third place,' a connective environment distinct from the more insular world of home or office." Of course, at the present moment, finding and benefiting from a "third place" is virtually impossible (but possible virtually?), but the ability of cities to inspire innovation and change, even in the midst of a global pandemic, can certainly be evidenced in the protests about racism and police brutality.

On Capitalism:
"The connection between capitalism and innovation is more subtle than we often make it out to be. Yes, free markets introduce new forms of competition and capital accumulation that can drive the creation and adoption of new ideas. But markets should not be exclusively defined in terms of profit motive."

And again, toward the end of the book: "Collective invention is not some socialist fantasy; entrepreneurs like Edison and de Forest were very much motivated by the possibility of financial rewards, and they tried to patent as much as they could. But the utility of building on other people's ideas often outweighed the exclusivity of building something entirely from scratch. You could develop small ideas in a locked room, cut off from the hunches and insights of your competition. But if you wanted to make a major new incursion into the adjacent possible, you needed company."

The Slow Hunch
If you're wondering how to cultivate hunches, Johnson has three words for you: "write everything down." Charles Darwin's use of "the notebook platform," he writes, "creates a cultivating space for his hunches...His ideas emerge as a kind of duet between the present-tense thinking brain and all those past observations recorded on paper." The notebook (and, I'd argue, the sketchbook for more creative types) follows in the tradition of the "'commonplace' book...'Commonplacing', as it was called, involved transcribing interesting or inspirational passages from one's reading, assembling a personalized encyclopedia of quotations."

Sabbaticals, Deep Dives, and Long Strolls
Similar to how Lewis Hyde writes about the sabbatical in 'The Gift,' Johnson cites the example of Microsoft founder Bill Gates taking "annual reading vacations. During the year they deliberately cultivate a stack of reading material - much of it unrelated to their day-to-day focus at Microsoft - and then they take off for a week or two and do a deep dive into the words they've stockpiled. By compressing their intake into a matter of days, they give new ideas additional opportunities to network among themselves, for the simple reason that it's easier to remember something that you read yesterday than it is to remember something you read six months ago." 

Associative Links and the Adjacent Possible
Another example Johnson uses to illustrate this history of innovation is Johannes Gutenberg's invention of the printing press, specifically for the importance of making "associative links" owing, in Gutenberg's case, to his "ability to reach out beyond his specific field of expertise and concoct new uses for an older technology," the older technology here being a wine press. Johnson continues, "Thanks to his training as a goldsmith, Gutenberg made some brilliant modifications to the metallurgy behind the movable type system, but without the press itself, his meticulous lead fonts would have been useless for creating mass-produced Bibles...An important part of Gutenberg's genius, then, lay not in conceiving an entirely new technology from scratch, but instead from borrowing a mature technology from an entirely different field, and putting it to work to solve an unrelated problem."

Making the case for generalism?
"Legendary innovators like Franklin, Snow, and Darwin all possess some common intellectual qualities - a certain quickness of mind, unbounded curiosity - but they also share one other defining attribute. They have a lot of hobbies. The historian Howard Gruber likes to call such concurrent projects 'networks of enterprise,' but I prefer to describe them using a contemporary term that has been much aligned of late: multitasking...In 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 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."

But don't forget about the importance of genres!
"Genius requires genres...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."

When I finished this book, I resumed reading Jerry Saltz's 'How To Be An Artist,' opening to this page about, as if proving Johnson's hypothesis, genres. 

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