I’m enjoying Steven Johnson’s Where Good Ideas Come From, and already thinking about which chunks I will cannibalize for my history of science and technology class next semester. Good Ideas brings together themes that Johnson has been developing for years: the networked nature of innovation, the ingenuity of cities, the power of thinking across disciplines and scales. It’s a great read, as ingenious and beautifully written as all his stuff, although its wider scope makes it, to my mind, a little breezier and more lightweight than, say, The Ghost Map, which remains my favorite of Johnson’s books. I want to say this gently, because I think Johnson is terrific, but there is a whiff of the airport bookstore, if you know what I mean, around this business of “good ideas” and how to have more of them. Good Ideas shifts from the descriptive to the prescriptive in a way Ghost Map or Emergence or Invention of Air do not: you too can harness Charles Darwin’s seven secrets of info-lution! That’s probably a plus for some readers, but it’s not really what I came for. Still. I’m only part way into the book, and I trust Johnson to take me someplace smart and unexpected and cool.
I like to read related things in tandem (that’s one of the seven secrets, sort of), so as a bit of a counterweight I’m also reading John Durham Peters’ 2004 essay “The ‘Marketplace of Ideas’: A History of the Concept,” published in a collection called Toward a Political Economy of Culture. Johnson’s metaphors are more biological than economic–not a “marketplace” of ideas but a “coral reef”–but otherwise, Peters could have been talking about Johnson here:
Words are conceptual mausoleums, haunts at which the spirits of the dead continue their debates and threaten to possess the bodies of the unwary. Intellectual history can provide a selective exorcism … Taking the ‘marketplace’ as the central metaphor for public communication, as we will see, has divergent effects. It packs hefty semantic freight, suggesting that communication and economics are not only analogous but flourish when unregulated, that diversity is essential, and that exchange occurs in a “place” where people congregate and circulate, enter and exit at will. The term often wears the halo of what one might call the libertarian theodicy–the faith that ideas, if they are left to shift for themselves, will be diverse and truth will conquer error in the long run. It implies a rather disembodied vision of public communication, as if the politics of culture were governed by entities so Platonic as “ideas.”
Are all ideas good ones? Do The Origin of Species, a sexy new way to market music, and predicting the 9-11 attacks beforehand all come from the same place? Did Social Darwinism, CD packaging, and the 9-11 attacks themselves come from some different process?
All that aside, the real catalyst for this post was a throwaway reference in Good Ideas. Talking about Charles Babbage and the Difference Engine, Johnson writes:
For all its complexity, however, the Difference Engine was well within the adjacent possible of Victorian technology. The second half of the nineteenth century saw a steady stream of improvements to mechanical calculation, many of them building on Babbage’s architecture. … In 1884, an American inventor named William S. Burroughs founded the American Arithmometer Company to sell mass-produced calculators to businesses around the country. (The fortune generated by those machines would help fund his namesake grandson’s writing career, not to mention his drug habit, almost a century later.)
Did everybody else know about this? Digging into my old Suppressed Transmissions, I see Ken Hite mentioned Burroughs the elder back in 2002, damn his eyes. But there’s still crazy untapped hashpunk potential in the idea of “William S. Burroughs’ Difference Engine.” And get this: Wikipedia tells me that a Burroughs Corporation computer console appeared in the old Batman series as the Bat-Computer. Holy Dreamachine. I don’t know what’s weirder there: the Burroughs-Batman connection or that the Bat-Computer was a real computer. So. Conflate or combine the two William Burroughses and mix them up with William Gibson too. Posit a drug-fuelled information revolution in the late 19th century. Giant beetly arithmometers talking out of unpleasant looking orifices. Phallic zeppelins of Interzone. Predatory mugwumps stalking the back streets of Tangiers. And sometime in the surreal century that follows, the scion of the Burroughs family (along with youthful ward Allen Ginsberg) dons a cape and mask to rid his city of crime. To the Beatmobile!
See? Darwin’s seven secrets of evo-vation are working already.