I believe that the digital environment can serve as a rhetorical seedbed for the growth of good ideas. But continuing with this garden analogy, the fact that virtually everyone can now be a contributor of information or news on the Internet means that there will invariably be weeds choking the development of intellectual flowering.
In his TED Talk, Steven Johnson recounts how the popularity of coffee and tea in the eighteenth-century stimulated better and more profound ideas. Essentially, the switch from depressants like beer or wine (which was the safe drink of choice in the days of contaminated water) to coffee and tea led to better thought processing and better ideas. Not just the drinks themselves led to better ideas, but the commodification of these drinks, which brought people together in public coffeehouses to consume both caffeine and each others discourse. Well, I don’t think caffeine was the sole catalyst of the Enlightenment, but this thought is a good point of departure nonetheless.
Johnson emphasizes that good ideas come either in one of two ways, and it doesn’t matter what field of study we are talking about here. For one, people will come together and share ideas through discourse until a larger idea becomes evident. Individuals may conceive of good ideas in seclusion, but their good ideas will not take hold as an innovative solution or accepted theory until they have had the opportunity to stew among others and reach a consensus with a larger group or network of people. This is crucial to understanding the development of good ideas in the twenty-first century, where networks are increasingly global and digital.
Secondly, individuals are not incapable of coming up with good ideas alone, but good ideas, when not aided by communal discourse, will be staggered and slow to develop. Johnson posits the idea of the “slow hunch,” or the fact that historically, good ideas have had very slow incubation periods. For example, he offers the story of Charles Darwin, whose theory of natural selection was long in the process of materializing. Indeed, Darwin had the full theory worked out for months before he even realized that he had discovered something so grand and unifying.
Such is the case today. Our ideas do not flower in a vacuum. We often do not realize we have even come up with a good idea until that idea has been shared, reviewed, or collaboratively developed. But the digital environment can pose challenges that may retard the development of good ideas instead of aiding them. I think it depends on the digital venue where ideas are being shared, and the common ground of all its participants.
I feel like Johnson privileges the idea of the liquid network over and above the slow hunch, because more innovation and greater productivity seem to result from collaborative thinking and idea formation. Yes, collaboration does make for a good business model. However, I am not ready to jump on board quite yet, because I still have a deep fondness for philosophy and individual thinking. I still think many people actually do better thinking on their own. You have to take people’s feelings and proclivities into account. I know for one that I am not comfortable when flung into a room and made to exchange ideas with strangers. So, the energy and personality of participants in modern “coffeehouses” will affect the interplay and development of ideas. Unfortunately, I find that people are overly attached to digital abstractions, making it difficult to socialize and be comfortable in an organic environment. That energy is more often than not a nervous and anxiety-ridden energy. And let’s face it, good thinking doesn’t happen under mental distress.