“A good idea is a network.” – Steven Johnson
Eviator Zerubavel has promoted the idea of cognitive sociology and is one of the few academics who reconciles pragmatic and cultural perspectives. He describes “sociocognitive lenses,” or tools for thinking that we gain from being part of different communities. While neuroscientists may be well on their way to mapping the inner workings of our brain’s “hardware,” their search for universal empirical truths blinds them to considering how our brain’s “software” works. Sociocognitive lenses expand or inhibit our mental horizons via enculturation in everyday life.
The above quote by Steven Johnson refers to how the notion of the solo thinker coming up with a breakthrough idea is a fallacy. Breakthroughs come about by combining ideas from different disciplines, time periods, and people. One person’s hunch might become fertile ground for cross-polination with another hunch, and the recombination leads to a breakthrough. Innovation has become a catchphrase that is basically synonymous with “thinking better.” But being innovative is not a process of individual cognition. It is asynchronous group cognition, distributed over time and informed by cultural moments. We can “think better” by positioning ourselves better, sharing ideas better, and building for adaptive change.
Ideas are bricolage-in-action, overlaps between different sociocultural lenses. It’s my contention that the ability for individuals to “try on” these new ways of thinking revolves around liminal spaces (physical and virtual), open sharing of knowledge, and certain time periods. The challenge under late modernity for creative thinkers is not necessarily physical access to ideas – although this is one serious “divide” – but also encountering them in a way that stimulates their potential. People have difficulty gaining access to vital information, but there is also the problem of encountering material in a way that is sensible, stimulative, and meaningful. Creating personalized narratives from media pulled out of the larger system and tacitly describing your connection to them, with an intention to stimulate a similar response in others, can broadly be called curatorial.
Tumblr example: properties of media are highlight, enhanced, expanded through the act of curation. A bearded man may be fetishized for his rugged fashion by workwear fanatics, or for attractiveness by fans of “bears.” The image is seen through its context, and the particular lenses that its micro-community employs. The way this occurs is through practices of reblogging by curators. A “networked counterpublic” is created through attention and curation, leading to a qualitatively different type of distribution that engages with members of a particular subculture. As Alex Cho articulated at the International Communication Association conference in 2011, “connectivity, reciprocity, and borrowing can all be ways to articulate queerness – not just… pink triangles and rainbow flags” (p. 31). Curators do not just think their way through these semi-private, semi-anonymous threads, but also feel their way through them. Tumblr is a success not because it is another blogging platform (it is – technically speaking – nothing unique), but because the founders went to great lengths to engage creative communities and encourage them to connect with graphical forms in a personal and emotional level. Culture here is a first mover, even if later becomes a stimulant for individual cognition, to try on the lenses of others and understand the inner workings of other communities through visual rhetoric.
Library example: the Prelinger Library in San Francisco follows a contexual linking system developed by Avy Warburg. Each section has a well-thought-out connection with the next, making browsing a learning experience crafted by the curators. This freedom gives creativity to moments between sections, making browsing exciting, and often, humorous; the section on “copyright” abuts “western philosophy.” Think also of the record store, an endangered species now, but in years past a place where clerks were given leeway to create sections devoted to what they felt were successful releases.