ALA Midwinter: Steven Johnson

Auditorium Speaker Series: Steven Johnson
Steven Johnson is the autor of, most recently, Future Perfect: The Case for Progress in a Networked Age.

Starts with a story from The Ghost Map (my review). London, 1854 – the largest city the world has seen at that point. Belief that diseases were in the air – the miasma theory. Cholera outbreak in Soho – within 10 days, 10 percent of the area’s population has died. “Terrible urban carnage.” Local (amateur) doctor John Snow starts to investigate. He builds a map of who gets sick and where. Sees that the deaths are clustered around a particular water pump – a very popular one. Convinces the authorities to remove the handle from the pump & the outbreak stops. By 1866 (12 years!) cholera is gone from London.

Except . . . not true! Not a sudden flash of insight. Snow had been working on his water-bourne theory 6 years prior to the outbreak. Had made other maps, written lots about it – no one believed him. Map was more of a marketing vehicle for his theory. Also an “open/big data” theme tied in. Statistician had looked at mortality reports in London – combined it with other data like age, gender, COD, etc. Snow was able to supplement his data with this other data. Not a “lone genius having an epiphany on his own.” Not to mention his collaborator, a local vicar. “A classic neighborhood connector.” Helped Snow collect lots of data, also helped find Patient Zero.

We like to tell stories of eureka moments and sudden insights – but if you go back and look at these stories, they’re almost always “a slow evolutionary process where you start with a hunch.” (Sidebar: CERN server that was the web. Note sticker.) Talking about Berners-Lee creating the web – building off of all kinds of things that were already out there. Wouldn’t ever have done it from complete scratch.

All these open platforms on the web – Twitter, etc – lots of interesting things happening. Like Occupy Wall Street. Was a hashtag used by Ad Busters that got picked up, and months later turned into a movement.  This was never intended – users started including hashtags to organize tweets. Users pushed the platform in the direction they wanted and founders were like “no one will do this.” Except they did.

Power of diversity – Snow & Whitehead (vicar) were a good combination because they were so different. Skills, sensibilities, etc.

Study – group of very innovative people, group of less innovative people. Built social network maps and looked for patterns to find out how the groups different. Signature pattern on the innovators side – more diverse set of professions in their social networks. “It’s the casual conversations with someone working on a different problem in a different field that unlocks some new opening for you.”

Commonplace books – a device that the great thinkers of the enlightenment used. A notebook devoted to transcribing important quotes. Jefferson, Locke, etc. Sub-genre of printers who did volumes of these. Quotes from all sorts of authors. Slowly your own perspective will emerge. Another relevant thing – 18th century coffee house. Driver of new ideas in the Enlightenment – physical location of the movement. Libraries are places that can help make connections like commonplace books and the coffee house.

Growing number of people who have started to see a third organizational form that’s not the top-down/big gov’t state institution, or private sector marketplace, but open, collaborative networks – P2P networks of people. Open source software has validated this world view. It is not naive or utopian! Open networks and collaboration work.

Chance favors the connected mind.