Convocation with Clive Thompson
- Where two big ideas come from? Welcome to today's convocation at Carleton College. I'm your host, Kerry Raadt director of events. Now we'll be together for one hour, and we'll include time for questions. You may click on that Q&A tab on your screen to submit your questions at any time.
And I'll pose those to our speaker at the conclusion of his presentation. Clive Thompson is one of our most prominent technology writers, respected for long form journalism that delves into science, literature, history, and philosophy. He specializes in writing not merely about the inventors of technologies, but about how everyday people use them, often quite unpredictably. In his book "Smarter Than You Think," he reveals how modern technology is making us smarter, more innovative, and better connected, as individuals and as society, despite widespread anxieties that the opposite is true. With his new book, "Coders: The Making of a New Tribe and the Remaking of the World," Thompson continues his exploration into the intersections of technology and human experience, peeking behind the curtain of Silicon Valley to dismantle the stereotype of the lone male genius coder.
A contributing editor for "Wired" and a contributor to The New York Times. Thompson also writes for Mother Jones and Smithsonian and is the tech consultant for the Canadian Broadcasting company's Q radio program. The title of his presentation is, "Where Do Big Ideas Come From?" Welcome, Mr. Thompson. - Thank you so much. It's great to be here.
So I'm going to pull up some slides I have for this talk, get them started here. So you can sort of look at them. The first slide here is really just what you've already seen.
This is me Clive Thomson, this is my book. I'm gonna be talking today about this question of "Where Do Big Ideas Come From?" And also sort of about how the modern world of technology can be used to actually help us come up with more and more interesting and bigger ideas. And so, when you talk about ideas and thinking, people often have this image of what thinking looks like and it's sort of based on this idea that you get in Auguste Rodin's sculpture of The Thinker where someone is sitting there with their hand on their chin, just contemplating all alone completely isolated in a room. And what I'm gonna try and argue and document in the next half hour or so, is that this idea of thinking. This idea of coming up with big ideas is fundamentally sort of, but misleading, and maybe even entirely wrong.
Because big ideas don't come just from sitting there in isolation, they actually come from being network with the world around us. Which is where the sort of big ideas are already there and already lurking. And I wanna sort of illustrate that last point about how ideas are sort of lurking in the world around us. By talking about the origins of one of the biggest ideas of the last 200 years, which was radio, right. So radio was, when it emerged around 1900 a truly huge idea.
It was something that changed the world because it gave people, gave governments it gave individuals, it gave celebrities, it gave educators this way to communicate to mass audiences for the first time live and across great big distances. And changed the art of war changed the art of peace. And so, it was a really big idea.
And you might wonder all right who came up with that big idea. And if you were to go to Google and just type in, who invented radio, you would find that this person here, Guglielmo Marconi gets credited with coming up with the big idea of radio, in 1895. I think actually my slide says it wrong since 1985, it was 1895. He transmitted a radio signal like one and a half kilometers.
And this was like the first, so I sense the first big test and it's a crazy idea radio. So he gets a credit but the truth is that something really weird was going on because all around the world at the exact same time, there were other people who were also inventing radio. There was this gentleman here Jagadish Chandra Bose down in India, a year before Marconi did his demonstration Bose did his own demonstration where he sent a radio signal through the air through several walls to actually trigger a receiver. So he was also inventing radio at the exact same time without really knowing of Marconi existence or even without Marconi knowing about him.
So actually there was there was two people inventing radio at the same time, a big idea. And they weren't alone because there was actually a third person also doing it, Nikola Tesla. A famous guy in 1895, around the exact same time, he had developed a great big huge electrical apparatus that could send a radio wave 50 miles. He didn't get a chance to demonstrate it 'cause it all broke down. He had a flood, he had a storm that broke his equipment. But he actually had this idea and few years later, after that he actually demonstrated the radio control boat.
So he had this big idea of controlling things with radio, and he got it working around the exact same time that Bose and the exact same time that Marconi was doing it different part of the world without knowing what the other one was doing entirely. And it wasn't just three people, there was actually a fourth one who also invented radio at the exact same time. This is Reginald Fessenden, he was actually an employee of Thomas Edison, who was asked to sort of work on some of these radio ideas, and he got it working well enough then in 1900, he actually broadcast voice for the first time, kind of what we think of as modern radio, right? Not just little signals, but like a voice. So he was a fourth person, in the space of basically like a few years, we're talking like three or four years.
Four different people all around the world without really talking to each other had all come up with this massive idea. And so this sort of poses an interesting challenge to the idea of the thinker, the person who sort of sitting there all alone. Because you've got this big idea that occurred not just one person but to multiple people. And in fact actually this is a phenomenon that is now well understood in the world of sociology. Which is that really big ideas often co-occur to different people at the same time.
In a way that can almost seem kind of spooky, as if they were sort of telepathically channeling the same thing. And in 1920 two sociologists were the first people to sort of investigate this, Dorothy Thomas, William Ogburn. And they wrote this paper where they said, radio wasn't the only example. They realized when they look at the historical record that like over and over again, people had invented the same thing at the same time that four people that had discovered the existence of Neptune, in the same year.
Two people discovered the existence of oxygen in the same year, four people discovered sunspots in the same year, several people formulated the conservation of energy in the exact same year. So what was going on? Like, why was this happening, and they thought about it. And they said it's because ideas aren't just happening up here in our heads, they're actually happening in the world around us. Like if all these people are getting ready at the same time, it's because they're building off of existing technology and existing ideas. In the previous years leading up to radio, they had formalized the understanding of electricity, they had understood that there was fields that emerged around electricity.
