Text Patterns - by Alan Jacobs

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Steven Johnson and the connected mind

Folks, I’m still way busy, so posting will continue to be light for a while. I’m hoping at some point to have substantive responses to Steven Johnson’s new book Where Good Ideas Come From, which I read last week. For now, check out Jason B. Jones’s review, and consider one important question, which will take me a while to elaborate.

Johnson’s great theme is the virtue and power of connectedness — “Fortune favors the connected mind” will end up being the tagline for the book — but he acknowledges that too much connection can be a bad thing:

The idea, of course, is to strike the right balance between order and chaos. Inspired by the early hype about telecommuting, the advertising agency TBWA/Chiat/Day experimented with a “nonterritorial” office where desks and cubicles were jettisoned, along with the private offices: employees had no fixed location in the office and were encouraged to cluster in new, ad hoc configurations with their colleagues depending on that day’s projects. By all accounts, it was a colossal failure, precisely because it traded excessive order for excessive chaos. . . . Slightly less ambitious open-office plans have grown increasingly unfashionable in recent years, for one compelling reason: people don’t like to work in them. To work in an open office is to work exclusively in public, which turns out to have just as many drawbacks as working entirely in your private lab.

Elsewhere he argues that “Michelangelo, Brunelleschi, and da Vinci were emerging from a medieval culture that suffered from too much order. If dispersed tribes of hunter-gatherers are the cultural equivalent of a chaotic, gaseous state, a culture where the information is largely passed down by monastic scribes stands at the opposite extreme. A cloister is a solid. By breaking up those information bonds and allowing ideas to circulate more freely through a wider, connected population, the great Italian innovators brought new life to the European mind.”

This buys too easily into a very familiar but now largely discredited narrative of the Renaissance as emancipation from the Dark Ages, and ignores the massive intellectual contributions of monastic culture, but the general point is surely right: there can be overly ordered, closed, and private intellectual environments, and there can be overly open and chaotic ones. The fact that Johnson celebrates “the connected mind” so strenuously in this book, in chapter after chapter, suggests that he thinks we need more openness. But here’s my question (at last):

Is that true? Is it really our problem today that we’re not sufficiently connected?


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