The Essential Tension of Ideas

October 28th, 2010 | Category: Essays, Reviews, Videos

One of the key insights in Richard Florida’s latest book, The Great Reset (Harper, 2010) is that rapid transit increases the exchange of ideas and thereby spurs innovation. Where the car used to provide this mass connection, now it hinders it. Increasingly, our cognitive surplus is sitting traffic.

Ideas are networks, Steven Johnson argues in his new book, Where Good Ideas Come From (Riverhead, 2010). The book takes Florida’s tack, comparing cities to coral reefs in that their structure fosters innovation. Good ideas come from connected collectives, so connectivity is paramount.

Human history in essence is the history of ideas. — H. G. Wells

On the other end of the spectrum, in a recent post about Twitter, David Weinberger writes,

…despite the “Who cares what you had for breakfast?” crowd, it’s important that we’ve been filling the new social spaces — blogs, social networking sites, Twitter, messaging in all forms, shared creativity in every format — with the everyday and quotidian. When we don’t have to attract others by behaving outlandishly, we behave in the boring ways that make life livable. In so doing, we make the Net a better reflection of who we are.

And since we are taking the Net as the image of who we are, and since who we think we are is broadly determinative of who we become, this matters.

His description sounds like we’re evening out our representations of our online selves, reconciling them with our IRL selves, initiating a corrective of sorts. Coincidentally, in their sad version of “The SEED Salon,” a recent issue of WIRED had Kevin Kelly and Steven Johnson discuss the roots of innovation (by way of plugging their respective new books; here they are discussing same at the New York Public Library). Kelly states,

Ten years ago, I was arguing that the problem with TV was that there wasn’t enough bad TV. Making TV was so expensive that accountants prevented it from becoming really crappy—or really great. It was all mediocre. But that was before YouTube. Now there is great TV!

It sounds as though Weinberger and Kelly are calling for or defending a sort of “infodiversity,” which one would think would be a core tenet of media ecology. As Kelly puts it in What Technology Wants (Viking, 2010), “Both life and technology seem to be based on immaterial flows of information” (p. 10). He continues in WIRED,

To create something great, you need the means to make a lot of really bad crap. Another example is spectrum. One reason we have this great explosion of innovation in wireless right now is that the US deregulated spectrum. Before that, spectrum was something too precious to be wasted on silliness. But when you deregulate—and say, OK, now waste it—then you get Wi-Fi.

In science, Thomas Kuhn called this idea “the essential tension.” In his book of the same name (University of Chicago Press, 1977), he described it as a tug-of-war between tradition and innovation. Kuhn wrote that this tension is essential, “…because the old must be revalued and reordered when assimilating the new” (p. 227). This is one of those ideas that infects one’s thinking in toto. As soon as I read about the essential tension, I began to see it everywhere — in music, in movies, in art, and indeed, in science. In all of the above, Weinberger, Johnson, and Kelly are all talking about and around this idea, in some instances the innovation side, and in others, the tradition side. We need both.

One cannot learn anything that is more than one step away from what one already knows. Learning progresses one step or level at a time. Johnson explores this idea in Where Good Ideas Come From by evoking Stuart Kauffman‘s “adjacent possible” (a term Johnson uses hundreds of times to great annoyance). The adjacent possible is that next step away. It is why innovation must be rooted in tradition. Go too far out and no one understands you, you are “ahead of your time.” Take the next step into the adjacent possible that no one else saw, and you have innovated. Taken another way, H. G. Wells once said that to write great science fiction, one must adopt a perspective that is two steps away from the current time. Going only one away is too familiar, and three is too far out. As Kelly puts it in the WIRED piece, “Innovating is about more than just having the idea yourself; you also have to bring everyone else to where your idea is. And that becomes really difficult if you’re too many steps ahead.” A new technology, literally “the knowledge of a skill,” is–in its very essence–the same thing as a new idea. For instance, Apple’s Newton was too many steps ahead of or away from what was happening at the time of its release. I’m sure you can think of several other examples.

Johnson, who has a knack for having at least one (usually more) infectious idea per book, further addresses the process of innovation with what he calls the “slow hunch.” This is the required incubation period of an innovative idea. The slow hunch often needs to find another hunch in order to come to fruition. That is, one person with an idea often needs to be coupled with another who has an idea so that the two can spur each other into action, beyond the power of either by itself (see the video below for a better explanation). It’s an argument for our increasing connectivity, and a damn good one.

That is not to say that there aren’t and won’t be problems. I think Kevin Kelly lays it out perfectly here:

…[T]here will be problems tomorrow because progress is not utopia. It is easy to mistake progressivism as utopianism because where else does increasing and everlasting improvement point to except utopia? Sadly, that confuses a direction with a destination. The future as unsoiled technological perfection is unattainable; the future as a territory of continuously expending possibilities is not only attainable but also exactly the road we are on now (p. 101).

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Here’s the book trailer for Steven Johnson’s Where Good Ideas Come From [runtime: 4:07]:

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References:

Florida, R. (2010). The great reset. New York: Harper.

Johnson, S. (2010). Where good ideas come from. New York: Riverhead.

Kelly, K. (2010). What technology wants. New York: Viking.

Kuhn, T. (1977). The essential tension. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Weinberger, D. (2010). “Why it’s good to be boring on the web.” JoHo The Blog.

WIRED. (2010, October) “Kevin Kelly and Steven Johnson on where ideas come from.” Wired.com.

Further Posting:

2 Comments »

  • Not Great Men: The Human Microphone Effect | Roy Christopher said:

    […] our collaborative, networked thinking makes it more difficult to see the singular innovation. If ideas are networks, then big ideas are big networks. Even Jobs brought into being previously existing, networked […]

  • Reading Hip-hop: No Nostalgia Needed | Roy Christopher said:

    […] nostalgic for what they miss, our own nostalgia as a collective mood can change. Maintaining the essential tension between tradition and innovation is paramount (Kuhn, 1977), but we have to let it go where it […]