And these are the sort of types of ideas and technologies that were just lying there for other people to walk right on top of and go to the next step. And the next step is radio. And the same type of thing with sunspots on the sun. One of the reasons everyone discovered at the same time, it's because telescopes had improved to the point where you could start looking at objects like the sun. And so as these people noted in this paper, in one sense inventions are almost inevitable, right? The world is built these building blocks and these concepts, and these ideas that are lying around for people who are curious to tap into. And that is sort of where big ideas come from, as they said.
Now I wanna, I mean I'm gonna throw that one out again because it really throws down to our idea... that our big ideas come from sitting alone, like the thinker with our with our sort of chin, on our hand like that. If you really want to come up with big ideas, what all this research would suggest, is that you actually need to engage with the world in a really deep and productive and connected way. And that's something that I've actually heard a lot over my years in reporting. Because for the last 25 years, I've spoken to scientists, and inventors and artists, entrepreneurs, people who professionally have come up with some very, very big ideas. And I talk to them and I hear how they did it.
And they often talk about some of these exact dynamics that William Ogburn and Dorothy Thomas identified in 1920. But one of the interesting things is that the way that they develop their ideas is something that can really be abetted by technology these days, and they'll often tell me this. There are very smart ways to use a tech around us to help us connect to all these different ideas that are floating around ready to be snapped together and brought brought into being by ourselves. One of the first principles, I suppose, that I hear from all these big idea people I talked to them is that one crucial thing they learned during their career, and that they do very much online, is that they engage in something that I have begun to call public thinking. Which is really just the act of talking out loud about what you're thinking about. And this used to be kind of a hard thing to do because of course, if you live before the internet, there was really no way to talk out loud about the stuff you were you were thinking and doing.
But now of course, it's gotten a whole lot easier, because there's so many ways to engage with the public. And there's some amazing stories that come out of people who decide voluntarily that they're going to talk out loud, about what they're thinking and doing. One of these stories here I'll share with you.
This is a woman I profiled years ago for my book, Ory Okolloh. Now she is a blogger and a lawyer and an activist. And she was living in Kenya.
This is about 15 years ago, actually. And she had moved there and started running her own blog kind of about Kenyan politics and culture and whatnot. And she got a small passionate audience of people who would show up and they would comment, they would talk about stuff. And she was very funny, and she was very witty, and she was very interested in corruption in the government. And that became a big deal during an election when the Kenyan government ran a very very corrupt election.
And the population decided that they were sick of it. And they actually had a big uprising, they were in the streets, and they were saying this election was was corruptly run and we need to demonstrate against it. And the government actually started cracking down pretty hard on that they shut down media, they shot down people in protests. And so people wanted to know what was going on. And the only way to find out was actually through like, little bloggers like Ory who was running her blog. 'Cause she was still posting, they hadn't banned the blogs, they were all hosted by Google.
And so she started working all day long to take reports of what was happening. She's like what's going on in the world. And she would post and post and post like 24 hours a day without sleeping about what was happening so people could be updated. And she had people emailing and texting her all this news about protests and crackdowns.
And in the middle of this, she was exhausted, she was thinking there's got to be a better way to collect information on a crisis. And so she just wrote a post, she was thinking out loud, she said, wouldn't it be great if there could just be like an app, that's like a map, and anyone can just contribute news during a crisis. And she put that out there, just thinking out loud. And sure enough a couple of her followers, said a minute, that's a great idea.
And a couple of more nerds they were developers, they were programmers. And so they actually got together with her and they created a map based tool. They called it you Ushahidi and they immediately started using it to sort of gather information on this crisis. And this went on to become a big open project that dozens of people have devoted their time to create an entire organization, you can go online and you can see you Ushahidi today, it is now being used in pretty much any crisis around the world. If there is a a major power outage, there's a war. If there's an impoverished community that isn't getting information it needed.
They all use Ushahidi to gather information that everyone can crowdsource and figure out what's happening. So the UN has literally said, "Wow, this is amazingly useful tool, where did it come from?" Well, it came because Ory Okolloh was talking out loud. And it invited connections from other people. One of the things that's interesting that she also told me and many big thinkers tell me is that this act of like getting your ideas out, out of your head and into the world around you can actually also sharpen your ideas. Because if you're walking around, kind of like the thinker, and just thinking about stuff. Your thinking is interesting, but it isn't really sharpened.
There's something about having to communicate to another person, to an audience, that gets us to take our ideas much more seriously. And to finesse them and to hone them. And this is what all these thinkers and academics and entrepreneurs tell me is that they like the act of talking out loud of what they're doing, because it forces them to think well, what am I really saying? What do I really believe? What ideal am I moving towards? So this audience effect is a really big deal and again, it's something that is uniquely afforded to us by the modern world.
The ability to immediately have an audience through social media through whatever. And so people talk about all these creators, they talk about the importance of public thinking and also about the connections that come out of it, right? Because one of the things and you saw this with Ory Okolloh's story is that once you're out talking out loud, people tend to respond to it. Or maybe you're in someone else's threads and other people respond to you, and you're responding to them. And this creates really interesting, vibrant new connections that were that were not easy to do before the internet. I mean, I'm old enough to remember when the only way to sort of communicate to the world was literally what you're seeing in this slide to put up a poster somewhere, right.
