In his new book, Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation (Riverhead; $26.95 hardback), science writer Steven Johnson, who reads at Kepler’s in Menlo Park on Sunday Oct. 10, shows us that ideas aren’t isolated bits of brilliance but are instead the product of networks and environments.
Johnson looks at the brain as a kind of environment, an ecosystem of information and associations. He shows how in the history of good ideas, great minds have thrived in communities of intellectuals communicating openly and interacting with people in other fields.
He argues that new ideas don’t grow merely from intelligence but from the mixing of old ideas, from recombination, chance and diverse flows of information. Johnson believes that you can best understand how ideas work by looking at them as things that evolved, rather than things that were created.
Judging from Johnson’s previous books, this is a subject he has long been preparing for. In Mind Wide Open (2004), he explored the world of cutting-edge neuroscience. The Ghost Map (2006) and The Invention of Air (2008) are both case studies in this history of ideas, liberally mixing biography and popular science. In Where Good Ideas Come From, Johnson continues to employ his trademark interdisciplinary approach. Unlike any of his previous books, however, this one is as much a practical guide as it is a work of popular science or history.
METRO: Throughout the book, you advocate getting rid of barriers that block the flow of information that ideas thrive on. What are the really common barriers that we tend to put up?
STEVEN JOHNSON: Well, the biggest kind of macro-cliché that I’m trying to tackle is this idea that innovation is encouraged the more you protect ideas, the more you build walls around them. Now, sometimes that means having incredibly secretive R&D labs; sometimes that means wrapping those ideas in intellectual property law, and things like that.
And all of that is fueled by this idea that economic incentive is what drives innovation, and if people have their ideas fully protected so that they can capitalize on them, when they put them into the market there will be more good ideas out there, because people will be incentivized to come up with good ideas. And there is no doubt that this is true, on some level.
The problem is that it ignores this other crucial history about where good ideas come from, which is that they come from unlikely collisions, remixes and new configurations of older ideas that people have had. So while you can encourage people to come up with innovations by protecting them, you lose a lot by doing that. When you have an entirely closed R&D lab that no one outside your organization can see, you will miss out on interesting ideas from your competitors, from your colleagues outside the organization, from your customers and so on.
It’s not that I’m saying do away altogether with intellectual property laws, it’s simply that I’m saying we need to respect that connective power, and also recognize that the open systems, like the university system and other things that share some properties with open-source—how important those systems have been to the history of good ideas.
How does Twitter’s strategy of opening itself up as platform for others to innovate on top of fit into your thesis?
The search functionality on Twitter is programmed by a totally different company, Surmise, which was later acquired by Twitter, but it was done entirely separately. And search may ultimately be the single most important feature for Twitter, in terms of its revenue model. That’s going to be the key thing for how it sells ads. So the fact that an essential feature of your service was actually created entirely by people who you weren’t talking to at all, and who you had no commercial relationship with … that’s a pretty interesting model.
You seem to have a lot of optimism for the possibilities of the web and what it can do for ideas.
Yeah. I mean, I’m just kind of tuned to be a little bit optimistic about things. That’s just the way I tend to write. You know, there’s that book, The Shallows, that came out earlier this year, that Nick Carr wrote, about how Google is making us stupid, and all this kind of stuff.
I take that concern about the distractions of the web, and the information overload of the web and social networks—I take that all very seriously, and I engage quite a bit with that [notion] in the book. I actually selected [Carr’s essay “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” from The Atlantic] for an anthology of the best technology writing that I edited, because I thought that it was smart.
It’s just that my feeling is, if you look at all the different forces that have been unleashed with the web, it is no doubt true that we are more distracted than we were 20 or 30 years ago, and I certainly feel it in my own mind. It is harder to read a book in linear fashion, for me, than it was 15 or 20 years ago, and that is a loss.
That is a negative, that I’m slightly more distracted than I was 20 years ago. On the other hand, it seems to me, the benefits that one gets from this connected environment, just simply the speed with which you can follow a hunch, track down a new trail of associations—writing this book, I swear, would have taken me five years longer, because it’s so multidisciplinary—just going and finding out about all these different fields and tracking down these stories without things like Google Books and now with the Kindle and even with Wikipedia, all those tools make it so much easier to engage intellectually with the world. And so I happily take that trade-off.
An idea that I always find really interesting, which you’ve finally given me a word for, is ‘exaptation,’ meaning the repurposing of an idea for an entirely different use.
It’s kind of an awkward word, but it’s really useful.
Definitely. Do you have a favorite example of exaptation?
Well, I do like the Gutenberg story that I tell in the book. I think that it’s cool, because we do think of him as being such an individualist, but he borrowed something of this much older technology for winemaking, in the form of the screw-press, and ported it over to make the printing press. And I personally like the deep historical connection between drinking wine and reading books. And that’s one of my favorite things to do.
Kepler’s, Menlo Park