Where Good Ideas Come From

Where Good Ideas Come From, Steven Johnson’s new and elevating book, slotswith a firm click into the category I’ve come to think of as “pattern porn.”It’s a relatively new genre, and a hot one, congested as it is with specimenslike The Tipping Point and Freakonomics, as well as Johnson’s own handiwork, the strategicallycontrarian bestseller Everything Bad isGood For You.

Definition: Pattern porn is a genre of non-fictioncharacterized by a seductive thesis that is supported by an ingenious arrangementof scientific support—manipulatively cherry-picked, in the eyes of somecritics—and lush anecdotal juxtapositions that are voyeuristicallyirresistible.

The Tipping Point is the poster-child of this genus; Malcolm Gladwell’s brainiachop-scotching made the case for his theory of popularity by analyzing(seemingly) disparate phenomena—like the spread of syphilis in Baltimore, thecurious popularity of Hush Puppies, the drop in the New York City crime rate,and teen suicide in Micronesia.

Similarly, Freakonomics beckoned by revealing theexplanatory glue of incentives that linked phenomena as scattered as legalizedabortion, crime, and the sociological impacts of kids’ names, and that also answeredthe sexy question, “Why do drug dealers still live with their moms?”

Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History ofInnovation follows thisnow-familiar structure. Johnson sees himself as a Grand Explainer; here, hesets about to investigate the genesis of ideas, insights, and innovation. Ifthere’s a single focus to his mission, it’s to move beyond the folklore thatideas usually emerge with unpredictable spontaneity, in a mythic flash.

Johnson is drawn to preciselythe opposite position, and spends much of the book supporting it—that ideasrely on networks and environments and collisions of consciousness. The power ofthis thesis is that if he can show us that new ideas do emerge from a predictable set of circumstances, then we cancreate systems and structures that accelerate the fermentation and adaptationof innovation. The social utility of that would be extraordinary.

But it’s a daunting task,given the range of disciplines in which new ideas take shape. To organize thesprawl, Johnson quickly establishes some fixed principles—a “series ofshared properties” as he puts it—and then buttresses his framework with adazzlingly eclectic array (and display) that integrates details immense andnano, moving easily from biology to technology to music to the sexualreproduction of fleas to the failure to identify the 9/11 terrorists toGreenwich Village to anthropology to evolutionary theory.

Johnson’s sharedproperties serve as chapters; they have memorable monikers like “TheAdjacent Possible,” “Liquid Networks”, “The Slow Hunch,”and “Exaptation.” These largely aren’t his coinages; Exaptationbelongs to Stephen Jay Gould, Adjacent Possible to Stuart Kauffman; but Johnsonis clever enough to retrieve and promote them. They are hot hooks built fortoday’s media world.

Like its recent ancestors,Where Good Ideas Come From is a tightchoreography of ideas in motion. It’s a well-plotted swirl, and Johnson’s jumpypastiche style is made for our ADD reading behaviors. Just as you’re about toget bored with a technical explanation of two young physicists discovering howto track the Sputnik’s course in 1957, Johnson traces the path by which thatEisenhower-era necessity led to the development of GPS, and lassoes it toSilicon Valley’s “Homebrew Computing Club,” Freud’s salon, and 18th-centuryEnglish coffeehouses. The author always knows his destination,even when the reader is lost. He delights in befuddling his passengers, navigatingone historical hairpin turn after another, until finally the valley of clarityemerges.

A chapter like Exaptationshows why Johnson is a master at the erotic titillation of pattern porn. Exaptationis a term from evolutionary biology for the way an “organism develops atrait optimized for a specific use, but then the trait gets hijacked for acompletely different function.” But Johnson goes further and promotesexaptation into an overarching metaphor for creative larceny. To demonstrate,the chapter lurches from Pliny the Elder, who described a wine press in his Naturalis Historiae, to Gutenberg, who became aware of this device throughhis brief time as a winemaker, and later deployed the technology to make theprinting press possible. Johnson notes that “[a]n important part ofGutenberg’s genius… lay not in conceiving an entirely new technology fromscratch, but instead borrowing amature technology from an entirely different field and putting it to work tosolve an unrelated problem.”