And now we can actually communicate not to our local area, but with potentially millions of people about the things that we're thinking about. And I use this all the time, I've sort of been influenced by these thinkers to do more public thinking myself, what you're seeing on the screen here, this just last month. I was embarking on work, I was beginning to work on a new project, a new big essay from Wired Magazine.
And it's all about the to-do list. And why is it that we find it so hard to organize our lives and to get stuff done? And I'm writing a big essay about the psychology and the technology of this. And so I just wanted to find out, what are other people thinking about this? And so I tweeted I said, I'm reporting this feature, what do people think what technology do they use? Are they happy with it? Have they just given up, getting organized. And dozens and dozens of people started chiming in over the next week. And it wound up becoming this fascinating conversation, because I heard all sorts of different perspectives that I would never have been able to sample on my own I would not have thought on my own. And so this act of public thinking is one of the first big 10 polls that I hear, when I talk to creators, entrepreneurs, artists, about where the big ideas come from.
They all seem to take great joy and pleasure and benefit and thinking publicly. The other thing that you hear when you talk to people about big ideas, is the value of connecting dots. And I mean specifically, something about connecting disparate dots, like taking two things that don't really seem normally connected and discovering some interesting productive connection between the two of them. Big ideas seem to particularly emerge when an idea from domain A, is connected by you by anyone to an idea from domain B, now that sounds kind of abstract.
But let me give you a concrete example of it. So Spencer Silver, was an inventor who back in the 70s and early 80s, was working for the company 3M, a paper company. And he was trying to invent a really super strong glue. But he screwed it up and he invented a very weak glue.
And it was it was so weak that if you tried to glue two pieces of paper together, you can sort of pull them apart really easily. And he thought well, I mean that's not what I wanted but I guess maybe there's some uses, he couldn't think of any use himself. But he thought that well maybe there's someone out there that could think of a use. So he started kind of just wandering around the 3M Corporation, which is a large corporation, thousands of people. And he started holding like lunchtime meet and greets where he would just show this adhesive to people and say what do you think. And it turned out that there was one guy working for 3M who he ran into during these meet and greets whose name was Art Fry.
And Art was able to figure out what this weird little adhesive was useful for. Because Art on the weekends sang in the choir of his church. And it was sort of a pain in the butt dealing with the hymnals because he would arrive and they would hand him the hymnals and there was a little piece of paper marking every hymn they were gonna sing. But as soon as he opened it up to the first hymn, sometimes the pieces of paper would slip out near the (indistinct) and you lose them. And so he had been thinking for years what a pain in the butt this was and how he wanted some sort of lightweight adhesive that can hold a piece of paper in place.
But not so strong that it would stick there permanently you can you can remove it easily. So when he saw this weak glue that Spencer Silver had created, he immediately realized what they could make. And that wound up being the Post-it Note, right. A little piece of paper with a bit of weak adhesive on it. So this went on to become a multi billion dollar idea for 3M maybe the biggest idea in their corporate history.
And yet it happened because someone had an idea about this weak glue. And someone else had this problem about his hymn notes that ordinarily would never be connected. But Spencer Silver was going around trying to connect those dots trying to find someone who had the question to which he had an answer. And so that's an example of this phenomena whereby like, two ideas that seem far apart when they're put together. That's where really big ideas come from. And I've discovered this in my own life too, right? Because Very frequently some of my best ideas, the ones that that have been crucial for my career and for my thinking and for my writing have come when I have taken an idea that seemed far afield and brought it somewhere different.
And one really interesting one for my career came about literally my 20s, I was flying somewhere and I went into the airport, and I saw this book Oliver Sacks book, "The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat." And I looked at it and I'd heard it, that it was pretty good. And it's not really anything that I had an interest in I mean I don't write about neuroscience, it's about neuroscience. It's written about the Dr. Oliver Sacks and his patients with various brain injuries and how he treated them. But something told me this could be interesting to read so I got it on the plane and I read it.
And I was completely fascinated by one particular story, which was a patient of Oliver Sacks, who lost her proprioception. And I've never heard of the idea of proprioception before. And what it is really, it's the body's coordination.
It's the body's ability to know where its limbs are. So it's why you can like, take a baseball and hand it to yourself behind your back. Right, your body knows where your two hands are, even if you can't see them, that's proprioception.
And I love that idea, this sort of sixth sense of coordination that hovered around the body. And years later, really almost 15 years later, 10 years later anyway, I was writing about Twitter, when Twitter was new for Wired Magazine. And I was trying to explain why people liked using it so much, because I interviewed people. And they all talked about this one phenomenon, which is they loved being able to go onto Twitter, and see all these little comments and thoughts and links from people that they knew or maybe just people they were interested in. And they told me that after several weeks or months of looking at all these status updates, it sort of gave them this ESP like sense of what everyone was doing. And friendship groups or people that work together, developed like a real serious group awareness of whatever was thinking and doing 'cause they were paying attention to these little lightweight comments, little signals back and forth.
And it occurred to me this is exactly like what the body was doing with proprioception. It was social proprioception, it was like a group of people developing a sense of where and being able to hand a baseball to themselves behind their back intellectually. And so I wrote a piece, you can see it in the corner of the thing, "Clive Thompson on How Twitter Creates a Social Sixth Sense." That was a that was for Wired.
And I got tons of comments about it people saying they found that incredibly interesting way to think about what social media was doing, it was giving a social proprioception. And this became actually an idea that was big enough that I wrote about it over and over again. Several years later I wrote that other piece of "Brave New World of Digital Intimacy," I wrote a long 8,000 word feature for the New York Times Magazine, going deeper into this idea. And then I ended up making a whole chapter in my first book about this concept, because it was so fruitful. You can see that in the bottom corner of the screen, "Ambient Awareness: The Idea to Know What's Going on Ambiently at The Corner of Your Eye."
