digital rhetoric Digital Scholarship

chance favors the connected mind: Steven Johnson on invention

Steven Johnson's recent TED talk on "where good ideas come from" (see below) ends with this little tag line, "chance favors the connected mind." As Derek Mueller notes, the talk lacks some awareness of invention's rhetoricity. What he does argue however is that invention is less a matter of serendipity or a flash of insight than it is a product of networks (or perhaps assemblages?). Coincidentally (?), Jeff Rice also posts on invention today, in relation to a video clip on the production of Pink Floyd's Dark Side (see below, below). Jeff writes, "Maybe one way to study invention is to collect such narratives, synthesize them at some point, and identify patterns. These patterns might reveal specific methods that are, if not universal, common to specific practices. Or they might allow for the next step: the invention of a practice that appropriates from other practices." In a sense this is what Johnson has set out to do, and his talk is replete with narratives of invention.

Johnson's stories, however, all come from the world of engineering and science, and I wonder how artistic and humanistic stories of invention are different. Put differently, I wonder what Johnson's own stories of invention might be. The Pink Floyd story is an example.

When I think about my own inventive experiences I can track them to moments in the "liquid network" as Johnson puts it. I rarely have those sitting in the coffeehouse moments that Johnson describes, perhaps at a conference. But I couldn't rely on them. Instead, my network experiences are generally mediated, and if they are conversations, they are slow, tangential conversations across blogs, videos, journal articles, books, etc. That is, they are experiences like this one: reading blogs, watching videos, and writing this post.

But then this is a pseudo-inventive moment. A post comes out it, sure. But I am thinking about writing a book on digital scholarship. humanities gaming, etc and invention. How are such things invented? How are such inventive practices different from the modes of invention that have informed humanistic scholarship for a century? It would seem a no-brainer to suspect that media networks have a role to play here. Examining the role of objects and assemblages in a more particular, empirical way is another matter altogether.

Perhaps this is the inventive shift we are seing in the humanities. Perhaps the argument is that the shift toward digital humanities might be productively framed as a revolution of invention. For 100 years, invention in the humanities has meant library research. That research clearly remains important, but it is also increasingly impossible given the ongoing proliferation and specialization of research. The point though is that we not only read in order to authorize ourselves but invent our own argument through our print-bound interlocutors.

What if we were to take Jeff's advice and appropriate invention from other practices? The analogy of "the band" plus recording studio is perhaps not a bad one. It is an undeniably contemporary form of artistic production. It is a more intensive version of the coffeehouse that interests Johnson. The musicians plus the producer/engineer have a collaborative project that mixes their talents and labor. Digital humanities and gaming likely requires such collaborations as well: an intensive studio experience characterized by rehearsal.