Steven Johnson’s Where Good Ideas Come From
I just finished reading Steven Johnson’s Where Good Ideas Come From. Unexpectedly, the book connected with a lot of my reading from a recent seminar called Queer Indigestion and the University. Thierry Bardini’s Junkware was the first text that I thought of when I read Johnson’s notion that good ideas are composed of spare parts: “Part of coming up with a good idea is discovering what those spare parts are, and ensuring that you’re not just recycling the same old ingredients” (Johnson 42). He uses an example from Stephen Jay Gould, who praises the ingenuity of sandals made from old tires. Johnson refers to Gould later because of his concept of exaptation, a concept in evolutionary biology where a trait developed for a specific purpose is re-purposed for a different function. Gould himself “exapts” the ‘tire sandals,’ translating it to nature: “The tire-to-sandals principle [. . .] [makes] nature as inventive as the cleverest person who ever pondered the potential of a junkyard in Nairobi” (Gould qtd. in Johnson 29). Johnson will refer several times to the innovative power of recycling. Brent Constanz, for instance, in his project to grow coral reef that may eventually result in material for cities, discovered a new way to use excess CO2 from factories. We consider CO2 as “waste,” but through innovative thinking it becomes useful again. This may be one issue with Bardini’s narrow definition of junk, which he wants to distinguish from forms of garbage, waste and trash for (admirably) semantic reasons. He tries to describe junk as something that retains some of its affect (whereas trash, garbage, and waste, we just want out of sight, out of mind). This affect gives us “hope” in junk and possibly a “redemption,” language he draws from Phillip K. Dick’s SF Gnosticism. Toward the end of the text, he further generalizes: “junk is always the present potentiality of a renewed function” (Bardin 213).
Either Johnson is not careful enough in his distinctions, or Bardini’s distinctions earlier in the text fall apart right here. Should we think junk as a renewed function in the sense that its initial function returns? I do not think Bardini means it in this sense, since he also wants to speak of “spare parts,” but in more ‘organic’ terms, drawing on Deleuze and Guattari’s Bodies without Organs. He uses the term Organs without bodies. Bardini cites the Tissue Culture and Art Project as claiming that their work is about “producing spare body parts” (204). Both of the texts seem to point toward innovation, but Johnson’s concept of “platforms” takes us out of the rhetoric of redemption/salvation. At the same time, we have to recognize that while Johnson’s work succeeds at discussing innovation, it rarely touches on the difficult subject of ethics of innovations and technology. Thus, Johnson avoids any discussion of the ethical consequences of “good ideas.” This is a limitation of Johnson’s book that should be acknowledged, but not harped on. Johnson hints at political and organizational concerns, but never directly addresses them, as it is not the thesis of his book. So, in a sense, perhaps it is disingenuous of me to compare Johnson and Bardini’s work.
Yet, we may want to look at one more moment in Johnson’s text that intersects with Bardini. Junkware begins with a historical narrative of Crick and Watson’s discovery of the Central Dogma. Bardini points out that a lot of the decisions made concerning the Dogma was made outside of the laboratory, in letters and informal meetings. In our course, we were a bit surprised by this and poked fun at the kind of arbitrary decisions made. Johnson offers a slightly alternative reading, where he shows how Watson and Crick’s tinkering and combining different disciplines led to their theories of DNA (Johnson 168-69). Bardini admits that Watson and Crick’s Central Dogma was useful at one time, but eventually grew into an actual dogma that limited possibilities of research (Bardini 211). Thus, the issue for Bardini is not the innovation/idea itself, but rather its rigidity and its ability to exclude work that, we have since learned, is less “counter-productive” than W&C initially had thought. How would we understand Watson and Crick’s work in Johnson’s terms of platforming?