So I found that by doing exactly what all these thinkers talked about, and taking an idea from far away and bringing it somewhere, like taking the idea from Oliver Sacks and proprioception and dragging it over to Twitter, I came up with an idea that has literally been something I've been writing about for 10 or 15 years now. And over and over again, I still find this is true like it was just last month, I was looking at Twitter. And I was looking at some interesting people, I don't really know that well.
And one of them was tweeting about a book they read on coal, and how the country, the US, transitioned over towards coal, 'cause they used to burn wood. Now they're burning coal. And I thought that sounds kind of interesting I mean, that's not really anything I write about, I don't really I write about technology, I don't really write about coal, I mean, I write about the environment.
So in that sense coal is implicated. But I decided to just to buy the book, because this person had recommended it. And I read it and it was incredibly interesting, because I realized that actually, this was incredibly relevant to me. It turned out that people hated coal when it first came along. They thought it smelled bad, they thought it was a pain in the butt to use, they didn't think it was reliable.
They didn't like the look of the stoves that burn coal. And so it was really really hard to persuade people to use this weird new energy source. And as I was reading this I thought my god that's exactly like today, something I do write about, which is a transition to renewable energy forms, solar and wind.
And so in a flash I got that idea that I should compare these things that I can actually benefit by talking to a bunch of historians with the transition to coal and using it to understand what it's going to take to make a big social transition to renewable energy. And that's a piece I'm currently writing right now for Smithsonian Magazine that will probably come out later this year. So once again, I was discovering that these very useful ideas came from bringing things together that didn't seem to fit. There's no particular reason why I ought to read a book called but when I did it brought a new idea right in my lap. The other thing that a lot of these thinkers, these big idea thinkers that I've talked to over the years have told me, and one thing is borne out in the science is that it's useful not just to get connections from other people that you see online, but to get them from people that you sort of barely know.
Because this is what sociologists referred to as the power of weak ties. We have in our life strong ties and weak ties, strong ties with people we know really well, our friends, or family or whatnot. And the weak ties are people that we don't know very well, someone we maybe kind of know on campus, or someone we kind of know at work. Or maybe someone who's kind of involved in a hobby scene we're involved in, I'm a musician also, so maybe it's a musician I occasionally see.
And it turns out, that when you analyze where information comes from in our daily lives. Sociologists have found over and over again, the most useful information comes not from our strong ties, not from our close friends but from our weak ties. From those people we barely know, studies of where people found their great new job find that the people with the best jobs they found, always found them from someone that they barely know, maybe they see once a year. Why is that? Well, if you think about it sort of makes sense.
Because everyone we know really well, all those strong ties around us, they're very similar to us, they're not likely to tell us something new. They read the same stuff we read, and they think about the same stuff we think about. And so it's the weak ties, the people we don't know very well that are sort of soaking in really interesting new information that we've never heard of before. And so the important thing is to be able to connect regularly to weak ties. And again, this is where actually, modern technology is incredibly useful.
Because before the internet came along, it was pretty hard to connect to anyone that wasn't a strong tie. You weren't gonna very often see weak ties. When Spencer Silver hooked up to Art Fry, he had to wander around the cafeteria, and rooms of 3M Corporation for months and months and months just to find that one person, it's a lot easier for us to connect people. In fact actually one of the great challenges really, if you think about what all these people have been telling me and what science is telling us about how to get big ideas. We actually live in a world where there's like, almost too much out there, right? There's like millions of potential people and sources that we could connect to.
The challenge is actually not finding weak links with interesting information. The hard part is curating it so that we actually are paying attention to the stuff that tends to be worth our while. Because the social media universe that I live in, most people live in, is filled with just constant information streaming at us, right. And a lot of it's from weak links, from people we don't know. But just looking at that firehose all day long, is not where the big ideas come from. When I talk to these again, inventors and artists, creators, and scientists, they would all tell me that they worked very hard at curating the stuff that they pay attention to.
They would set up their own custom fields using things like RSS readers, you're actually looking at the screen here. This is my RSS reader on Feedly. And I took a cue from all these big thinkers who told me they curated things carefully.
And I basically over many years have found all sorts of interesting sources, websites, publications, individual people, people have, video channels, and I've subscribed to them, and put them in different categories or some stuff for technology, for art science, for culture. And it becomes this way for me to intentionally go out and look prospecting, for interesting ideas that are a little far afield that I wouldn't ordinarily think to look from. Not just a trust and stuff that's gonna come across at ransom on social media, but to actively go out and look for things, the way a prospector would. So this sort of act of curation, curating those weak links to try and find those connections to use those multiples. Those are some of the big things that I've heard over and over again, about what it means to look for good and find good ideas in the world. And the last point that I'm gonna raise in this talk here, before we move on to questions, is that big ideas, really interesting big ideas are often really slow.
Like, there is an aha moment that many people will describe. But when you investigate what was behind that aha moment, you realize they've been actually thinking and gathering whole about that idea for many many years and sometimes even decades. This is something that I learned a lot about when I read a terrific book by a friend of mine, Steven Johnson. His book is actually called, "Where Good Ideas Come From." It's terrific I'd encourage you to read it and he made the point that many of these large, really big thinkers, world changing thinkers, their big ideas took an awful long time to bake.
