A very interesting conversation between Steven Johnson and Kevin Kelly about where ideas come from.

Kelly: Really, we should think of ideas as connections,in our brains and among people. Ideas aren’t self-contained things; they’re more like ecologies and networks. They travel in clusters.

Johnson: Exactly. And that, by the way, is also a fantastic example of how ideas work. After you’d read a galley of my book, you emailed me and wrote, “It’s a book about why ideas are networks.” And even though that line is in my book somewhere, I had never really framed it that way in my mind. But ever since then, when people ask me about the book, I’ve been using that concept to explain it. You had come to my work with fresh eyes and pointed out a really lovely way of expressing the main thesis that had completely escaped me. That’s the way breakthrough ideas happen. They don’t come from contemplative geniuses sitting alone in their studies, trying to think new thoughts.

Two concepts from the discussion that I will be pondering today:

  1. Ideas are networks.
  2. To create something great, you need the means to make a lot of really bad crap.

The second is one I've pondered before, and actually dovetails very neatly with my Master's thesis. In my thesis, I created a population of animats (artificial intelligent agents) that could communicate via 4-bit messages. The messages were not specifically grounded, but were fed into the (non-learning) neural networks of the animats as a part of their input. The connections of the neural networks were passed through generations of animats and allowed to evolve, and over time the population of animats converged towards a culture that imbued meaning to the initially arbitrary signals. After hundreds of generations, the population as a whole would "learn" to interpret various 4-bit patterns to mean things like "here's food", "run away", "mate with me", and so forth.

The animats tended to live near food sources in the environment. If the world had only one cluster of food, the animats would develop a single culture. If the world had multiple clusters of food, the animats would spread out to adjacent clusters as their numbers increased and the culture of the animats at each cluster would be slightly different. The farther apart the food clusters were, the farther apart the cultures would be.

Anyway, the point is that each of these animat cultures could be seen as a metaphorical "idea". Without the dead space between food clusters, the animats would never develop more than a single culture. Similarly, without the freedom to create "junk" humanity would never be able branch out and discover new valuable ideas. The junk serves as a bridge into unknown territory!

(HT: BM.)

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