Where Good Ideas Come From

Where Good Ideas Come From, Steven Johnson's new and elevating book, slots with 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 specimens like The Tipping Point and Freakonomics, as well as Johnson's own handiwork, the strategically contrarian bestseller Everything Bad is Good For You.


Definition: Pattern porn is a genre of non-fiction characterized by a seductive thesis that is supported by an ingenious arrangement of scientific support—manipulatively cherry-picked, in the eyes of some critics—and lush anecdotal juxtapositions that are voyeuristically irresistible.


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


Similarly, Freakonomics beckoned by revealing the explanatory glue of incentives that linked phenomena as scattered as legalized abortion, crime, and the sociological impacts of kids' names, and that also answered the sexy question, "Why do drug dealers still live with their moms?"


Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation follows this now-familiar structure. Johnson sees himself as a Grand Explainer; here, he sets about to investigate the genesis of ideas, insights, and innovation. If there's a single focus to his mission, it's to move beyond the folklore that ideas usually emerge with unpredictable spontaneity, in a mythic flash.


Johnson is drawn to precisely the opposite position, and spends much of the book supporting it—that ideas rely on networks and environments and collisions of consciousness. The power of this thesis is that if he can show us that new ideas do emerge from a predictable set of circumstances, then we can create systems and structures that accelerate the fermentation and adaptation of 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 the sprawl, Johnson quickly establishes some fixed principles—a "series of shared properties" as he puts it—and then buttresses his framework with a dazzlingly eclectic array (and display) that integrates details immense and nano, moving easily from biology to technology to music to the sexual reproduction of fleas to the failure to identify the 9/11 terrorists to Greenwich Village to anthropology to evolutionary theory.


Johnson's shared properties serve as chapters; they have memorable monikers like "The Adjacent Possible," "Liquid Networks", "The Slow Hunch," and "Exaptation." These largely aren't his coinages; Exaptation belongs to Stephen Jay Gould, Adjacent Possible to Stuart Kauffman; but Johnson is clever enough to retrieve and promote them. They are hot hooks built for today's media world.


Like its recent ancestors, Where Good Ideas Come From is a tight choreography of ideas in motion. It's a well-plotted swirl, and Johnson's jumpy pastiche style is made for our ADD reading behaviors. Just as you're about to get bored with a technical explanation of two young physicists discovering how to track the Sputnik's course in 1957, Johnson traces the path by which that Eisenhower-era necessity led to the development of GPS, and lassoes it to Silicon Valley's "Homebrew Computing Club," Freud's salon, and 18th-century English coffeehouses. The author always knows his destination, even when the reader is lost. He delights in befuddling his passengers, navigating one historical hairpin turn after another, until finally the valley of clarity emerges.


A chapter like Exaptation shows why Johnson is a master at the erotic titillation of pattern porn. Exaptation is a term from evolutionary biology for the way an "organism develops a trait optimized for a specific use, but then the trait gets hijacked for a completely different function." But Johnson goes further and promotes exaptation 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 through his brief time as a winemaker, and later deployed the technology to make the printing press possible. Johnson notes that "[a]n important part of Gutenberg's genius… lay not in conceiving an entirely new technology from scratch, but instead borrowing a mature technology from an entirely different field and putting it to work to solve an unrelated problem."


Using the notion that discovery is "more bricolage than breakthrough," Johnson's orgy of connectivity continues. He uses exaptation to show how punch cards—created by an early 18th-century French weaver to produce complex silk patterns—led to Charles Babbage's Analytic Engine, a proto-computer. In fact, punch cards "would remain crucial to programmable computers until the 1970s," leading to the development of the vacuum tube, which in turn made possible the ENIAC—a computer that could do "the math on the physics of a hydrogen bomb."


Exaptation also explains (a) the creation of the Web—pretty much every principle in the book is validated by the Internet; (b) the jump from Edouard Dujardin's 1888 novel Les Lauriers 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 model by thinking of the way that plaster casts eventuate into sculpture.


The same phenomenon also explains why the fertile interactions in big cities lead to better ideas—the "coffeehouse model of creativity"—and accounts as well for Apple's stunning success, despite its penchant for secrecy.


The other chapters follow a similar daisy chain of inspiration. "The Adjacent Possible" limns the way that ideas emerge from neighboring possibilities, with "each innovation opening up new paths to explore." In one of his favorite linkages, Johnson points out how this applies to both natural and man-made systems, starting with the "fatty acids that self-assembled into the first membrane." From this he takes a grand jeté to Stéphane Tarnier, the 19th-century Parisian obstetrician who hatched an adjacent possible from chicken incubators, using the insight to create versions for human infants that reduced the death rate of low-weight babies from 66% to 38%.


Continuing the history of the incubator, Johnson describes a solution to the ongoing tragedy of infant mortality in the developing world. Modern incubators are complex; when they break down, struggling countries lack the technical expertise or parts to fix them. The repair manuals are written in English. Once again, the adjacent possible provides the breakthrough; an MIT professor realized that there was an ample supply of people who knew how to fix cars, and of auto parts. So Timothy Prospero created an incubator that runs on local mechanical skills and available automobile componentry.


These examples are meaningful to Johnson because they demonstrate that ideas aren't limited by available reality, but are in fact inspired by it. He writes, "Good ideas are not conjured out of thin air; they are built out of a collection of existing parts."