Johnson modifies the basic Kuhnian paradigm structure, arguing that “modern scientific paradigms are rarely overthrown. Instead, they are built upon. They create a platform that supports new paradigms above them,” such as the molecular genetics revolution triggered by Watson and Crick’s discovery of DNA (190). Although Johnson is clearly right here, he does not take into account that the way Watson and Crick defined what was “useful” and what was “garbage” within the DNA would marginalize certain research as invalid or, frankly, crazy. Perhaps Johnson would explain this phenomenon in terms of the concept of the adjacent possible? Bardini refers to one of the (now) famous Barbara McCintock, who was dismissed early in her career but eventually won the Nobel Prize. Perhaps Johnson would argue that McClintock’s ideas could not flourish in the early environment. But maybe it was because of Watson and Crick’s Dogma that they closed off the adjacent possible.
We may be able to see such definitions/dogmas of Watson and Crick as an elimination of “commons.” By calling most of DNA “junk” or “garbage,” actually get a very politically charged conception of human body where there are “productive” genes (‘coding’) and parasitic genes that have little function and just sort of ‘tag along’. I am struck by the similarity of this to the dominant trend in thinking that there are job “creators” and then there the people who depend on these job creators for their livelihoods. The 99% sucking off the 1% etc.
Perhaps the most relevant work on the problem of the “commons” is elucidated by Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri in Commonwealth. The “commons” is neither private nor public, but autonomous from both. Indeed, the commons goes beyond the idea of “property” and so even “public property” is still in some sense “private” compared to the openness of the commons (Hardt and Negri 282). “The common” and what Hardt and Negri, following Foucault, call biopolitical production create surplus value, but are not subject to the logic of scarcity:
Biopolitical production puts bios to work without consuming it. Furthermore, its product is not exclusive. When I share an idea or image with you, my capacity to think with it is not lessened; on the contrary, our exchange of ideas and images increases my capacities. (283-284)
This new “social sensorium” is what much labor (at least in the United States) now works towards. We need to start thinking the commons because the internet has allowed for increased and productive circulation of ideas and images. It is through the free circulation of ideas and tools that innovation comes about.
Indeed, since ideas and imagesdo not operate on the logic of scarcity, we have to construct artificial barriers that protects them from circulation. Stephen Johnson writes that, although efficiency tends to be the goal of every economy, and economy that “traffic[s] in ideas” must build inefficient markets:
And so where innovation is concerned, we have deliberately built inefficient markets: environments that protect copyrights and patents and trade secrets and a thousand other barricades we’ve erected to keep promising ideas out of the minds of others. (232)
Of course, ideally, there is one place where ideas should circulate freely: the university. The modern research university, argues Johnson, participates in “fourth quadrant” research; that is, it is decentralized and nonmarket driven. Of course, as many writes have recently pointed out, markets have taken over funding for research and many people consider the Humanities type of research (what Christopher Newfield refers to as “cultural knowledge”) as useless. So, in one sense, the University may be in danger of becoming a market-driven institution. But, again, ideally, university research goes like this: “new ideas are published with the deliberate goal of allowing other participants to refine and build upon them, with no restrictions on their circulation beyond the proper acknowledgment of their origin” (Johnson 233).
Johnson and Hardt and Negri, I think, are actually remarkably close in what they seem to be arguing for, even though Johnson is less extreme. Johnson admits that there is no “ready-made political vocabulary for the fourth quadrant, particularly the noninstitutional forms of collaboration that have developed around the open-source community” (235). I would suggest that this type of thinking may correspond to what Hardt and Negri calls “the multitude.”
Both Hardt and Negri see the concept of the city and the metropolis as a key requirement for what Hardt and Negri call “biopolitical production” and what Johnson calls simply “good ideas.” The city, also, is the location of the political collective Hardt and Negri call the multitude: “The metropolis is the site of biopolitical production because it is the space of the common, of people living together, sharing resources, communicating, exchanging goods and ideas [. . .] The metropolis is a factory for the production of the common” (250). For Hardt and Negri, the city is important because it fosters “unpredictable encounters,” the task of which is to transform “conflictive encounters” into “joyful and productive ones” (252-255). This focus on encounter and collisions corresponds with Johnson’s idea of ‘collisions’: “Collisions [lead to creativity]—the collisions that happen when different fields of expertise converge in some shared physical or intellectual space” (Johnson 163).
