Welcome to the bloggy home of Noah Brier. I'm the co-founder of Percolate and general internet tinkerer. This site is about media, culture, technology, and randomness. It's been around since 2004 (I'm pretty sure). Feel free to get in touch. Get in touch.

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Thinking Differently

A while back (about 6 months ago) I wrote about the verifier approach. As I explained then, “Essentially the approach is a three-part process that can be used in nearly any field. It involves ‘watching how they work and think, testing their logic, and uncovering ways to help them solve problems.'” Using this seemingly simple method, Gordon Rugg, a psychologist, cracked a code that’s been a mystery for 50 years.

Who cares, you may be asking. For those of you who actually read every post you may be about to skip over this one as a repeat. But wait a few minutes, hear me out. I’m trying to do something here. There are connections to be made and I plan to try and make them.

First, let me help put into focus just how Rugg, the psychologist, was able to do what a whole bunch of mathematician and cryptographers couldn’t: He stepped back from the problem. What he did was take an approach that examined it from the bottom-up, not the top-down. He didn’t come at the problem holding any preconceived notions that those before him had. In academia, they call it the “expertise gap” and it basically goes like this:

It starts with the best of intentions. Institutions want top-notch people, so they offer incentives to attract and groom experts. Young grad students learn early that if they want to carve out a niche, they must confine their interests to a narrow field. It’s not enough to work in spinal cord regeneration; it must be stem cell-based solutions to the problem. That’s great if a researcher just happens to stumble on a perfect stem cell cure. But as specialists get further from their core expertise, the possible solutions – what’s been tried, what hasn’t, what was never properly examined, what ought to be tried again – get even more elusive.

Aha! Specialization, which brings me to another, more recent, entry I wrote titled “The Big Idea of Growing Ideas” (ding ding ding . . . connection number 1), where I wrote:

The more people that understand that big ideas do not appear out of thin air, the more people will be encouraged to think. It extends to nearly all parts of life. You don’t need to understand everything about a topic. You don’t have to understand every page of that book. Those people who are most successful are usually not the ones who are solely focused on one thing, but the people who have lots of little focuses that they can tie together. The 21st century is all about being a polymath.

Because of all the access to information, we, as individuals, are increasingly branching off into multiple places. Using myself as an example (which, to be honest, I already did in a thinly veiled way in the last sentence), have interests in far more areas than I can count. To name a very few of my current favorites: Design, music, CSS, football, interfaces. I bring absolute authority to none of them, however, I feel confident in my ability to carry on an intelligent conversation in any of them. I’m not trying to toot my own horn here, however, I’m trying to get to a bigger point: Without the internet carrying on the range of interests I do would be nearly impossible, or at the very least completely consuming. However, with the massive amounts of information available and the increasingly user-centric ways of receiving it, more and more people are able to approach more and more subjects.

It goes further, though, when we bring blogging into the equation, we give all these people an outlet. I just happened to be reading Kareem Mayan’s most recent entry (a response to this piece), where he wrote, “The genius of blogging is not the volume of material that’s thrown into the public domain . . but the *ease* with which anybody can now publish content AND reach an audience.” Now I have to disagree with Kareem a bit. Nothing personal to him, but I don’t believe the two ideas are mutually exclusive, rather, I think the genius of blogging is that “anybody can now publish content AND reach and audience,” thereby creating huge volumes of material being thrown into the public domain. In fact, the material being in the public domain is how it reaches it’s audience. In the end, however, it’s that all that material being out there in the public domain that may benefit society the most.

I’ve actually written the 800 words above trying to get to this point. You see, today I was reading Steven Johnson’s Emergence (I know I’ve sounded like Steven Johnson’s agent lately, forgive me) when I came across this quote:

With only a few minds exploring a given problem, the cells remain disconnected, meandering across the screen as isolated units, each pursuing it’s own desultory course. With pheromone trails that evaporate quickly, the cells leave no trace of their progress — like an essay published in a journal that sits unread on a library shelf for years. But plug more minds into the system and give their work a longer, more durable trail — by publishing their ideas in best-selling books, or founding research centers to explore those ideas — and before long the system arrives at a phase transition: isolated hunches and private obsessions coalesce into a new way of looking at the world, shared by thousands of individuals.

Now that’s probably much more detailed than everyone needed, but there’s a big point in there. Think of the internet as the system Johnson mentions, with all the minds plugged in. Now bring blogs into the picture. They allow people to publish their thoughts and create an even “longer, more durable trail” by providing each entry with permalinks, a place where it can exist for all time (which, while not very celebrated anymore, is a very big deal).

Anyhow, you put all that together and you have a lot of people talking and thinking about a lot of different things. While I don’t necessarily know that all these “isolated hunches and private obsessions” have yet coalesced “into a new way of looking at the world” for the masses, I can say with some certainty that there are thousands. While they’re still mostly just milling around like the slime mold Johnson continually refers to, you have to believe emergence is quickly approaching.

August 26, 2005