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



Of course, the giant platform that's driven our economy in recent decades has been the Web, made possible by its "platform stack," which Timothy Berners-Lee—one of Johnson's heroes—created. Platform innovation on the open Internet is why three guys were able to build YouTube in a matter of months, "while an army of expert committees and electronics companies took twenty years to make HD a reality."  Johnson is also radiant about Twitter and its open system that encourages fast innovation.


These pillars of ingenuity are horizontal as well as vertical, they mush and mesh. So Johnson sees the notion of "Serendipity" as something that completes a "Slow Hunch" (two different chapters) because it "opens a door in the adjacent possible" (a third chapter.) He rattles off discoveries which were conceived in the chaos of a dream state—the periodic table, the ring structure of the benzene molecule—and connects that to waking activity by analyzing the brain states of "noise" and "phase-lock." Johnson gleefully notes that the more disorganized our brains are—the noise state—the smarter we are.


The "Serendipity" chapter is also where Johnson reveals the hidden hand, the secret of his spooky ability to pull together often stunning juxtapositions from wildly different disciplines. It's an indexing software program called DEVONthink, where he stores everything—notes, blogs, quotes, transcriptions—for easy searching. He also uses it "improvisationally"—as a sparking platform.


Besides writing a brief history of imagination in Where Good Ideas Come From, Johnson is on two parallel missions of debunkery. He wants to retire the conventional wisdom that insight comes in a flash, the symbolic 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. It is more like swarm."  Johnson wants us to understand this because he believes that if we focus on creating environments that are particularly conducive to swarm cultivation—concentrations of diverse intellectual energy in cities, universities, and other institutions—what he calls, again, the "coffeehouse effect"—society will profoundly benefit.


There are other generally accepted notions Johnson happily un-accepts. He dismisses the idea that the Web mitigates serendipitous discovery; he thinks that traditional brainstorming is relatively useless; he believes errors can be the best thing that happen to us. One fascinating experiment he references shows that groups stimulated by false information were more creative than those that were fed the truth.


Johnson is also an abiding advocate for openness—open systems, platforms, protocols. He wants ideas to be unleashed so others can extend and ladder them into ever-increasing social beneficence. He passionately advocates for "open environments where ideas flow in unregulated channels." To demonstrate the value of open systems, Johnson breaks from the structure of his book in the last chapter. "The Fourth Quadrant" isn't another catchy mini-biography of innovation, it's Johnson's original research. He took 200 ideas over a 400-year period—ranging from the printing press to the pencil to photosynthesis—and broke them into four categories, based on whether they were the product of individual or collective activity, and whether they were done for profit or not.


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


This is a typically Johnsonian counter-intuitive finding. We'd expect that the geniuses of the Enlightenment—Newton, Locke, Lavoisier—worked outside of a financial incentive system. But even after the rise of industrial capitalism and patent protections in the early 18th century, Johnson finds that "… most commercial innovation… takes a collaborative form, with many individuals and firms contributing crucial tweaks and refinements…. The history books like to condense these slower, evolutionary processes into eureka moments dominated by a single inventor, but most of the key technologies that powered the Industrial Revolution were instances of what scholars call 'collective intervention.'"


Johnson believes the future of good ideas will belong to the networked innovation that takes place outside the marketplace (in that flourishing "Fourth Quadrant" of his). And he's probably right. He's also evangelical: "To my mind, the great question for our time is whether large organizations—public and private, governments and corporations alike—can better harness the innovative turbine of fourth-quadrant systems."


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


Yes, it suffers from pattern porn's inherent weaknesses: Johnson over-architects a bit, making the world too neat and tidy. And the book is stronger on the descriptive than prescriptive side. In fact, some of Johnson's recipes for innovation are a bit floppy: take a shower or long soak, go for a walk. He does provide some useful directions, though, for achieving some of his idea-readiness states, even if they are not particularly practical. Most of us—other than the unfortunately unemployed, or the fortunately-employed academic—don't have the ability to "carve out dedicated periods where you read a large and varied collection of books and essays in a condensed amount of time," even if it would help identify the adjacent possible.


There is some advice to business—relayed in the context of the FBI's failure to catch the 9/l1 terrorists because the hunch of an Arizona-based field agent wasn't sufficiently part of a liquid network—that is useful. Johnson writes: "The secret to organizational inspiration is to build information networks that allow hunches to persist and disperse and recombine." The subject of this book could not be timelier, given that everyone is wondering where the next wave of innovation will emerge from, how the economy can find its mojo and create jobs for the 15 million unemployed. Such road-opening ideas can't be another Snuggli.


Given the moment's urgency, it is likely Where Good Ideas Come From will be a genre-crossing book that ends up being embraced by the business community. Expect PowerPoint slides to be headlined "Finding The Adjacent Possible in the Female Energy Drink Category." Yet while businesses are desperate for innovation, in my experience it isn't a shortage of ideas that's the problem, it's innovation-killing cultures. That's because ideas are fragile at birth, with shallow respiration, like the premature infants in Stéphane Tarnier's incubator. A new idea for something that would keep a good idea from dying prematurely—now that would be a fit subject for the sequel I hope Steven Johnson will come to write: How to Keep A Good Idea Alive.

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