Usingthe notion that discovery is “more bricolage than breakthrough,”Johnson’s orgy of connectivity continues. He uses exaptation to show how punchcards—created by an early 18th-century French weaver to producecomplex silk patterns—led to Charles Babbage’s Analytic Engine, a proto-computer.In fact, punch cards “would remain crucial to programmable computers untilthe 1970s,” leading to the development of the vacuum tube, which in turnmade possible the ENIAC—a computer that could do “the math on the physicsof a hydrogen bomb.”

Exaptation also explains(a) the creation of the Web—pretty much every principle in the book isvalidated by the Internet; (b) the jump from Edouard Dujardin’s 1888 novel LesLauriers sont coupés to Joyce’s Ulysses (Johnson’s polymathic skills stumble a bit on literature);and (c) Francis Crick’s report that he first hit upon the DNA replication modelby thinking of the way that plaster casts eventuate into sculpture.

The same phenomenon alsoexplains why the fertile interactions in big cities lead to better ideas—the “coffeehousemodel of creativity”—and accounts as well for Apple’s stunning success,despite its penchant for secrecy.

The other chapters followa similar daisy chain of inspiration. “The Adjacent Possible” limnsthe way that ideas emerge from neighboring possibilities, with “eachinnovation opening up new paths to explore.” In one of his favoritelinkages, Johnson points out how this applies to both natural and man-madesystems, starting with the “fatty acids that self-assembled into the firstmembrane.” From this he takes a grand jeté to Stéphane Tarnier,the 19th-century Parisian obstetrician who hatched an adjacentpossible from chicken incubators, using the insight to create versions forhuman infants that reduced the death rate of low-weight babies from 66% to 38%.

Continuing the history ofthe incubator, Johnson describes a solution to the ongoing tragedy of infantmortality in the developing world. Modern incubators are complex; when theybreak down, struggling countries lack the technical expertise or parts to fixthem. The repair manuals are written in English. Once again, the adjacentpossible provides the breakthrough; an MIT professor realized that there was anample supply of people who knew how to fix cars, and of auto parts. So TimothyProspero created an incubator that runs on local mechanical skills andavailable automobile componentry.

These examples aremeaningful to Johnson because they demonstrate that ideas aren’t limited byavailable reality, but are in fact inspired by it. He writes, “Good ideasare not conjured out of thin air; they are built out of a collection ofexisting parts.”

The “Platforms”chapter describes a different kind of generative—Johnson is in love with thatword—power, one which allows for the layering on of innovation.  Some of these platforms are basicscience, like the work of Darwin, upon which have been stacked populationgenetics, molecular genetics, evolutionary psychology, and other disciplines.

Of course, the giant platformthat’s driven our economy in recent decades has been the Web, made possible byits “platform stack,” which Timothy Berners-Lee—one of Johnson’sheroes—created. Platform innovation on the open Internet is why three guys wereable to build YouTube in a matter of months, “while an army of expertcommittees and electronics companies took twenty years to make HD a reality.”  Johnson is also radiant about Twitterand its open system that encourages fast innovation.

These pillars of ingenuityare horizontal as well as vertical, they mush and mesh. So Johnson sees thenotion of “Serendipity” as something that completes a “SlowHunch” (two different chapters) because it “opens a door in theadjacent possible” (a third chapter.) He rattles off discoveries whichwere conceived in the chaos of a dream state—the periodic table, the ringstructure of the benzene molecule—and connects that to waking activity byanalyzing the brain states of “noise” and “phase-lock.”Johnson gleefully notes that the more disorganized our brains are—the noisestate—the smarter we are.

The “Serendipity”chapter is also where Johnson reveals the hidden hand, the secret of his spookyability to pull together often stunning juxtapositions from wildly differentdisciplines. It’s an indexing software program called DEVONthink, where hestores everything—notes, blogs, quotes, transcriptions—for easy searching. Healso uses it “improvisationally”—as a sparking platform.

Besideswriting a brief history of imagination in WhereGood Ideas Come From, Johnson is on two parallel missions of debunkery. Hewants to retire the conventional wisdom that insight comes in a flash, thesymbolic light bulb over our noggins. He argues that all the metaphors—breakthroughs,eureka moments, epiphanies—fail to capture “what an idea actually is.”He argues that, “A good idea is a network. An idea is not a single thing. Itis more like swarm.”  Johnsonwants us to understand this because he believes that if we focus on creatingenvironments that are particularly conducive to swarm cultivation—concentrationsof diverse intellectual energy in cities, universities, and other institutions—whathe calls, again, the “coffeehouse effect”—society will profoundlybenefit.

