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Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation Hardcover – October 5, 2010
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From Publishers Weekly
Johnson--writer, Web guru, and bestselling author of Everything Bad Is Good for You--delivers a sweeping look at innovation spanning nearly the whole of human history. What sparks our great ideas? Johnson breaks down the cultural, biological, and environmental fuel into seven broad "patterns," each packed with diverse, at times almost disjointed anecdotes that Johnson synthesizes into a recipe for success. A section on "slow hunches" captivates, taking readers from the FBI's work on 9/11 to Google's development of Google News. A section on error takes us through a litany of accidental innovations, including the one that eventually led to the invention of the computer. "Being right keeps you in place," Johnson reminds us. "eing wrong forces us to explore." It's eye-opening stuff--although it does require an investment from the reader. But as fans of the author's previous work know, an investment in Johnson pays off, and those who stick with the author as he meanders through an occasional intellectual digression will come away enlightened and entertained, and with something perhaps even more useful--how to recognize the conditions that could spark their own creativity and innovation. Another mind-opening work from the author of Mind Wide Open. (Oct.) (c)
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The figure of the lone genius may captivate us, but we intuit that such geniuses’ creations don’t materialize in a vacuum. Johnson supported the intuition in his biography of eighteenth-century scientist Joseph Priestly (The Invention of Air, 2009) and here explores it from different angles using sets of anecdotes from science and art that underscore some social or informational interaction by an inventor or artist. Assuring readers that he is not engaged in “intellectual tourism,” Johnson recurs to the real-world effects of individuals and organizations operating in a fertile information environment. Citing the development of the Internet and its profusion of applications such as Twitter, the author ascribes its success to “exaptation” and “stacked platforms.” By which he means that curious people used extant stuff or ideas to produce a new bricolage and did so because of their immersion in open networks. With his own lively application of stories about Darwin’s theory of atolls, the failure to thwart 9/11, and musician Miles Davis, Johnson connects with readers promoting hunches and serendipity in themselves and their organizations. --Gilbert Taylor
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This book, despite a title that sounds sort of warm and fuzzy, puts forth some interesting ideas about ideas, with quite a few meaty and entertaining anecdotes from wide ranging sources. Johnson relates the fascinating history of many interesting ideas such as the World Wide Web, GPS, YouTube, the pacemaker, the air conditioner, the triode, the theory of island formation, the printing press, the nature of neural connections, the method of transmission of cholera and many others.
Johnson's definition of ideas is not limited to human ideas. He includes good ideas by chemical and biological actors through evolution in his definition.
While this may seem unusual, it is completely consistent with Johnson's view of progress. He begins with the notion of the "adjacent possible", which is the set of possibilities enabled by taking one step beyond the current state of things. The notion is that most ideas are variants on things that already exist. It is accumulations of these variations that comprise progress. This is consistent with biologist Francois Jacob's notion of evolution as a tinkerer, rather than an engineer. Johnson notes that there are exceptions. But even in the case of of revolutionary theories, there are often preconditions which set the stage for Darwin and Wallace to both discover evolution, or Newton and Leibniz to both invent calculus.
Following from this premise, what is needed to foster ideas is an environment which continually brings together existing concepts by being both sufficiently dense and fluid to create fruitful new combinations. This is why a coral reef is a fertile ecosystem, urban environments are hotbeds of cultural progress and the Internet fosters advances of all kinds at an unprecedented rate.
A couple of interesting examples of bringing together ideas from different areas are the application of the wine press to printing books by Gutenberg, and the application of the punch card, invented for mechanical looms, to data processing.
Johnson discusses the commonplace book, a type of scrapbook used by John Locke, Francis Bacon, John Milton, Joseph Preistley, Erazmus Darwin and Charles Darwin to not only save interesting ideas from different sources, but index them so as to bring loosely connected entries together in the author's mind. Johnson has implemented his own modern day commonplace book using a software tool called DevonThink.
The latter portion of the book is a discussion of individual vs network and market driven vs "open source" in the generation of inventions. He sees a historical shift over time from the individual, market driven inventor to the the networked, open source model of invention. In this argument, his is somewhat at odds with the views of Matt Ridley, whose Rational Optimist argues persuasively that trade and the market have always been the driving force behind progress and the evolution of ideas.
His arguments are largely consistent with the thesis of Arthur's The Nature of Technology, also excellent. Arthur is somewhat more narrowly focused but also compelling in his case for incremental progress.
Johnson also a large appendix which contains a chronicle of key innovations from 1400-2000 with a paragraph on each.
The book is well written and insightful. Highly recommended.
Johnson makes a good case for why Internet search can actually enhance serendipity as well as be efficient. A wonderful illustration is Johnson's use of a DEVONthink database (p.115) for storing his many ideas and facts, which aids in his own creativity; he traces his practice back to the "commonplace" books that intellectuals used to maintain. The April 30th issue of the Economist, in its science section, explains the work of David Blei in which he uses the internet to identify concepts and trace their evolution, rather than start with pre-existing concepts.
The concept of ideas as a network is truly powerful and makes me question my own habits and brainstorming processes.
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