stevenberlinjohnson.com: Deep Structure

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Deep Structure

If there’s one thing I’m known for as a writer, it’s my habit of writing across disciplines, connecting multiple fields in a single book or narrative. My sense from talking to readers and following the reviews is that if you like my books, the discipline-jumping is one of the main attractions, and if the books rub you the wrong way (as in this review of Invention of Air from last year) it’s the connections that grate.

But the truth is I haven’t written a truly multi-disciplinary book for nearly ten years, since my second book, Emergence. The last two were both anchored in historical narratives; Everything Bad Is Good For You was an linear argument about popular culture; Mind Wide Open was exclusively about neuroscience. But Where Good Ideas Come From has no equivalent anchor or home field. What holds the book together is an idea–an idea about the roots of ideas–but the underlying material that supports that theme comes from just about everywhere: from the history of science and technology, from the creative arts, from ecosystem and network theory, and so on.

There’s something profoundly liberating and even thrilling about having such an open canvas in front of you, but as a research project it can be daunting. With Ghost Map and Invention of Air, I had a very clear place to start: the lives of John Snow and Joseph Priestley, and in the case of Ghost Map, the few weeks of the 1854 cholera epidemic. I dug into those narratives, and then burrowed out into other domains where there were interesting links to follow. But Good Ideas didn’t present such a clear starting point. I used to joke when I first began working on the book that pretty much any good idea that anyone had ever had at any point in human history was suitable subject matter for my book, which meant that the field was effectively infinite. Add to that the fact that I was interested in biological innovation as well and the problem only got worse.

All of which meant that in the end, the biggest challenge for this book was not finding interesting stories to tell (there was an endless supply of them) but rather figuring out how to structure the whole thing. The logical, but less interesting way would just be to create a bunch of chapters organized by discipline: great ideas in the arts, in science, in nature. For a while, I contemplated organizing by different scales, given the book’s Long Zoom approach: a chapter on creativity inside the brain, on the screen, in your immediate work environment, in your city. But about halfway into the research, I started thinking about a structure where each chapter would be a distinct pattern that recurs in all these innovative environments, at all those different scales. Initially I had five patterns, but by the end I’d carved out seven.

Coming up with this kind of deep structure is one of the most important decisions that you can make with a book like this, and like a building’s foundation, it can play a defining role in the success or failure of the whole thing. But also like a foundation, it often isn’t consciously noticed by people enjoying the final product. For most readers, I suspect, the seven patterns will seem like an obvious way to organize the book’s information, and those other possible organizational structures won’t cross their mind as they’re reading. And yet, they were probably the hardest thing to figure out in the whole project of writing the book.

When I was writing Ghost Map, I had this wonderful breakthrough where I realized that I could structure the book where each chapter would simultaneously be a day in the chronology of the epidemic, but would also naturally connect to one of the book’s major themes: in other words, day one was cholera, day two was John Snow, day three was miasma, etc. That allowed each chapter to advance the narrative clock, but also work as an almost standalone essay. I was — and still am, actually — as proud of that deep structure as I am of just about anything else I’ve written. But not one single review mentioned it, and to this day, not one reader has brought it up in conversation about the book.  

The funny thing about it is that I’m sure that people who enjoyed the book were in fact enjoying that deep structure; they just weren’t fully aware of it. Maybe the best analogy isn’t architectural, since you don’t actually perceive the foundation of the building, even though it makes everything possible. Maybe a better analogy is music: I suspect most non-musicans aren’t fully aware of chord changes the way they are conscious of melodies. Most of us can readily hum a tune from memory, but it’s much harder to recall the chord progression. And yet the chords define the song as much as the melody does. Change the chords and the song changes dramatically.

So the real question–a question I don’t have the answer to–is what happens in our minds when we enjoy something like a book or song, without being fully aware of what makes it enjoyable. On some level, there is something like an unconscious processing of the information, but it’s not an unconscious that looks anything like the Freudian version. Our brains unconsciously process external information all the time, of course, but usually these are hard-wired skills, more nature than nurture. But a chord progression or a chapter from a non-fiction book are pure works of culture; our brains didn’t evolve dedicated resources designed to appreciate their subtle arts. Yet somehow we appreciate those deep structures, even as they fly beneath the radar of our consciousness.

The funny thing is that people will reliably perceive that deep structure in one context: when we get it wrong. Mangle the chords in a popular song and the background will suddenly become foreground. That, at least, is the consolation prize I give myself for the fact that no one ever mentioned Ghost Map’s deep structure. If no one notices it, it must be working.  

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September 14, 2010 | Permalink

Comments

Wm Pitzer

Your thoughts about deep structure remind me of a quote that I often use when giving talks and in course materials for my students:

Chinese philosopher Lao Tse wrote: “A vessel is only useful through its emptiness… it is the space on a wall that is opened to become a window… and so we find that it is the nonexistent in things that truly makes them serviceable.”

Since the best designs are self-effacing it doesn’t surprise me that reviewers miss the deep structure you mention. Thanks for sharing that though, it’s very useful.

-Wm Pitzer @newsgraphics

Posted by:

Wm Pitzer |

September 14, 2010 at 09:17 AM

Louisemarston

I wonder if some of the satisfaction from the structure comes from echoing templates from fiction.
There is a great book called ‘The Seven Basic Plots’ by Christopher Booker that talks about the strong connection we have to stories, and the structures that satisfy us.
Perhaps the deep structures connect most effectively with the need we have for stories, and the templates we have learned to respond to over thousands of years.

Posted by:

Louisemarston |

September 15, 2010 at 05:41 AM

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