Sunday, August 14, 2011

The Slow Hunch: Notations on Steven Johnson's Where Good Ideas Come From

I was chatting earlier today with @Amphitrit and @alondra on twitter about a piece "The Elusive Big Idea" by Neal Gabler. I suspect Gabler's article will make my "readings list" by the end of the week, so more on that later.

Conversing with @Amphitrit and @alondra, though, had me thinking back on this book Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation by Steven Johnson (2010), which I read last year when it came out. I wasn't blogging as much back then; otherwise, I'm sure I would've written about it.

Johnson discusses how a number of apparent big thinkers came up with their ideas. Contrary to the popular belief that they had this single, isolated eureka moment where they came up with a big, bright idea, figures like Charles Darwin, a key and recurring character in Johnson's book, actually took years and years to develop the one or two ideas that made them famous.

Their big ideas and inventions were also rarely developed in isolation. They were part of communities where the ideas were in the air, so to speak.

It's been a while now since I read the book, but one key concept that stuck with me was this idea of "the slow hunch." According to Johnson, most guesses or
hunches that turn into important innovations unfold over much longer time frames. They start with a vague, hard-to-describe sense that there's an interesting solution to a problem that hasn't yet been proposed, and they linger in the shadows of the mind, sometimes for decades, assembling new connections and gaining strength.
He goes on to note that
Because these slow hunches need so much time to develop, they are fragile creatures, easily lost to the more pressing needs of day-to-day issues. But that long incubation period is also their strength, because true insights require you to think something that no one has thought before in quite the same way.
I have to say that for someone who is swiftly-challenged like me, it was comforting to read about slow hunches, the long and sometimes leisurely walks to substantial development.

The slow hunch concept has been useful for me considering the long-term development and innovation of ideas related to artistic creations and concepts in black studies.

For instance, there's jazz. I've long enjoyed John Coltrane's album Love Supreme. Thinking about slow hunches helps me pay attention to the extended journey that Trane and his band members took to get to that masterpiece.

There's also afrofuturism. Wasn't Alondra Nelson working - in a way - on hunches when she started thinking on the concept as a graduate student in the late 1990s? Now, ten years later, she'll soon publish this book Body and Soul: The Black Panther Party and the Fight against Medical Discrimination that extends the idea of thinking about the intersections of race, science, technoculture. And further than the Panther book, she's already thinking and writing on this whole the social life of dna tip.

Oh, and then black poetry. There are so many instances concerning the long development of ideas in African American verse. Off the top of my head, I'm thinking about the different drafts that Robert Hayden produced over decades before arriving at the version of his poem "Runagate Runagate" that circulates most often, and I'm also recalling that Kevin Young stated that it took him 20 years to write his volume Ardency (2011). And I'm thinking these days that quite a few of the slow hunches related to black poetry are taking place well beyond the written record

So yes, the slow hunch is one of the concepts presented in Where Good Ideas Come From that has been circulating in my mind for some time.

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