Innovation: Social Network Wanted

I had the pleasure of spending the last few weeks in the Czech countryside. I brought along my Nook reader, because it is easier to pack than any set of physical books I might want to read.

I read most of the way through Steven Johnson‘s Where Good Ideas Come From, helpfully subtitled A Natural History of Innovation. I was primed to like the book since I enjoyed his previous book The Ghost Map quite a lot. (Here is my review of that book on Amazon.)

Johnson boils innovation down to several recurring patterns, but central to many of them is the requirement for connections. We need connections between different sets of experiences, and we need connections with peers.

Another recurring theme is that innovation comes to the well prepared, to those that have been chewing on a problem for years, accumulating bits of unrelated data, before the final act of creative integration occurs. He also highlights how it was once common for intellectuals to maintain a ‘common place’ book – basically a series of notebooks collecting quotes from other sources as well as their own ideas, with an indexing method that made finding ideas again easier.

Obviously, modern computer software makes the creation of a common place book very easy, and Johnson shares that he uses a particular Mac application for this purpose, DEVONthink.

Besides recommending the book, I’d like to share two thoughts.

First, software such as DEVONthink stops short of what is now possible. Yes, it helps an individual create connections between ideas, but it does nothing to help connect individuals.

Second, the connections between objects are as important as the objects themselves. One of the important points Johnson makes is about how we learn by reinforcing connections. Therefore, it makes sense (IMHO) to keep track of our browsing history not just in terms of the web sites visited, but the actual path taken between sites – the order in which they were visited, the links that were followed. In the near future we’ll be able to add to that the actual path our eyes followed across the screen. We’ll know what we read, what ads and images were viewed, how we jumped from browsing to e-mail to spreadsheet.

Putting the above two ideas together, what I see as the next level of network support for innovation is the public sharing of our paths of exploration and the public sharing of our notebooks. Then the web spiders and robots of the world can work their magic of connecting us to others who are on similar journeys of exploration, but whom we do not yet know personally. Transparency and sharing are natural corollaries to connections.

As I stated in a previous post on who we go to for help, the web can become a referral service for problems, and people who are trying to solve problems that are adjacent to ours. That is the social network I want to join!

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