Category Archives: kevin kelly

Importance of social capital in innovation

Steven Johnson has an interesting new book out called Where Good Ideas Come From.

He talks about a number of conditions that help make innovation possible (the fact that often it takes a long time for innovation to emerge from rough drafts of earlier ideas, and requires incubation of these neonate ideas).

But, one precondition he focuses on is the social dimension.  Often a breakthrough innovation requires marrying or “colliding” two partial ideas.  Sometimes these ideas rest on hunches, often residing in two separate individuals, and unless these hunches are brought together and connected, the innovation goes undiscovered.  [It’s what Matt Ridley calls “When ideas have sex.”] To do this we have to create spaces for people to get together so we can unlock this innovation, hence the import of the coffee house during the Enlightenment or Modernist Salons in Paris (what Steven calls the “Liquid Network”). Kevin Dunbar also documented how something as prosaic as the weekly lab meeting was where most of the innovation at a lab typically occurred, not while poring over the microscope.

What Steven Johnson is really talking about is social capital.  In fact Steven Johnson thinks that “connectivity” is the key engine of historical and American creativity: “Chance favors a connected mind.”  [This is analogous to the process Andrew Wiles used to  solve one of the great math riddles of all: Fermat’s Last Theorem.]  Johnson thinks that the Internet will turn out to a net plus in this process.

An example of this collision of ideas to produce innovation is a neonatal warmer (to halve infant mortality) in developing countries. Timothy Prestero, Design that Matters, took the concept of a warmer, but used bicycle and auto parts from those countries so that when the warmer broke down, local mechanics could repair them.  It’s an analogy for the infusion of ideas from lots of different sources.

Another interesting example he draws on is showing how a few scientists in their spare time trying to compute Sputnik’s speed and ultimately its path from listening to its signal, ultimately led to putting up satellites to enable the military to know where its nuclear submarines were, and then ultimately to using these satellites to determine where one’s phone or car was.

On the topic of social capital and innovation, other game theory and social network research shows that often it is not your close ties that unlock this creativity and innovation but your weaker ties (that connect those to others who are a little less similar who are likely to have differing and highly valuable new ideas). Think cross-fertilization.  So one not only needs to create social spaces, but spaces and a mindset that lets you connect with your weaker ties (maybe someone in your lab with a different specialty or background, or someone at your school with a different focus, or a coffee shop that brings people together whose only connection is that they drink coffee every morning at 10 AM).

See Wired Interview with Steven Johnson and Kevin Kelly here.

See TED video with Steven Johnson here.


Wikipedia: to delete or not to delete?

The Economist has an interesting story about the debate raging within Wikipedia about whether Wikipedia should let a 1000 flowers bloom (or in Wikipedia’s case, over 2,000,000 entries) or should limit the number of articles to ones it deems of broader interest. For example, should there be 500 articles on individual Pokemon characters or not?

It’s analogous to the debate about whether community is built top-down or bottom-up. The bottom-up folks “the inclusionists” believe that letting contributors determine what is newsworthy (or article-worthy) builds a stronger sense of community and participation. Top-downers (or “deletionists”) believe that, although the storage space for these relatively obscure or not well edited articles is minimal, that having too sprawling content leads to lower citizen participation in editing and improving these entries. An appropriate analogy might be that it would be easier to get volunteers to work on a small but usable urban park than blanket Denali National Park (a park the size of Massachusetts, even if people lived close to Mt. Denail in Alaska). Also, potentially Wikipedia’s perceived quality is only as good as its weakest articles or average articles and as the volume of articles rises and the level of editing doesn’t rise proportionately, average quality article gets weaker.

The bar has been raised, whether appropriately or not, for new wikipedia entries and as a consequence a greater percentage of new wikipedia articles get denied. As a consequence, “[m]any who are excited about contributing to the site end up on the “Missing Wikipedians” page: a constantly updated list of those who have decided to stop contributing. It serves as a reminder that frustration at having work removed prompts many people to abandon the project”

The Economist notes that it is getting harder and harder to draw the appropriate line around inclusion. “How do you draw editorial distinctions between an article entitled “List of nicknames used by George W. Bush” (status: kept) and one about “Vice-presidents who have shot people” (status: deleted)? Or how about “Natasha Demkina: Russian girl who claims to have X-ray vision” (status: kept) and “The role of clowns in modern society” (status: deleted)?

“To measure a subject’s worthiness for inclusion (or “notability”, in the jargon of Wikipedians), all kinds of rules have been devised. So an article in an international journal counts more than a mention in a local newspaper; ten matches on Google is better than one match; and so on. These rules are used to devise official policies on particular subjects, such as the notability of pornographic stars (a Playboy appearance earns you a Wikipedia mention; starring in a low-budget movie does not) or diplomats (permanent chiefs of station are notable, while chargés d’affaires ad interim are not).

“Jimmy Wales, the founder of Wikipedia, has himself fallen foul of these tricky notability criteria. Last summer he created a short entry about a restaurant in South Africa where he had dined. The entry was promptly nominated for deletion, since the restaurant had a poor Google profile and was therefore considered not notable enough. After a lot of controversy and media coverage (which, ahem, increased the restaurant’s notability), the entry was kept, but the episode prompted many questions about the adequacy of the editorial process.”

Other related Wikipedia items: Kevin Kelly notes that his answer to the Edge’s question in 2008 –“What have you changed your mind about?” — is the success of Wikipedia which he thought would never work. And there’s a fascinating insider account by Nicholson Baker (masquerading as a book review in New York Review of Books of “Wikipedia: The Missing Manual”) discussing the amazingly unscientific process of deciding what articles makes it in or not to Wikipedia.

See the Economist article here.