Thomas Edison with one of his best ideas - an invention that came to signify inspiration itself: the lightbulb. In today's Boston Globe I review the new Steven Johnson book, WHERE GOOD IDEAS COME FROM: The natural history of innovation (Riverside: 2010). The one point I did not have space to make in my review was the unsung debt owed by Johnson (and many others) to the great James Burke, best known for his BBC television series, CONNECTIONS. Johnson's new book is in many ways a streamlined, sexier book version of CONNECTIONS, a show which traced the incredible paths of various scientific innovations from ancient times to the present. I can't recommend it highly enough.
My review of Johnson's book can be found on the Boston Globe site or, for your convenience, below.
MOTHERS OF INVENTION Since there’s no copyright on book titles, Steven Johnson could have called his new book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions even though Thomas Kuhn used it in 1962. Instead, he went with Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation. Although indebted to Kuhn, Johnson is interested in much more than just scientific revolutions. This book covers everything from the history of reading to the influence of Brian Eno on hip hop producer Hank Schocklee. But mostly it’s about Charles Darwin. Where Good Ideas Come From begins and ends with Darwin, the intellectual hero of our day (and yesterday and presumably tomorrow), the genius whose insights into everything from the formation of tropical atolls to the process of evolution underlie so much of modern life. Darwin is the perfect foil for Johnson, both for his creative ideas as well as his creative habits. If that sounds confusing, consider how Johnson describes his book “This is a book about the space of innovation… If we want to understand where good ideas come from, we have to put them in context. Darwin’s world-changing idea unfolded inside his brain, but think of all the environments he needed to piece it together: a ship, an archipelago, a notebook, a library, a coral reef. Our thought shapes the spaces we inhabit, and our spaces return the favor.”  “The space of innovation” is a pretty abstract concept. Johnson knows it and equips himself with an entire ordnance depot full of examples in order to explain. He’s not interested in merely recounting the well-known tale of how seventeenth-century coffeehouses fueled the European Enlightenment; no, this is a rapid-fire tour of “spaces” large, small, mental, physical, and otherwise -- we’re talking reefs, webs, brains, networks, platforms, and quadrants. Johnson steps back now and again to remind us of the bigger picture. He’s distilled seven patterns or properties and assigned a chapter to each: The Adjacent Possible; Liquid Networks; The Slow Hunch; Serendipity; Error; Exaptation, and Platforms. “The more we embrace these patterns,”Johnson argues, “the better we will be at tapping our extraordinary capacity for innovative thinking.” [15-16] Johnson has been interested in these ideas for a long time – nearly every book he’s written addresses an aspect of human innovation or the properties of intellectual networks, from his very first book, Interface Culture: How New Technology Transforms the Way We Create and Communicate (1997) to The Invention of Air: A Story of Science, Faith, Revolution, and the Birth of America (2008), and it’s clear that his research on the subject runs very deep. Where Good Ideas Come From may be the ultimate distillation of all his thinking on these issues and at times that’s the book’s challenge: it can read less like a book and more like a series of interesting concepts. Take the first five paragraphs of the Exaptation chapter, for example, in which Johnson leaps from Pliny the Elder and the invention of the screw press (for making wine) to fifteenth-century Rhineland and the bubonic plague to a first-century C.E. Chinese blacksmith named Pi Sheng (the inventor of movable type) and finally Johannes Gutenberg, who “took a machine designed to get people drunk [the Greco-Roman screw press], and turned it into an engine for mass communication.”  One admires the intellectual athleticism of Johnson’s maneuvers here, yet one can’t help wishing for a bit more time with each of these fascinating characters and their inventions. Distillation is a fine thing, but it’s also nice to sit back and slowly enjoy a tumbler of whiskey. Johnson achieves a more pleasing balance of story and factoid in the chapter entitled The Slow Hunch. Here, he constructs a dramatic and chilling set piece about the “Phoenix Memo,” the unheeded July 2001 warning from an Arizona FBI field agent named Ken Williams who tried to alert the U.S. government to the presence of suspicious foreign students enrolled in American flight schools. Johnson threads the tale of the Phoenix Memo throughout the chapter, visiting along the way with (naturally) Charles Darwin’s journals, John Locke’s indexing system, a Victorian England how-to book entitled Enquire Within Upon Everything, Tim Berners-Lee’s invention of the World Wide Web, and the corporate environment of Google. Although packed with wide-ranging details, the narrative shadow of the doomed Phoenix Memo is always present, adding weight and a sense of foreboding to Johnson’s larger argument about the power of the “slow hunch.” It’s one of his most important ideas: that great innovations do not usually appear in a flash of inspiration but instead they accrete “by stealth, in small steps. They fade into view.”  By the end of the chapter, I was convinced. Steven Johnson must occasionally wonder why he’s not Malcolm Gladwell; that is, why his bestselling books haven’t become zeitgeisty pop blockbusters in the manner of Gladwell’s. Surely “The Adjacent Possible” is just as catchy a concept as “The Tipping Point”… then again, maybe not. While Johnson and Gladwell write about many of the same issues (they’re equally obsessed, for instance, with “the strength of weak ties”) and bring their ideas to life through the use of capsule biographies, Gladwell lingers on the unexpectedly interesting quirks of a high school basketball coach or a forgotten nineteenth-century scientist (and yes, sometimes he lingers too long, but that’s another review). Johnson, meanwhile, speeds through the connections between the coach, the scientist, and fifteen other seemingly disparate people across time to make his point about creativity, about communication, about idea-making. Johnson’s concepts are strong and his explanations are credible. But after a while one tires of explanation. Ultimately, good ideas come from people. Johnson is most convincing when he slows down to let us spend time with them.