A talk with famed technologist, questioner, and ‘chief of confusion’ John Seely Brown
John Seely Brown has an impressive résumé. The former chief scientist at Xerox Corporation, he headed up its esteemed Palo Alto Research Center (PARC) for years. He’s been inducted into the Industry Hall of Fame. He’s written extensively on education, most recently as co-author of A New Culture of Learning: Cultivating the Imagination for a World of Constant Change (which argues for a whole new approach to teaching). And currently he serves as a visiting scholar at USC and co-chairman of the Deloitte Center for the Edge, which advises businesses on dealing with technological upheaval.
On his website, JSB (as he likes to be known) declares: “I call myself the chief of confusion and I argue that it’s more important to ask questions than to get answers.” Obviously, he’s someone who definitely belongs in a book on questioning, and I was pleased to track him down in Hawaii recently for a long and fascinating interview.
I want to touch on just one part of that talk here. I asked JSB a question that is central to my book, specifically:
Is questioning becoming more important today?”
“Yes,” he answered. Then he added, “Now, do you have any more questions?”
He was joking, and proceeded to give a more expansive reply to my closed question.
Questioning is becoming more important today for a number of reasons, he said. “We’re living in exponential times. Today’s digital infrastructure is fundamentally different than mechanical infrastructures of yesterday. So not only does it become critical to learn how to learn fast, but you have to learn how to construct new frames through which to learn.
“I find that every couple of years now I have to re-frame how I even think about using this technology,” Brown says. “And that only comes about by using Beginner’s Mind, and asking all kinds of fundamental questions. Through questioning, I eventually realize that the lenses I’m looking through to see the world around me are wrong—and that I have to construct a whole new frame of reference.”
When change is seen as an adventure
JSB believes that the tendency to question—along with a willingness to experiment, tinker, try new approaches—is part of a disposition that can enable one to thrive in a world of rapid change. “If you don’t have that disposition, you’re going to fear change. But if you’re comfortable questioning, tinkering, connecting things—then change is something that becomes an adventure. And if you can see it as an adventure, then you’re off and running.”
He also points out that today, as we’re drowning in information, “context” is critical. “When you get an answer on Google, the notion of that answer coming from an authoritative base no longer matters that much—because there are so many authorities,” he says. “To use <author> David Weinberger’s phrase, there is ‘too much to know’—and so what really matters is your ability to triangulate, to look at something from multiple sources, and construct your own warrants for what you want to believe.” And that may involve “asking all kinds of peripheral questions,” Brown notes, such as, What is the agenda behind this information? Can it be trusted? Is it current, and still relevant? How does it connect with other information I’m finding? To use Brown’s words, “the context dominates the content.”
I asked JSB how we can get better at questioning. “One of the key things is to learn how to listen,” he said. “People want to show smart they are by jumping in and saying something—as opposed to sitting back and absorbing what’s being said, and maybe sleeping on it. By listening, paying attention and thinking about things, you find that interesting questions emerge. ‘I wonder if this all comes from X?’ or ‘Does this really make sense? Maybe it should be thought of this other way?’”
This is just a piece of a larger conversation I had with the ever-interesting John Seely Brown. For the rest of JSB’s thoughts on how questioning intersects with the world today, I guess you’ll have to wait for the AMBQ book. In the meantime, please feel free to leave a comment with your own thoughts on why questioning might be becoming more important than ever today.