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LIVE from the NYPL: STEVEN JOHNSON & KEVIN KELLY in conversation with Robert Krulwich

October 18, 2010

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In a world of rapidly accelerating change, from iPads to eBooks to genetic mapping to MagLev trains, we can't help but wonder if technology is our servant or our master, and whether it is taking us in a healthy direction as a society.

  • What forces drive the steady march of innovation?
  • How can we build environments in our schools, our businesses, and in our private lives that encourage the creation of new ideas--ideas that build on the new technology platforms in socially responsible ways?

Kevin Kelly and Steven Johnson will look at where technology is taking us. One of the co-founders of Wired Magazine, Kelly's new book, What Technology Wants, makes the argument that technology as a whole is not a jumble of wires and metal but a living, evolving organism that has its own unconscious needs and tendencies. Johnson's new book, Where Good Ideas Come From, explains why certain spaces, from 18th-century coffeehouses to the World Wide Web, have an uncanny talent for encouraging innovative thinking. 

STEVEN JOHNSON is the author of The Ghost Map, Everything Bad Is Good for You, Mind Wide Open: Your Brain and the Neuroscience of Everyday Life, Emergence: The Connected Lives of Ants, Cities, Software and Interface Culture: How New Technology Transforms the Way We Create and Communicate and The Invention of Air: A Story of Science, Faith, Revolution, and the Birth of America. He is also the founder of several influential websites, including FEED, Plastic, and, currently, outside.in. His most recent book is Where Good Ideas Come From.

KEVIN KELLY is Senior Maverick at Wired magazine. Previously, he was publisher and editor of the Whole Earth Review. He co-founded the ongoing Hackers’ Conference and helped launch of the WELL, a pioneering online service started in 1985. Kevin Kelly is the author of New Rules for the New Economy and Out of Control. He is currently editor and publisher of the popular websites Cool Tools and The Quantified Self. His  most recent book is What Technology Wants.

ROBERT KRULWICH covers science for National Public Radio and is Co-host of NPR's "Radiolab". For several decades he was a  correspondent at ABC and CBS News. Krulwich regularly appears on NPR's Morning Edition and All Things Considered. In 2007, The National Academy of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine gave Radiolab its top honor for excellence in communicating science to the general public. In 2009, Radiolab won the  American Association for the Advancement of Science Excellence in radio award. He has won three Emmy awards, A Polk Award, a Dupont Award and the National Cancer Institute's Extraordinary Communicator's Award.

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the "spooky" attraction

to understand the spooky attraction, I think maybe a golf course is a good metaphor. there are hills (the ball can roll down them--perhaps away from the cup, or perhaps toward it), and there are different lengths of grasses (which stop the ball from rolling), and there are hazards (from which it is difficult to escape). now, we could conceive of a golf course in which the cup is at the bottom of a large parabolic bowl, and the edges are smooth. on such a course, from any starting point, with no effort, we'll arrive at the goal. this is the most trivial case, and can perhaps model a "non-innovation"--something which is already obvious to us. we can also imagine golf courses much like real-world ones--where not all possible starting points are equal, and if you're on the green, it becomes much more likely that you'll sink the ball. the ideas and tools and minds and other parts of the context that exists when an innovation happens--we can think of those parameters as governing how close we are to the hole. Babbage and Lovelace were in the weeds down the hill and around the corner from the teeing ground, they were so early with programmable computing. Edison and the rest who beat him to the punch with the lightbulb idea were all on the green, because the idea didn't require too many different insights by that time, and the technology was widespread enough that many were able to make it real. this golf course metaphor is very similar to the idea of the evolutionary or fitness landscape, as in this image: http://sloanreview.mit.edu/the-magazine/files/2008/11/4039-ex1-lo.png in the golf course metaphor, though, "downhill" is more fit. since gravity is so intuitive to us, I feel like this simple sign change makes the metaphor a lot more "grokkable." this was a fantastic discussion, and I am very grateful to the taxpayers of NYC and the people at NYPL for making this available. wonderful!