Tuesday, May 2, 2017

Where Good Ideas Come From by Steven Johnson

Source of book: Borrowed from the library

Yet another book I picked up on a whim from a library display. Some people play the lottery, I grab books…

Actually, I read another Steven Johnson book not too long ago, The Ghost Map, about the cholera outbreak in London that led to the definitive connection between the disease and water contaminated by feces. 

In this book, Johnson tackles the widely held belief that innovation is primarily the result of solitary geniuses thinking up stuff. His contention is that, rather, innovation mostly takes place in environments that are more collaborative than competitive, and require specific conditions to happen. In order to come to this conclusion, Johnson uses what he calls the “long zoom.” In other words, you can’t look closely at a particular idea to understand innovation any more than you can look at the DNA of an organism to determine how it adapted. You have to look at a long time period - the scope of human history - and a broad section of human invention in order to understand how it came to be.

Specifically, with the longer view, Johnson concludes that competition is overrated as the inciting force for invention. Rather, it is the free flow of ideas, not the profit motive, which fuels invention. (As he later points out, overly protective patent law tends to lead, not to innovation, but to rent-seeking and patent trolls. Hmm, I think he may be onto something there…)

Johnson devotes a chapter to each of seven factors that he believes contribute to the flourishing of ideas - but it is perhaps the framing chapters which tie it all together. The first begins with Charles Darwin and his observations of the coral reef. Why was it, after all, that a relatively nutrient poor environment could give rise to such amazing diversity of life? (About one fifth of all marine life species live in and around coral reefs!) What was it about the reef itself that gave rise to such biological innovation? Johnson takes Darwin’s query and expands it to human environments: what “ecosystems” tend to give rise to innovative ideas? How is knowledge expanded? With this start, Johnson continues his evolutionary metaphor throughout the book.

In what seems in retrospect to be an obvious observation, Johnson notes that human innovation exploded soon after the first cities came into being. Previously, small bands of humans would only rarely come into contact, and often with violent, rather than collaborative results. With cities, more and more connections could be made, and ideas spread. The wheel didn’t have to be reinvented each time.

The first of his factors is what he calls the “adjacent possible.” The idea is that you cannot simply invent stuff out of nowhere. Da Vinci, as brilliant as he was, could not build a functional airplane because the technology did not exist. (Metallurgy, combustion engines, and many more.) Progress can only happen on the foundation of what has come before. This is why I cannot simply build a pencil, even though I am pretty familiar with how they are made. I know some of  what needs to be known, but by no means all. I must rely on the knowledge and discoveries of others.

I may now date myself on this a bit. My introduction to this idea came through a video game from my youth. I am pretty sure I played Civilization, not the more mainstream Age of Empires. Regardless of which one it was, I remember most the “technology tree.”  You couldn’t just research, say, ocean navigation. You had to first research the elementary technologies which made it possible. You could only build your empire through the adjacent possible - going one step at a time into new areas of knowledge.

On a related note to this is the idea of “multiple inventions.” One of the things which really stands out when reading the history of scientific ideas is how often two or more people “discovered” the same idea, at the same time, independently of each other. (An easy example is Leibniz and Newton developing Calculus at the same time, independently.) This happens, because the foundational knowledge is in place - and ideas are widely disseminated. At any point in history, only some doors are available to be opened - and they then lead to other doors. The course of progress isn’t just about geniuses, but about the foundations. This takes nothing away from geniuses. They remain important parts of the story. But we too often think in terms of “finding the next genius who will [cure cancer][discover cold fusion][fill in the blank]” when what we really need is the hard work of expanding the adjacent possible.

The next prerequisite is the “liquid network,” where ideas flow freely. Whether the cafe culture of the fin de cecile or the corporate environments of Google and other tech powerhouses, it is important that ideas meet. And not just ideas related to the obvious, but ones that cross boundaries of disciplines.

Third is the “slow hunch,” the idea that takes years - or decades - to form. Darwin is a key example here, where he slowly comes to his conclusions after (seemingly) being so very close for years. Particularly interesting in this case is the discussion of the way the intelligence agencies failed to connect slow hunches to prevent the 9/11 attacks. One of the conclusions of the report, as most of us recall, is that the culture of the CIA and FBI was such to prevent, rather than encourage sharing of hunches.