Charles Darwin is a good example of this. In fact, what you're looking at here on screen is a page from his journal, where he first wrote down his idea about evolution, the organisms which change over time, in sort of a family tree, that's that picture of that tree is. And as Steven pointed out, he had been working on that idea for decades, he had been slowly gathering wool ever since he was a young man looking at studies that he collected himself of the natural world, and thinking about stuff he read, and understanding records of history. And it very very slowly came to him kingdom so slowly, that if you look at the top of the page of the journal, you can see that what he wrote on this page, the first time he articulated the theory of evolution, he wrote, I Think. Because he was just... he wasn't sure and just bumbling towards it.
And that's really where what a lot of big ideas are actually like. Another big idea, and Steven talks about this one in his book too, is the invention of the World Wide Web, the web, right. So that was the invention in 1989, of a guy named Tim Berners Lee. And he was in his mid 30s when he came up with it.
But it was actually something he'd been spending 20 years thinking about, literally when he was a kid. When he was a kid he was very obsessed with these Victorian encyclopedias that had all the world's information or claim they did. And he loved the idea of a document that connected together information. And then later on, when he became involved in software, he got interested in personal information management, like lists of contacts and stuff. And he got intrigued by the way that software could actually really connect one piece of information to another. And so he'd been sort of shooting over this and stewing about it and thinking about it.
When in his 30s he saw the mechanisms of the internet emerging, he didn't have to invent the ability of computers to talk to one another, that was already there. In the same way that the radio people didn't have to invent the marshaling of electricity, that was ready there. He was able to build on top of that stuff but his contribution was to take this idea that had been animating him for 20 years.
The documents should be linked to each other, and anyone should be able to put up a document and link it to something else, to create the World Wide Web. And so that was also a very very very slow idea. Big ideas are slow and Steven said, you can think of it as and this is a great phrasing of his "The slow hunch." That you have a hunch about something and you can't even necessarily figure out where it's coming from. Because you're encountering all these bits of information out there in the world. And you're slowly putting things together.
And that swims interview after many, many days, weeks, months, years, or even decades. And so one of the things about looking for big ideas, it's good to be a little patient too, right? To trust that all these connections and all these things you're looking at, even if they don't seem to make any sense now will in the long run potentially be very, very useful in a way that you can't foresee. That idea that I had about proprioception, literally 25 years ago because I'm 52 years old now. It was so important to me, and I didn't know it at the time. It took me 10 years to write about it in the context of Twitter, a few years later to write about it in the context of the whole internet.
And then in my book, and it turns out I'm still writing about it, because I'm currently working on my next column for Wired, and you're gonna get another another preview here. And I'm writing about the pandemic, and how companies that have had to go remote. And organizations like your own, you guys are all sitting there remote at Carleton, how people are really missing, being in the same room together. They're missing the sort of sense of connection you get from sort of looking at each other and talking and being able to see it the quantity right what someone's doing. What they're missing really is that social proprioception that comes from being in a room together.
And so my column is all about entrepreneurs who are trying to create software that somehow mimics a little bit in some tiny way of the feeling of being in a room together. The screen here you're looking at is actually one of the pieces of software, it's called Teamflow. And the guy who invented it, he basically created these little video circles, everyone logs in and you can sort of drag it closer to someone if you wanna talk to someone, you drag your circle closer to them, and you can hear them better. If you want to get you drag further away you can't hear them anymore.
So he's trying to mimic being in a room together. People who use it like it a lot. But when I chatted to the entrepreneur, he basically said something that's exactly similar to this question of social proprioception that I've been thinking about now for 20 to about 20-25 years. So the some of the biggest ideas of my entire career happened because I was able to as these, all these thinkers have recommended pull ideas together and stick with them for a really really long time.
And it just keeps on snowballing into new areas. So this idea of being patient, with big ideas is useful, but it's honestly not easy to do because I mean, I think, as you feel and as I feel, ans as anyone online feels, the world of modern technology pushes us to be very very very fast, right? I mean all social media is the commercial social media is focused on like, here's something that happened right now react to it. Here's something else happening, go react to that.
And there's something pleasant about that, right? It's important to know what's going on in the world. It's important to know what's going on in culture, in politics or whatever. But there is sort of a danger in that because, as all these creators, and inventors and scientists and artists have told me, they really like the ability to think out loud, and to make these connections.
And they use that to get these big ideas. But you have to be able to control your own attention, they all say you have to be able to like to learn how to slow down a little bit. Because you don't want to just be online getting your chain yanked by whatever current conversation is happening, that might be, a vanishing, inconsequential issue over over a long period of time. There is a balance between paying attention to the world around you and being intentional about the things that you're trying to pay attention to.
That is key to coming up with big ideas. And so I'm gonna leave this all here, basically. I'm gonna give you... I always try to have a slide at the end of my talk that is the cheat sheet summarizes all the things I've been talking about.
But basically, this is what I've learned, from talking to big idea creators over the years, is that ideas are actually quite common. They're out there in the world. They're out there to be sort of snapped together. They exist as multiples.
And the way that people catalyzes ideas, is through thinking out loud, doing this public thinking and inviting other people to think along with them. Connecting dots that are that are disparate, right, that finding things that don't seem to blend together and blending them, which means paying attention to stuff that you can't figure out at first, why it's relevant to you. And capitalizing all these weak ties, ties to people that again don't seem immediately relevant, but wide up being incredibly useful. And then allowing yourself to be patient about it, to have these slow hunches.
