Thursday, August 23, 2007

"Information, Communication, Knowledge" by John Ziman

I just finished reading Group Genius by Keith Sawyer, and can't thank Robert Rasmussen of Lego Serious Play enough for recommending this book to me.

My favorite part of Group Genius is the gushing review on the back cover by management guru Ori Brafman (of Starfish and Spider network fame). Brafman says, "Sawyer has completely changed how I think about creativity."

That kind of review buys into the "big light bulb effect" that Sawyer devotes his entire book to dismantling. Instead of big ideas and big light bulbs, Sawyer explains that creativity in fact happens through slow, small, and collaborative steps.

Sawyer's enormous collection of endnotes does a great job of reinforcing his well-spun anecdotes with scholarly empirical research. Even so, I think he understates the degree to which his own book is but a well-packaged echo of work done long before.

Lewis Thomas, in his essay "On societies as organisms" (published in his best-selling 1974 book The Lives of a Cell) quotes John Ziman thus:
"The invention of a mechanism for the systematic publication of fragments of scientific work may well have been the key event in the history of modern science.... A typical scientific paper has never pretended to be more than another little piece in a larger jigsaw--not significant in itself but as an element in a grander scheme. This technique, of soliciting many modest contributions to the store of human knowledge, has been the secret of Western science since the seventeenth century, for it achieves a corporate, collective power that is far greater than one individual can exert."
John Ziman wrote those words in his essay, "Information, Communication, Knowledge," published by Nature in 1969. My favorite part of the essay is the paragraph immediately preceding the part quoted by Thomas:
"Our present system of scientific communication depends almost entirely on [literature with] three basic characteristics: it is fragmentary, derivative, and edited. These characteristics are, however, quite essential."
So, while some people may experience revelation upon reading Group Genius (like Ori Brafman), I instead find Sawyer's book to be fragmentary, derivative and edited. But those are exactly the traits that make Sawyer's book so creative and so worth reading.

BTW, check out Ziman's bibliography and see how he relies on material published in 1939.

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