Where Do Ideas Have Sex?

Chance favors the connected mind
- Steven Johnson
I just watched a Steven Johnson TED talk about ideas. He's recently written a book titled, Where Good Ideas Come From. I haven't read it yet. And no, I won't once again recommend a book I haven't finished. I will recommend Johnson's talk itself, but his point of view is simply a catalyst for this post, not the main topic.

 I want my ideas to have sex. That's what I took from the talk. Specifically, I want my ideas to have crazy unprotected sex that leads to unexpected bundles of joy. Don't blame me for the metaphor, Johnson attributes it to Matt Ridley. In his presentation, Johnson brings up the coffeehouse as a "conjugal bed" for ideas. At least, it was that in 18th century England. At that time the coffeehouse was the perfect mix of stimulants and stimulating conversations.  Great ideas were born as people from various walks of life intermingled.

I'm not positive I have a coffeehouse. Not in that sense. My frequent visits to actual coffeehouses are solitary episodes. I do good work. I'm creative. But San Diego cafes are not built for mingling. I don't blame them for this, American society isn't really built for mingling either. Even at San Diego Red Cross headquarters, where I am privileged to serve with some very talented and creative people, the environment doesn't favor serendipitous idea-liaisons. Sometimes good things come out of meetings but, in general, meeting agendas don't promote the free atmosphere necessary for truly innovative thinking.

I want to find an idea brothel. Or found an idea brothel. I'm betting that my dealings on the internet will facilitate this goal, but I'm still looking for the right collaborative environments. Presently, I'm really good at sifting interesting tidbits out of the info-dump that is the web. Info-curation is an important modern skill, but it's not a substitute for collaboration. I'm lucky to have a large social network of smart, willing-to-chat-it-up people, but our worlds are so closely related that chances for out of the box input are reduced. The Trustocracy blog/twitter feed is partly an attempt to tap into a network of individuals that I don't know personally (yet). I'm also trying to use Google+ in a collaborative way. I've been playing around with Hangouts and such. G+ is definitely more useful to me than Facebook ever was, but that isn't saying much.

So that's that. I'm not ending this anywhere because I haven't ended my search for an idea brothel. Idea brothel, I'm going to drop that into a few conversations just to see the looks on people's faces. If anyone would like to recommend a modern equivalent of the 18th century coffeehouse, by all means comment. Or tweet it with #ideabrothel so I can laugh out loud when I see it.


Google as Guidance Counselor

I actually think most people don't want Google to answer their questions. They want Google to tell them what they should be doing next.

-Eric Schmidt

A recent interview with Google CEO Eric Schmidt is gaining a lot of attention, mostly for his belief that children will need to change their names as adults to escape the youthful indiscretions captured and posted on sites like Facebook. I'm more intrigued by his thoughts on the future of search.

Schmidt says, "We're trying to figure out what the future of search is...one idea is that more and more searches are done on your behalf without you needing to type." It's easy to see the practical benefits of a 24/7 digital personal assistant. Facebook is already the only reason I ever know when anyone has a birthday coming up. I would love it if my phone reminded me I was out of milk while driving past the local grocery store, but do I really want Google to tell me what I should be doing next?

I suppose it's a matter of finesse. Right now, I think Google could recommend "next steps" to me with about as much accuracy as Netflix recommends movies, meaning not that well. Netflix thinks I will enjoy every documentary Ken Burns ever made just because I liked Spellbound. That's better than Amazon's recommendation of Sawyer's Premium Clothing Insect Repellent...which was based on my ownership of the book Colloquial Swahili, but not by much. I attended a Nerdcore show at the Casbah a few weeks ago, but I wouldn't want my phone to text me every time I pass the O'Reilly books at Borders. That's the wrong kind of nerd.

I could hope that Google's recommendations were on the level of Pandora, a music service I find useful, but that would bring its own set of problems. My musical taste is very specific, so all my Pandora stations have a laser-like focus and consist of about five songs on constant rotation. Now, I like these stations very much, but they play no part in expanding my musical horizons. If Google were like Pandora, it would only alert me when I pass liquor stores and pizzerias. I don't need my ruts dug deeper.

I hope the future of search is something amazing. I hope Google can bottle serendipity and send it to my phone. I'm fearful that the next few years will be more like Microsoft's office assistant paperclip, everpresent and annoying.