Because the thinking that we do I mean, I keep on making these jokes about Rodin's The Thinker and saying that's not the way it works. I mean, obviously, some isolation and some time to think quietly is really, really important. But it's important also for us to understand that a lot of big ideas come from us thinking in concert with the world, intelligently. So that's my talk. You can see in this slide here, I'll leave you with it if you wanna connect with me afterwards.
I guess I'm a weak tie now you can email me at email@example.com or you can find me on Twitter as Pomeranian99. There's a story behind that name we can talk about it if you want. But thank you very much for taking the time to listen to me yammer on about the origin of big ideas. And I think we're gonna go to some questions now, right Kerry? - Absolutely thank you Mr. Thompson. And we will indeed turn this...
turn to some audience questions here that you've incorporated a historical perspective in your talk here, is each generation getting smarter than (murmuring) - Yeah, that's a really good question, right. One metric of this that has that people have sort of wondered about is the fact that we keep on getting better at IQ tests, right? Like IQ testing over decades has gotten higher and higher and higher on average, it's called the Flynn effect. James Flynn discovered this. And he began to wonder, can this really be true that we're actually much smarter. I mean, no one's entirely sure but it seems as though that might be a little bit of an artifact, it might be just that we're getting better at doing the type of thinking that IQ tests are rewarded by. Which is very symbolic abstract thinking.
You didn't really need to do that in the early 20th century. But schools got really good at teaching that and so that's what we're getting better IQ tests. So let's put that to the side.
Are we getting smarter? I would argue yes, absolutely. Because people who are and I'm gonna constrain that by saying it's people that are in good faith attempting to make make the world a better place and generate better ideas for themselves and for the world. Absolutely it is far it is far easier to connect with sources of useful information to bang ideas together, to talk in different modalities we couldn't talk before, like the moving image which is routinely deployed on everything from YouTube to whatnot. Wasn't simply impossible to speak it it was an idiom that we had no access to, until about 10 years ago.
So 100% you can see people becoming much more effective and coming up with ideas. You also see, of course, so that all these things that make people more effective and punch above their weight, when they have good faith intentions are also available to people with bad faith intentions, right? Every single tool that amplifies your intellectual abilities for good also amplify the the abilities of people who want to cause harm. There is no such thing as a morally inert tool. Or to put it another way, just because because you become smarter doesn't mean you become better.
- Regarding internet enabled public thinking, how can we discern whether the information we find on the internet is true? - Oh good Lord, yeah. - One of the things that I think has been a productive turn in the last couple of years is that a lot of educators are realizing that media literacy awareness over the last 25 years was completely wrong. The way media literacy was taught in the 90s and early aughts in the 80s was okay, someone comes at you with a publication. And so the important thing is to sit down and scrutinize carefully what they're telling you. And to try and figure it all out for yourself.
And that turns out to be like not at all the way that people who for their work, have to assess information. That's not the way they work. Like if you talk to Professor or a journalist, or a lawyer or someone who has to try and separate nonsense from correct information they'll tell you that what they actually do, is they quickly try and figure out what is the consensus about this source of information, right? So one of the first things they've done testing, they actually brought a bunch of people together and they everyday folks with a bunch of like, again lawyers and doctors and journalists and whatnot. And they have them they pose them a piece of information, that was online, could be a website, a page or whatnot or post and said, what do you think of this.
And all the people whose job it was to disambiguate nonsense and correct stuff. They didn't spend a lot of time looking at what was actually said, they said well, alright, this is published on this website, what's his website reputation? Let me see what other people we type in the name of the website. Let's see what other people say about it, right.
And they could very quickly realize some website that was existed just to say, pose disinformation about climate change. But that was pretty much at that existed to do. And they didn't spend a lot of time narrowly figuring out sentence by sentence, does this post make sense about climate change? So I actually think that, in fact actually if you want to Google this it's called the SIFT technique, S-I-F-T. I can't remember what the what the acronym stands for right now. But it's basically the idea of looking for how that piece of information and the person who published it. How are they are situated in the universe of understood sources of authority.
There was actually a good story about this, I believe, just in the New York Times by Charlie Warzel the other day, if you want to go look for it about this. And that really turns out to be one of the modern key skills is not just staring at a piece of information but understanding how it fits into the universe of authority. - What are social anthropologists like yourself learning about how Zoom is shaping us? - Oh, that's a great question. First off, I would it would be generous to call me an anthropologist, I'm just a journalist. I just call people up and talk to them and write down what they say try and understand it.
Anthropologists are more careful than I am probably. How is Zoom affecting us? Well, we have I did actually ask a lot of psychologists and sociologists about this back in the spring, because I wrote a big story for the New York Times magazine about the sudden transition of all these companies and organizations from face to face to remote. And they had to do it, you guys know, you were there.
They had to do it suddenly, no training, no preparation. And they started using tons and tons and tons of Zoom. And what they discovered and I think what we're learning is that it is it has some great benefits.
It provides a lot of emotional information in a useful way. When you can see someone you can see my whole body, you sort of get a sense of my body language, you get a better sense of my person. That can be incredibly useful when we're trying to communicate with people. Because information from a person isn't just their voice, isn't just their words.
It's everything they're doing, So Zoom is actually very useful that so as are all forms of video conferencing. But it can also be quite worrying and exhausting. Because there's something very unnatural about what I'm doing right now what you're doing right now.
