Connecting vs. protecting

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“Ideas are networks,” says Steven Berlin Johnson, “they are the confluence of different elements coming together—like neurons in the brain.”

Johnson is the best-selling author of six books on the intersection of science, technology and personal experience. His writings have influenced everything from the way political campaigns use the Internet, to cutting-edge ideas in urban planning, to the battle against 21st-century terrorism.

Johnson brought a lot of concepts and commentary to Denison’s campus over his two-day stay. At the opening convocation of the 2010-11 Spectrum Series, which has Technology and Community as its yearlong theme, he spoke about ideas and where the good ones come from in a lecture titled, “The Networked Idea.”

From the stage in Swasey Chapel, he told the audience that good ideas are generated when several conditions are in place: the time to think and work on interesting projects, usually outside of a person’s daily work; the expatation (a word Johnson invented) of ideas, when a resource is repurposed for something outside of its intended use; and an open platform for ideas to grow on freely without obstruction.

“You will never find an environment that’s more suited to growing ideas than a liberal arts college,” says Johnson. “A liberal arts education gives you the time to learn and absorb all these new ideas, the challenge to use information from one class in an unexpected way in another, and an open platform to connect ideas and thoughts.”

Johnson also visited several classrooms while on campus, giving Denison students the opportunity to converse personally with a leading expert and ask some probing questions.

In Dean of First-Year Students Matt Kretchmar’s first-year seminar, lively discussions took place around amoeba-shaped desks, where students exchanged thoughts with Johnson about technology, its evolution, and its impact.

“There was no plasticity of elements prior to the ‘net,'” said Carlos Cortes ’14, a first-year student from Chicago. “You could only use voice, images and text on separate platforms, now it’s all together.”

“And it’s not just that these elements have intersected on our lives,” Johnson said. “It’s the way you and your generation are using and adapting them. That is why we have the explosion of technological development that we see today.”

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