There are other generallyaccepted notions Johnson happily un-accepts. He dismisses the idea that the Webmitigates serendipitous discovery; he thinks that traditional brainstorming isrelatively useless; he believes errors can be the best thing that happen to us.One fascinating experiment he references shows that groups stimulated by falseinformation were more creative than those that were fed the truth.

Johnson is also an abidingadvocate for openness—open systems, platforms, protocols. He wants ideas to beunleashed so others can extend and ladder them into ever-increasing social beneficence.He passionately advocates for “open environments where ideas flow inunregulated channels.” To demonstrate the value of open systems, Johnsonbreaks from the structure of his book in the last chapter. “The FourthQuadrant” isn’t another catchy mini-biography of innovation, it’s Johnson’soriginal research. He took 200 ideas over a 400-year period—ranging from theprinting press to the pencil to photosynthesis—and broke them into fourcategories, based on whether they were the product of individual or collectiveactivity, and whether they were done for profit or not.

His conclusion: early inhistory, ideas were individual breakthroughs; “less than 10 percent ofinnovation during the Renaissance is networked.” But as history marchesahead, “a clear majority of breakthrough ideas emerge in collaborative environments,”and were not done for financial reward.

This is a typicallyJohnsonian counter-intuitive finding. We’d expect that the geniuses of theEnlightenment—Newton, Locke, Lavoisier—worked outside of a financial incentivesystem. But even after the rise of industrial capitalism and patent protectionsin the early 18th century, Johnson finds that “… mostcommercial innovation… takes a collaborative form, with many individuals andfirms contributing crucial tweaks and refinements…. The history books like tocondense these slower, evolutionary processes into eureka moments dominated bya single inventor, but most of the key technologies that powered the IndustrialRevolution were instances of what scholars call ‘collective intervention.'”

Johnsonbelieves the future of good ideas will belong to the networked innovation thattakes place outside the marketplace (inthat flourishing “Fourth Quadrant” of his). And he’s probably right. He’salso evangelical: “To my mind, the great question for our time is whetherlarge organizations—public and private,governments and corporations alike—canbetter harness the innovative turbine of fourth-quadrant systems.”

Where Good Ideas Come From is itself a very excellent idea, and in a metakind of way it follows its precepts for discovery; Johnson uses exaptation andthe unfurling of the adjacent possible in his own work. The book is sciencewriting for a broad audience at its highest level—accessible but challenging,humming with new ideas, and finally, inspiring.

Yes, it suffers frompattern porn’s inherent weaknesses: Johnson over-architects a bit, making theworld too neat and tidy. And the book is stronger on the descriptive thanprescriptive side. In fact, some of Johnson’s recipes for innovation are a bitfloppy: take a shower or long soak, go for a walk. He does provide some usefuldirections, though, for achieving some of his idea-readiness states, even ifthey are not particularly practical. Most of us—other than the unfortunatelyunemployed, or the fortunately-employed academic—don’t have the ability to “carveout dedicated periods where you read a large and varied collection of books andessays in a condensed amount of time,” even if it would help identify theadjacent possible.

There is some advice tobusiness—relayed in the context of the FBI’s failure to catch the 9/l1terrorists because the hunch of an Arizona-based field agent wasn’t sufficientlypart of a liquid network—that is useful. Johnson writes: “The secret toorganizational inspiration is to build information networks that allow hunchesto persist and disperse and recombine.” The subject of this book could notbe timelier, given that everyone is wondering where the next wave of innovationwill emerge from, how the economy can find its mojo and create jobs for the 15million unemployed. Such road-opening ideas can’t be another Snuggli.

Given the moment’surgency, it is likely Where Good IdeasCome From will be a genre-crossing book that ends up being embraced by thebusiness community. Expect PowerPoint slides to be headlined “Finding TheAdjacent Possible in the Female Energy Drink Category.” Yet while businessesare desperate for innovation, in my experience it isn’t a shortage of ideasthat’s the problem, it’s innovation-killing cultures. That’s because ideas arefragile at birth, with shallow respiration, like the premature infants in StéphaneTarnier’s incubator. A new idea for something that would keep a good idea fromdying prematurely—now that would be a fit subject for the sequel I hope Steven Johnsonwill come to write: How to Keep A GoodIdea Alive.


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