Commonplacing for beginners

let optimism rein

I have just finished reading Steven Johnson's "Where Good Ideas Come From", an excellent exposition of a theory of innovation that focuses on the processes, platforms and techniques that support the emergence of creativity and ideas. His ideas are well researched, and in keeping with the subtitle (A natural history of innovation) Charles Darwin makes a sustained appearance in the text. There are far too many exciting ideas embodied in this book to give a comprehensive overview here, so I will focus on one aspect in particular: the concept of the Commonplace Book, its use as a tool of innovation and creativity, and the form it takes in the digital era.

The Commonplace Book was a ubiquitous tool of any Enlightenment scholar and gentleman, and its use extended from Renaissance Italy (the Zibaldone, or 'hodgepodge' book) up to premodern and modern England and America, although the forms varied in subtle and particular ways. The essence of the form was to carry a book that allowed one to capture words and sketches in many diverse and varied forms, types and purposes, creating a singular journal. Nowadays we would call it a personal journal or sketchbook, but the emphasis in Commonplacing (as it was known and taught in Oxford and even Harvard - Thoreau was taught to do this) was to combine quotations and extracts from found material with personal reflections and insights. The older form, the Renaissance 'Zibaldone' was even more diverse, and could include a record of tax rates, payments, debts, doodles, recipes, quotations from the greater and lesser poets, sketches, drawings and just about anything else you could imagine.

Johnson points to the benefits of Commonplacing as a tool of innovation and creativity, and attributes this to its ability to net and trap 'hunches' and subsequently allow the unexpected collision of different ideas. This process takes advantage of what he and others have called the 'adjacent possible'. Indeed, he elevates the humble 'hunch' to the level of proto-concept, an essential larval form of innovative ideas, albeit one that is more likely statistically to be abandoned and wither than bear fruit. As the story goes, we have a lot of hunches, and we need to have a lot, and not lose track of them: some lead us somewhere, but all of them have value. Even the ones we abandon are essential to 'trap', as they may form the seed of further ideas. Personally I prefer the term 'seed' to 'hunch'; to me, 'seed' captures the emergent potential of the stray idea, while acknowledging that it may fall on either barren or fertile ground - amount to something, or nothing at all.

I am no stranger to journal-keeping, nor to the fruitless/fruitful recording of stray hunches, but thanks to Mr. Johnson, I have a clearer view of a personal practice that had been intuitive up until now. He has filled out the creative, utilitarian and historical context to what was in itself a hunch - a desire to keep and maintain a record of thoughts and found materials.

More than this, Johnson was able to put the practice of commonplacing in an up-to-date framework through a discussion about the software tool DEVONthink. Like Evernote, DEVONthink is a personal database tool ideal for capturing words, notes, images, documents, voice recordings, web links and pages, in fact anything that you might wish to place in an imaginative or useful framework for future reference. In essence, they are both commonplacing tools, updated for a web-centric digital age.

The power of DEVONthink, and the advantage that it has over the conceptually similar but simpler Evernote, is embodied in its search algorithm, one that intelligently considers the context and proximity of words and meaning as well as the explicit search terms. It is also capable of intelligently classifying new material in relation to material you have already trapped in the database, a revealing and creative process in itself. With DEVONthink, storing items and ordering the database over time is fruitful, but the act of searching also becomes an active creative process, one that forces possible adjacencies between words and concepts in a way that is just a little unpredictable. And in that unpredictability is a strangely resonant mimicry of the seemingly-random connections between ideas and concepts that can emerge from, or inform, our subconscious and conscious minds. In this way the software acts as an extension and augmentation of our thinking process, if not our mind itself.

I have in the past used Evernote as my de-facto digital commonplacing tool, but I was far too intrigued by the possibilities of DEVONthink's search and classification algorithm to resist it. As a result I spent much of the long weekend transitioning my database of material from Evernote into DEVONthink. This labour-intensive process had the added bonus of allowing me to revisit much of the material I had saved into Evernote, and this in turn presented a range of new connections and concepts, new potentials, new seeds.

I look forward to new taxonomical habits yielding creative new insights, augmented by my newly adopted commonplacing tool.