But Johnson argues that the idea of the ‘commons’ is limited for two reasons. First, he notes that it is conventionally used in “opposition to the competitive struggle of the marketplace” and innovation environments are not necessarily hostile to market competition (244). I think Hardt and Negri would respond that biopolitical production is, rather than ‘hostile’, simply overflowing the market. That is, it creates surplus value that is difficult for capital to appropriate and hold onto: “Cognitive labor and affective labor generally produce cooperation autonomously from capitalist command” (140). The second limit Johnson points out is that the commons (which, admittedly, maybe this is different from the “common” without an ‘s’)
doesn’t suggest the patterns of recycling and exaptation and recombination that define so many innovation spaces. When you think of the commons, you think of a cleared field dominate by a single resource for grazing. You don’t think of an ecosystem. The commons is a monocrop grassland, not a tangled bank (244)
Indeed, Johnson argues for a metaphor ‘drawn from nature’ that more explicitly recalls an ecosystem. I think both Johnson and Hardt and Negri are trying to go beyond a state-controlled socialism or capitalism. Both are interested in a careful balance between order and chaos and both believe that creativity and innovation stem from decentralized, non-hierarchal aggregates that allows a free flow of ideas. It’s possible that Hardt and Negri have a larger task, as they are seeking to think of a new way of governance. Johnson, too, however, points to the possibility that the ideas he identifies toward innovation should be applied to government, but in a different way.
Hardt and Negri argue that revolutionary institutions must be
1.) Based in conflict
2.) create their own forms of habits and practices
3.) open-ended, susceptible to change give the singularities that make it up
They go on to say that this form of institution can be derived through the metaphor of network in cybernetics (357-358).
However, I think Hardt and Negri, although attuned to the environment of the metropolis, lack discussion of how we are related to other beings besides other humans. Johnson's metaphor of the "coral reef," which emphasizes recycling and sustainability as well as innovation and 'common' spaces I think is a powerful addition to Hardt and Negri's book. Rarely is what we typically call "nature" introduced into Hardt and Negri's discourse. The only except is the Wasp and Orchid, uh, 'parable' if you allow the misnomer:
Wasps who love orchids, instead, point toward the conditions of the biopolitical economy. How could these wasps be a model for economic production, you might ask, when they don't produce anything? The bees and flowers produce honey and fruit, but the wasps and orchids are just hedonists and aesthetes, merely creating pleasure and beauty. It is true that the interaction of wasps and orchids does not result primarily in material goods, but one should not discount their immaterial production. In the encounter of singularies of their love, a new assemblage is created marked by the continual metamorphosis of each singularity in common. Wasp-orchid love, in other words, is a model fo the production of subjectivity that animates the biopolitical economy. (188)Perhaps it would be prudent here to at least note the difference of Johnson's project and Hardt and Negri's. Hardt and Negri are trying to elucidate a theory of radical institutions and governance that would produce new subjectivities. Johnson, however, is simply trying to think about how innovation happens and what we can do to foster it. Both, again, are focusing on the creative potential of the overflow of ideas in a kind of "commons," but Hardt and Negri clearly lay out a political project.
I think what Johnson can add to the conversation is language focusing on environment, recycling, and sustainability that spurs on innovation and creativity. Bardini's definition of "junk" also helps this project. Maybe the important aspect is in realizing that institutions do not only have to exist to preserve the status quo, but that institutions can be creative in a similar way that technologies and "platforms" are created.
I am not sure if any of these connections matter, but, as Johnson recommends, I am simply trying to write it all down. It's just a slow hunch, albeit poorly defined.