Which is, it's really weird for to stare, when you're talking to someone, you don't just stare at them all the time like this, really close. If you're in a room with someone, you're looking off to the wall, maybe you're jointly looking at a TV and talking, but you're not doing this weird thing where you stare at each other. So that's part of the reason why we have this odd sense of exhaustion that you can get.
And a lot of people have actually begun kind of turning off the camera and just using Zoom as a voice call, right? Because there's something less emotionally exhausting because we're not having to look at ourselves and worry about our self presentation that way. So Zoom is very good at providing a type of cohesion when you want it, but it can very quickly become exhausting. And so it becomes one of these things that organizations I know are trying to use when it's appropriate, when they really want that big fat emotional signal and not use it.
When they like not to use it just to talk about anything, use it when it's important to actually get the full channel. It's great question and I will tell you that I'm continuing to investigate this. And I suspect we are going to continually learn new things. This is just the first blast of stuff I've heard from psychologists. But we're going through a social transition right now. And I would be I wish we could have a conversation right now I'd be fascinated to hear what all the students here think about it.
Because they've had as much experience about it as anyone else. - Absolutely. What you're talking about sounds like a globalization of ideas, a mass transference of interactions that push us up to our next realizations.
It's taken a little while but legislations to stop that transference has started to catch up with us as recently as a sitting US president calling for a ban on a social app, TikTok. As a journalist, what do you think will happen as government's push to silence some of these tools? - Yeah, no, we're in a really interesting moment right now. Because for the first kind of 20 years of the mass internet, governments weren't super sure what or if to do anything about it. They made one critical decision back in the '90s. Where are they said that, okay, we can tell people are gonna be doing and talking a lot to each other online.
And we want that their decision at the time was they wanted to make it so that no one who was hosting a forum. And I mean, I hosted a blog for 15 years, I had comments all the time. They wanted so that if someone commented on that blog, I could not be sued for what that person said, right. And they made that legally the law.
And that really opened made it legally possible to have things like TikTok, to have things like Twitter, to have things like Reddit, to have things like any firming, even just like I mean, I'm a musician. So I go to these guitar pedal forums, that are like hosted by some rando and there's like 500 of us talking about guitar pedals. That's possible, something that makes no money.
And it's just a hobbyist thing, because they made this one policy distinction. What's happening now is that when they made those rules, and when they thought about it, technology was all this stuff was kind of backwater, right. Like it was just weirdos posting on their online journals. Like it didn't seem to have any political impact. Well, but now what we've got is really a highly concentrated field, like we really only have four or five major social networks that control the attention span of most North Americans, right, and any and even globally around the world.
And that is a problem, right? And that's a problem I think for anyone of any political stripe, of any view on speech. Because monopolies generally are bad things, right? When you don't have a choice, when you can't go somewhere else. If you don't like the way things are being done, you dramatically limit the options and the ability of people to vote with their feet. Right now, if you were sick of all the major social networks where would you go, that that allowed you to reach easily a large population nowhere, there's nowhere to go.
And the large companies like Facebook or Google or Twitter, if someone comes along who threatens their position, they just buy it, right. So Instagram came along, and it was so hot that Facebook was like, God we're losing users of this things, they just bought it. And they and they sort of phagocytosed it like an amoeba. So now it's inside Facebook and part of it, right.
So if you were to ask me what's going to happen, or I suppose if you asked me what I think would actually be a good thing to happen. I think the main action that society would should strongly consider is antitrust legislation that encourages a much more diverse field of social networks. Because it is hazardous to the public we have to really only four or five spigots for all information. There ought to be dozens, frankly. And so it's not actually about shutting anyone down. In fact, actually, it's about greatly diversifying the number of places we can go.
That would be a much healthier environment, we know over and over again, throughout history, all industrial history, that monopolies are a huge problem for a democracy. And we're now just discovering that with social networks and technology. - Related question regarding the social good of Twitter, has the use of Twitter by a sitting president, a unique feature- - No - [Kerry] Affected how we view that tool? - I think so, absolutely.
I mean, I think that that one of the things that Trump demonstrated was that you could very admitted that you could very what he demonstrated was that the weak point of ambient social media, right, this up to the minute stuff is that, we humans are really primed to worry about threats. And so we're constantly scanning the horizon for bad things that might happen. And if you're are an important person, like the president or a celebrity, or anyone's got a big following, it's pretty easy just to constantly divert the public attention by intentionally saying stuff that is so incendiary, that everyone just drops what they're doing and start talking about it. And that was including the media, right including people in the media who I think behaved like lemmings, by constantly just pouncing and being fascinated not by what was really going on in the world important issues but by this non stop stream of stuff president was tweeting. He didn't invent that behavior that had always been there. But he really illustrated how it's kind of like, it's not a bug but a feature of the way Twitter works.
And it is also I should point out by the way, another indication what I was saying, where the problem is monopolization of the public conversation into just for three or four spigots, right? YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, TikTok, whatnot. When you only have one or two places where everyone is, it becomes much easier for one malign actor just to go in there and hack everyone's attention by saying crazy stuff and incendiary stuff. If you had 12, 13, 20 30 different major places, it's much harder to launch a sort of a jamming attack on the public attention. So yes, I think I do think that what President Trump did with Twitter illustrated something that people ought to pay attention to about the hazards of monopolized commercial social media. - But a two part question here. So bear with me, how do you suggest that we might reconcile the ability of social media to connect us with new ideas, the ability of social media to distract us? How can we better accurate our digital connections and later that you mentioned RSS, do you think - Yeah.
