Noodle I: Mashing up Edison and Weinberger

Mashing up Edison and Weinberger wires together two thinkers that usually exist in different worlds, and reveals key facets of Knowledge Economy disruption.

Mashing up Edison and Weinberger

By the way, Noodles represent a new kind of post, bits of thought that are unstructured and relatively brief. Many won’t even be split into “extended” articles. They are partially inspired by twitter.

Yesterday I heard David Weinberger (one of the Cluetrain authors; his new book is Everything is Miscellaneous) talk at Big Frontier, and the big insight I took away doesn’t sound like much but, peel the onion, and it’s quite profound. Knowledge is inherently social. We vet our thoughts by sharing them with other people. Interaction helps us to refine thoughts and coalesce them into knowledge by knocking off the rough edges, and we co-design knowledge by collaborating.

One of the megatrends enabled by social networks and Web 2.0 is that “people like us” can connect and develop knowledge much more quickly than ever before. This is serving to rebalance the entire concept of “knowledge authority.” Take the “university.” The first European university was the University of Bologna, which was founded in 1088. It pioneered the concept in the West. The name, “university,” refers to the fact that thinkers from many (virtually all available) disciplines gather to study and interact. Seen from the “knowledge is social” context, a big part of students’ and professors’ competitive advantage, and inherent in their authority, is this “universe” of thinkers in which they can all be social with knowledge. It’s a high octane environment for creating and refining knowledge. Ditto for vaunted high tech areas like Silicon Valley.

Digital social networks enable us to participate and configure little universes around topics in which we can be social with knowledge. True, most of these universes lack the structured rigor of universities, but they can be highly efficient at refining knowledge and collaborating because their transaction costs are far lower. The transaction costs of the university are high and restrict the experience to people with the money and time to dedicate.

Over the last month, I’ve also had the privilege of hearing Sarah Caldicott talk about her new book, Innovate Like Edison,” and today at MENG a couple of her points about Edison’s innovation principles were especially far-reaching:

  • When innovating, don’t reject outliers too quickly. Here’s how I understand it: innovative ideas, whether we are aware of it or not, are packages of knowledge. When an innovation doesn’t work, the package doesn’t work as a whole, but there is undoubtedly much gold in it. Give it abstract space, and create another process to keep working it, and you will be able to harvest its components in other forms later. She emphasized that Edison was very determined, and he didn’t give up on things.
  • Dissolve logic: even when innovation is working (the package fits), create a sacred space to go into hyperdrive and take the innovation into the fantastic. Apparently, Edison would imagine, write about and discuss, sci-fi scenarios in which some of the innovations he was working on played a part. It’s obvious that Edison was a champion of the mash-up.
  • Practicing some of these things—and exchanging them with people—can lead to surprising and practical results. Innovations can seem banal; for example, a combination lock that is locked and opened by a word or phrase rather than a number. That doesn’t sound like much to me, but how many people can’t remember numbers? Probably millions, so the inventor opened the device to a huge additional market by questioning one assumption.

The social part of knowledge helps us to practice innovation, if we are looking for it. However, to benefit from this, people need to have a collaborative outlook and to be open to questioning and discussion.

Edison achieved tremendous results by creating multidisciplinary teams and flat organizations. Social networks enable flatness and collaboration around the interest of choice, and they can serve to make the social element of knowledge creation far more potent and widespread. This is one of the major disruptive constructs of the Knowledge Economy because knowledge becomes far less costly to create and apply.

As Chris Anderson pointed out in The Long Tail, physical power became relatively free during the Industrial Economy. Knowledge will become relatively free in the Knowledge Economy.

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