“Serendipity” is the fourth factor, and it is hard to exactly define what Johnson means. In essence, it is the idea of how dreams work (reprocessing ideas from the day) and the idea that it is the seemingly random way our brains draw together seemingly unrelated ideas into a new idea. I am doing a terrible idea of describing it. Johnson does it much better.

One of the best passages in this chapter is the discussion of the effect of the internet. I love that Johnson doesn’t fall into the common habit of assuming the old is better than the new, but actually examines how the internet has in fact increased connections - and increased knowledge. Sure, there are those who live in their bubbles, but they probably would have anyway. And they would have been much less likely to stumble upon competing ideas. In my own personal experience (and as someone who read the encyclopedia for fun), I have found that following “rabbit trails” has led me to so much more useful information than simply doing a paper research at the library. But then, I am the sort that has always done that sort of thing - the internet has just made it easier.

“Error” is the fifth factor. Namely, the understanding that errors are absolutely necessary to progress. Nobody guesses correctly all the time, and a tolerance of incorrect solutions leads to the freedom to try stuff, to think outside of the current paradigm.

The sixth factor is something that Johnson calls “Exaptation,” which is a word he borrows from Stephen Jay Gould and Elisabeth Vrba. It means borrowing something and adapting it into a totally new use. Johnson uses both evolutionary examples and Gutenberg’s appropriation of the winepress to use with moveable type. The technology already existed - he just found a brilliant new use for it. This circles back to the idea of liquid networks as well. Had Gutenberg not known of winepresses from his own history, he may not have been able to find the elegant solution.

The final factor is “platforms,” systems which enable all of the above. Here, the coral reef comes back as the central metaphor, which is then expanded the specific kind of networks and systems which promote all of the above. It is here where it really comes together. Johnson is able to show just how many of the major developments - particularly in the last 150 years - have arisen in these specific environments. Not the solitary genius, but teams working under favorable conditions, solving problems, building on each other’s work.

This leads into the final chapter, which is about what Johnson calls the “Fourth Quadrant.” This is a four-box grid, divided into market (profit) or non-market, and into individual and network. He then sorts major inventions, discoveries, and ideas into these boxes, and shows just how many come from the fourth quadrant: non-market, networked developments. Again, this becomes more apparent when looking at the recent past. This quadrant has been an immensely fertile ground for discovery. (On a related note, during past ages of discovery, it has been startling how many major developments fell into the third quadrant: non-market individuals. And how few truly came from the market individual first quadrant.)

Johnson is no enemy to the free market, by the way. Rather, he is a proponent of recognizing that the profit motive and individual competition are not the sole - nor the historically predominant - source of innovation. Collaboration turns out to be more important that competition - and the two can and should work together. Likewise, humans have always built on the foundation of the knowledge of the past. We do not create in a vacuum, but rather in the environments we are in. It is thus vital to cultivate the environments that lead to innovation and discovery - and these require infrastructure: education, availability of knowledge, freedom from the need to immediately profit, and the recognition that making money is not the same as the ultimate good.

One final thing: there is an extended appendix at the end, tracing major developments in science and technology from the late 1400s on. This is fascinating in and of itself, but I specifically noted the discovery of pulsars. These were first observed and discovered by Jocelyn Bell Burnell.

She did not win the Nobel Prize for her discovery.

Rather, it was the man who was her supervisor, Antony Hewish, who got credit for her work.

Fortunately, history has been kinder to her. The reason I bring this up is that the preferred narrative of the lonely genius, rising above the common man, feeds into this problem. We idolize the (usually white and male) person who we give credit for the discovery, overlooking those who did the hard labor - and often the brilliant thought as well. Burnell, thankfully, received credit in retrospect - but others languish in obscurity. Probably, we have no idea how many unsung heroes will never be known, because they didn’t fit the narrative. Johnson’s book is in part an attempt to rectify that, to acknowledge that success is never a simple story of a great man. We all stand on the shoulders of giants, as Newton put it. Progress depends not on better identifying and rewarding the “geniuses,” but in creating and sustaining the infrastructure where progress and innovation can thrive. 

 If anyone knows where to find a better resolution version of this graphic, e-mail or comment. I love this!


I will refrain from an extended riff on current politics in this regard. Suffice it to say that there is new proof that identifying the next narcissist does not appear to be an effective way of solving problems. I suspect that hostility toward science and scientists and support of research is likely to end well either. 


Johnson has some interesting TED talks on his books, if you are interested in a quick introduction.

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