- Like generating algorithms behind social media platforms get in the way and should our goal be to remove ourselves from the algorithm without removing our connection to their information? - Yeah, perfect question. That cuts the heart of how I think about the way I use the internet all the time, right? Because that's exactly right. Like the question is how do you reconcile it? I'm not sure you do, right.
I mean, like problem we've got is not that we have the internet. It's the problem is not that we have connecting tools. The problem is not that we have computers, those are all actually really useful things, very powerful tools. The problem is we've got four large commercial companies, they're constantly trying to distract us so they can blast advertising IN our eyeballs, right. Like they're basically their job, and they've got billions of dollars to do it. They're really good at it.
It's hard to fight them. So until such time as maybe it will never happen, we have a much more diversified field of places that aren't as individually powerful. You really do have to sort of approach it almost like a sort of a ecological or a dietary matter of your cognitive abilities, right.
People sort of have years now talked about kind of mindfulness training, and it sounds kind of like hacky and a kind of a like a dodge, and I'm like, I'm not a very meditative person myself. I mean as you can tell him gotcha kind of twitchy and weird. But like the idea behind mindfulness is like, well you should know where your attention is going. So that you can detect in the moment when someone's trying to yank it somewhere that's actually a really good lesson. And so one of the things that I have tried to do in my own super twitchy, and not very meditative way is to be a little more mindful about when I'm sitting down to use social media.
'Cause on the one hand wanna know what's going on, like everyone else, like what's going on. Like I'm socially embedded in the world, I care about the world and so I wanna know what's going on. But I really have had to learn over the years to try and detect when I'm getting sucked into an endless clickhole of a feed that's just trying to fire it's incendiary things at me to get me all riled up. And when to like go no, I'm gonna go look at the sources that I have assembled and put together that I know were interesting and slower, and not focus on the hovering, sort of conversation.
That's, it's not easy to do. It's literally something that I have to think about actively every single day. Like, it's not a switch that you flip.
It's and in one sense, this is like, these are kind of survival skills that we've had to deploy over and over again. It we might... sometimes I think living in this world of the internet is a little bit like what it was like when the world urbanized heavily in the industrial revolution. Because before urbanization, you live in a small town, you saw a kind of a very small number of people. And you didn't really have any privacy, everyone knew what's going on, they talked about it.
And then you move to London, and London had 800,000 people or something like that. And everyone was living cheek by jowl in the tiny little places and you can hear and see everything you're walking on the street. And you can hear people you don't know total strangers having an argument about their marriage, right. And it was really weird for our attention. And we had to, we spent like decades really, more than a century figuring out how to live cheek by jowl with people while controlling our own attention. There's a great concept known as civil inattention.
I think who's it by is it Goffman or Milgrim, I can't remember. And it's the idea that like I live in New York City, I'm on the subway. And I'm at a... I'm on the subway platform to people are melting down with their relationship and I've got my phone out. And I'm not pretending not to pay attention to them.
And when I do that to sort of give them the space, and when you get really good at it, you don't pay attention to them I'm actually looking at my phone they're having a meltdown. But the relationship I'm not paying attention to it, right. And one sense is kind of sociopathic. And the other way it's sort of a learned mental habit that allows you to live amongst 9 million people here in New York City without going crazy. And there's something that reminds me of that, that we're still figuring out with the internet.
- What advice do you have for our students who have so little turnover time to develop ideas each term? What practical steps as your career as a writer do you recommend for the craft of writing? - Yeah, that's a really good one. I remember what it was like being a student. Yeah, everything that stuff just coming off the conveyor belt nonstop at you. (laughing happily) And you're constantly go from domain to domain, right? Like you have two different subjects that have nothing to do with each other and you're having to shift from one to the other. It's, I can tell you by the way, that it's actually much more pleasant when you're out of college.
Because you're able to focus on just one darn thing that might be your job. It gets easier, frankly. So what advice would I have? Well, one of the main things I think, is everything works a little better with thinking when you can slow it down a little bit. And so doing stuff at the last second is almost always bad. It's almost always better to start working on something so that you can give yourself a little bit of that slow hunch, at the sentence by sentence level, at the paragraph by paragraph, at the essay by essay level, the idea by idea level.
To sort of... it might take some days or some weeks to really bake something. And so it's really, really hard. I'm just adding more to your time management problems.
But the earlier you can start on stuff, the more you can catalyze. The the sort of the back stuff that your brain does in the back of your brain. When you don't think you're thinking about the assignment.
You're just like, you're out at lunch or you're out, you're doing something else. There's work going on in your brain. But it will only start you've actually started the work so start as early as you can. - This has all been absolutely fascinating Mr. Thompson, would you have a closing comment for us today? - Yeah sure.
I mean, I think actually and I think this came up in the questions. Which is that like, we live in a really really great time for anyone who's curious about the world. But it's also a uniquely challenging time, like the stuff that you have to deal with in your sort of intellectual and cognitive environment is not even remotely like what I had to deal with at your age. And certainly not what like, your grandparents had deal with your age. So you need to pay attention to your own mind, what you do with it, where you spend those precious moments you've got awake. And whatever it is you figure out, you've got to write down and codify and let everyone else know.
Because you guys are essentially figuring out some of the really important skills are gonna carry forward for the rest of the rest of the century. - Thank you again Mr. Thompson. And thank you all for joining us today. This is our final convocation of the winter term. We'll be back April 2nd with a another exciting lineup of distinguished speakers and interesting topics. Until then, be well and be kind.
Thank you. (gentle upbeat music)