Innovation, Steve Johnson’s perspective

Entrepreneur and author Steve Johnson has a piece in today’s Sunday NY Times on innovation here. His point is that a whole lot of what most of us would consider the core of technology innovation doesn’t come from corporate R&D (writ large) but rather from a combination of academic, government-sponsored and even amateur sectors–a investment area he calls “the fourth quadrant”.

That’s true, but regardless, there’s a lot of chaff to separate from the wheat!

I think the core question is not where the innovation is coming from, but rather how to identify true paradigm-breaking discovery from the same old same old. It’s not entirely obvious to me. There was an obscure predecessor to the Web called gopher that, in the infancy of the Internet, had many of the features of the Web, but with more of a hierarchical text focus. It sure seemed innovative at the time. But of course, most of AS’s loyal readers wont have heard about it. Somehow, it was innovative, but not innovative enough.

By the same token, the early Web browsers (e.g. Mosaic) were incredibly clunky. But the seed for a paradigm shift was there in Mosaic 1.0 and, in the end, it wasn’t in gopher.

The Carr debate morphs: the internet does not equal a brain

Charles Arthur of the Guardian evolves the debate. It’s now about the complexity of the net versus the complexity of the brain (which of course is not a scientific debate unless you are talking about the brain of a simple animal like Aplysia californica).

Money quote on the idea the hyperlinks are like synapses:

This is simply rubbish. A hyperlink is nothing like a synapse, except that both describe a connection between two points… a synapse is a responsive, organic mechanism that has been tuned by hundreds of millions of years of evolution to react more strongly to some inputs rather than others. Throw in something between 1 and 10 quadrillion (1 quadrillion = 10^16) synapses in a human brain, and you have an organism that somehow becomes conscious, and yet can also function unconsciously, which uses chemicals for its transmission systems (across the synaptic gap, which is key to how synapses can vary in behaviour).

I’m with Arthur here.


On the evolution of the web

Academic blogger Jean Burgess at Queensland University reflect on how one’s personal web presence as evolved (with social networking and googling)–it’s apparently getting more difficult than ever for Google to report back individual home pages….remember, those things with “under construction” icons?

I’ve been thinking a lot about this also, but in the context of how academic blogging is beginning to intersect meaningfully with professional social networking spaces such as Plaxo or Linkedin through feeds. I first syndicated this blog to the University of Michigan’s alumni social network, but have since added Plaxo.

Here’s an excellent quote from Burgess’ blog entry on this subject:

One thing that has struck me lately, is that this hyper-distributed version of online presence, connecting us in different ways to a variety of colleagues, professional, personal, and online acquaintances, and close friends, couldn’t be further from the 1990s personal home page – a one-stop shop that often seemed to incorporate everything from a CV to cat photos, holiday snaps, essays and online diary. It’s important to note that, given the comparative unevenness of internet access, use and participation at the time, the personal home page was a form of cultural production never adopted at anything like the current scale of blogs and SNS profiles.


Networked Science

Diana Rhoten’s very perceptive piece in today’s Chronicle of Higher Education (on-line) really has it spot on about changes in the way science is being done here.

Money quote:

But Networked Science takes that idea a step further, using cyberinfrastructure to create a virtual hallway in which the doorways — wide enough to accommodate all the scientists who want to pass through — lead to labs and offices containing every discipline under the sun. By providing that space, unachievable in the physical world, being virtual can actually surpass being there.