Unplanned Meanderings

Steven Johnson’s “The Glass Box And The Commonplace Book” renews questions about what happens when e-readers unexpectedly suffocate text behind no-copy/no-paste barriers. Safe-guarding text against circulation is not new, of course, but Johnson offers a timely reminder of the ways this glass box logic is noxious, lying dormant, going unnoticed until it is revived in this or that text-walling application. There’s much to think through in his entry (which is a transcript of a talk Johnson offered at Columbia University), much in the way of commonplace books, motivated filtering, and how it is homophily bias takes hold differently online than in “real-world civic space.”

§ § §

Each rereading of the commonplace book becomes a new kind of revelation. You see the evolutionary paths of all your past hunches: the ones that turned out to be red herrings; the ones that turned out to be too obvious to write; even the ones that turned into entire books. But each encounter holds the promise that some long-forgotten hunch will connect in a new way with some emerging obsession. The beauty of Locke’s scheme was that it provided just enough order to find snippets when you were looking for them, but at the same time it allowed the main body of the commonplace book to have its own unruly, unplanned meanderings. (para. 5)

“But each encounter holds the promise that some long-forgotten hunch will connect in a new way with some emerging obsession.” Here is a line that succinctly captures for me how blogging has always functioned a little bit differently than the kind of “being digital” I experience in Facebook or Twitter. Long-forgotten hunches and emerging obsessions are not so much a function of friendship, sociality, or phatic affirmation as they are a distributed, often faint, read-write memory–a recollection of being (or having been) on the verge of something mind-changing.


The tournament
is up to a record 20 participants. Over the past five years,
participation has gone from 7 to 7 to 11 to 17 to 18. Now 20. It’s still
your option to

fill out a bracket
through noon tomorrow.

I have listened to the ESPN gurus tell me who they like: #13 Cleveland State
over #4 Wake Forest, #13 Mississippi State over #4 Washington, #11 Utah
State over #6 Marquette. Surprises, upsets, these. In years past, I
let this chatter seep into my thinking about who to pick. Wake Forest was
awful late in the season; Washington…the only thing I know about Washington is
that they wear purple and yellow; and Marquette is down a senior guard. In other
words, these are upset picks that seem reasonable to me, which means they’ll
probably be wrong.

So, I look for other unexpected teams to advance to the Sweet Sixteen because
1.) I have not noticed them and 2.) I am not picking them in my bracket: #10 USC,
#14 American, #11 Temple. These teams are invisible to me. Are they in the
tournament? Seems so. Thus, even though I have not picked them, I have come to
expect that one such team will arrive in the Sweet Sixteen. Why not

I have eight first-round upset picks and two second-round upset picks. My
hunch is that it would be cowardly to have fewer and reckless to have more.

Everything Inventive Is Good For You

Earlier this week I wrapped up Steven Johnson’s latest, The Invention of
, a pop-sci biography of Joseph Priestley. The book was typical, enjoyable
Johnson: cleverly woven anecdotes, theoretical hints concerning networks and
ecologies of influence, and iterative trigger-phrases that pop just enough to
keep the narrative lively and fast-moving. I soared through the first 160
pages in-flight last Friday and then got back into the final chapters a couple
of days ago. And I liked the book very much, except that it slowed ever
so slightly near the end: the young, experimental Priestley was more provocative
than the aging, dislocated Priestley. The latter, it turns out, suffered late in
the religious and political aspects of his life because of the the same
"congenital openness" (190) (or "chronic intellectual openness" (142)) that
helped him become so influential on enlightenment scientific inquiry, and this
section of the book worked at a noticeably different pace than the one dealing
with Priestley’s tinkering with plants.

Johnson characterizes his own ecological approach to Priestley’s life with
the phrase "long zoom":

Ecosystem theory has changed our view of the planet in countless ways,
but as an intellectual model it has one defining characteristic: it is a
"long zoom" science, one that jumps from scale to scale, and from discipline
to discipline, to explain its object of study: from the microbiology of
bacteria, to the cross-species flux of nutrient cycling, to the global
patterns of weather systems, all the way out to the physics that explains
how solar energy collides with the Earth’s atmosphere. (45)

The "long zoom", thus, is both a description of Priestley’s intellectual
manner and also Johnson’s method of developing the biography. "Long zoom"
is an idea Johnson incubated in an NYU seminar he taught on Cultural Ecosystems
and through an invited talk he gave to the
Long Now Foundation
in 2007 (according to footnotes in TIoA). I
doubt that The Invention of Air does full justice to the concept as
Johnson thinks of it, but the project does, on the other hand, seem to enact the
"long zoom." In the passage above, the reference to scale-jumping exposes one of
the rough edges of the concept. The "zoom" also comes off as predominantly
vertical, along the lines of the orders of magnitude, more than horizontal or
some combination of the two (viz. networked); it is not, in other words, a "long
pan" or "long track" (here I’m thinking of the extended camera metaphors–pan,
track, zoom–adopted smartly by Rosenwasser and Stephen when they talk about
inquiry, research, and modes of engaging with an object of study). I mean that
Johnson’s "long zoom," even though he does not say so explicitly in The
Invention of Air
, seems to work both horizontally, vertically, and extra-dimensionally,
as suited to networked relations as to ordered magnitudes, and all the while
alert to the dangers in too recklessly skipping from one scale to another

Priestley comes to light as a "roving" intellectual (205), one whose "hot
hand" series of scientific breakthroughs culminated as consequence of a 30-year
"long hunch" he’d been following (70). The "long zoom"–a kind of
scale-shifting, one-thing-leads-to-another approach–allows Johnson to pin down
Priestley’s knowledge-making wanderluck. Yet, at another point,
Priestley’s success with hunches appears to be as much grounded in his "knack
for ‘socializing’ with his own ideas" (74) as a credit to his roving, generalist
sensibility. Where Johnson writes of Priestley’s affinity for socializing with
his own ideas, TIoA comes remarkably close to delivering a product
placement ad for DevonThink–almost to the point of making me thing I’d

read about it before
(re: Johnson, not Priestley).

There is much more to say about The Invention of Air, but I’m out of
time, viz. paradigms and anomalies (44), coffee and coffeehouses (54), hack vs.
theoretician (62), ecosystems view of the world (82).