Trust, sharing and caffeine: Steven Johnson on Priestley, coffee houses and innovation

Steven Johnson was in London last week, mostly for a talk with Brian Eno at the ICA; but he also fitted in a conversation at NESTA, which I was able to get to.

Johnson was talking about his new book about Joseph Priestley, the Enlightment scientist and theologician and, as I learned on Tuesday, freind and influencer of the Amercian founding fathers.

What interested me most was Steven’s description of the Enlightenment mileu: an ecosystem of interested individuals and environments – largely coffee shops – which promoted the free circulation and sharing of new ideas. With open discussion and scepticism testing their ideas, these environments promoted a new synthesis; the whole was greater than the sum. Johnson reckoned that the discovery of photosynthesis and its roll in releasing oxygen into the atmosphere was down to the sharing of ideas between Priestley, Benjamin Franklin and others.

This seemed to resonate with those in the audience interested in open source technology and working, free-flowing ideas and co-operation being central to their working methods. (This also reminded me of Mike Masnick’s talk in Edinburgh learlier in the year, where he said that it was the sharing of ideas around Silicon Valley that made the area so innovative.)

Johnson also believed that dissent and scepticism were important qualities which facilititated innovation. This requires a tolerant society, able to accept dissent – not something that was guaranteed in the Enlightenment: Johnson described how Priestley had been chased from his Birmingham home by rioters who took exception to his dissentng religious views; they burnt down his home and he took exile in the young USA.

Johnson reckoned that the equivalent to the coffee house is now to be found online – natch. Modern media open up access to anyone with an internet connection, and we can all contribute, borrow ideas (copyright or not…) and play around with them, creating new syntheses in exchange.

His description of the coffee shop sounded to me very much like Tuttle: I think the face-to-face, social aspects of meeting together add a lot to the online fora the internet facilitates. I think it helps the serendipity and the fluidity of conversations. One never knows who is going to be there, and it is easier to explore and disagree face-to-face than it is online. The offline gathering engenders trust – and that is important if you are sharing ideas, debating and arguing.


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