Science writer Steven Johnson’s latest book, Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation is, in some ways, a classic Johnson book: drawing from diverse sources across many disciplines, Johnson recounts historical scientific breakthroughs and draws from them parallels to modern technology, particularly networked computers and the way that they shape the societies around them.
But in another way, this is a very different kind of Johnson book. Unlike recent science histories like The Invention of Air or The Ghost Map, Johnson doesn’t limit himself to a deep, biographical account of a single invention. Rather, Good Ideas is a sweeping survey of many, many inventions, some dating back to antiquity, and a comparison of these innovations to the innovations that occur on the grand scale — in the natural evolution of new species and ecosystems — and on the micro-scale — the way that neuronal clusters alternate between synchronized, orderly firing and wild chaos to birth new ideas.
This is the heart of Johnson’s thesis: that there are similarities to be found (and lessons to be learned) between the way that physics, chemistry and biology innovate to create successful variations in life; the way that humans work together to create successful new technologies; and the way that human brains accomplish the strange business of imagining new things, seemingly out of thin air.
For Johnson, the secret lies in the “thin air” — the unplumbed space we credit for the “sparks of brilliance” and “happy accidents” that create new connections, strategies and thoughts. And for Johnson, this thin air is anything but: rather, it is a relatively predictable outcome arising from certain pre-conditions.
Wherever you have a lot of spare parts lying around, a lot of disciplines crossing paths, a reliable system for propagating good ideas, and an environment that doesn’t unduly punish failed experiments or wall off certain areas of exploration lest they disrupt the status quo, innovation emerges. Working from a foundation of organic chemistry and the ways that complex carbon chains bootstrapped themselves into myriad combinations that built one upon another, on to organisms that co-evolve with their environments; and forward to inventions from movable type and double-entry bookeeping to GPS and Twitter, and finally to the cutting-edge neuroscience of idea formation, Johnson makes a convincing case that innovation is fractal.
That is, if you want to be innovative, you need to put yourself into innovative environments: places where lots of contradictory ideas from many disciplines are crossing paths, where institutions and governments don’t over-regulate or conspire to crush new ideas; where existing platforms stand ready to have new platforms built atop them, as TCP/IP, SGML and various noodling experiments over many decades let Tim Berners-Lee invent the Web (itself a platform that many others invent atop of).
This is stirring stuff: a strong defense of open networks, shared ideas, serendipity (he even cites Boing Boing as a counter to doomsayers who say that the net’s directed search creates a serendipity-free echo chamber) and minimal control over ideas so that they can migrate to those who would use them in ways their “creators” can’t conceive of. These are axioms for many of us who grew up with the Internet and the Web, but to see these axioms defended with reference to history, paleontology, evolutionary biology, urban planning, and other diverse disciplines is heartening indeed.
It helps, of course, that Johnson is one of the field’s most engaging writer, a science writer with a gift for narrative and clear examples (it probably also helps that I agree with him, of course!). But this is really one of those books you want to shove under the noses of everyone who’s ever expected creativity in the least creative of environments, from bosses to politicians to teachers to urban planners, comprising a road-map for individuals, groups and societies to realize their best potential.
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