Book Review: Where Good Ideas Come From by Steven Johnson

Smiling DoorThis is a book that’s been mentioned in passing a number of times in this blog, as my copy has been picked up and read, abandoned for more pressing tasks, returned to and had more pages turned over and more scribbles added. Its author might be proud of this: the idea that good things happen not as bolts of lightning or sudden epiphanies in a bath tub but rather when things are mulled over and ruminated on over a period of time is one of the central themes of a thought-provoking book. It’s also testament to a good read: many are the books that have been put aside (even lightly so, in Dorothy Parker’s immortal words) never to be picked up again. Indeed, it’s proof of its own point in a literal sense too: acknowledged by its author as the conclusion of a series of books that include The Ghost Map: A Street, an Epidemic and the Hidden Power of Urban Networks (ok, but a plod) and The Invention of Air: An experiment, a journey, a new country and the amazing force of scientific discovery (sorry, didn’t finish it), it is the best book of the three, having benefited from its author having more time to think through and explore his own thoughts. Given its centrality to market-based economies, innovation is an important theme: rather like Matthew Syed’s Bounce (read our review), Johnson’s task is partly to debunk what he sees as a myth – in this case, that innovation is something that comes to us in a blinding flash, a dream or some kind of divine spark.

Like Syed (and using what is now the accepted formula for the ‘big think’ read), Johnson amasses a wide range of examples to illustrate his arguments and to conclude that there are seven elements that are the true underpinnings of innovation, which include: the adjacent possible (essentially one thing leads to another, but recognising the importance of the pre-existing thing as crucial to the leading); allowing hunches time to evolve; recognising, accommodating and exploring error; serendipity; borrowing ideas from other disciplines (which Johnson refers to using the language of evolutionary biologists as exaptation), and liquid networks (in a way, creativity’s version of ‘freedom of assembly’). A final chapter gets a little lost in socio-economic and political grouping of innovations since 1400, and makes it point less clearly than preceding chapters, but is a good attempt by the author to rationalise his loose blueprint for not so much attempting to co-erce creativity and innovation, but identifying and creating the conditions that best allow it to flourish.

Necessity may traditionally be thought of as the mother of invention, but invention’s differences from its siblings – pragmatism, grinning and bearing it, and resentment – should give a clue: invention thrives best in situations where (to mangle a metaphor about memes and genes from Richard Dawkins) the father is difficult to reliably determine. Think of ideas as being like teenagers: they have an urge to ‘get about a bit’, and they often benefit from a gap year. They’re also more likely to be mongrels than pedigrees.

It’s only fair to point out that there is what some will see as an agenda at play: committed to the power (and the value and virtue) of networks generally, and open networks even more so, Johnson is a ‘Renaissance Man’ figure with many web-based enterprises behind him. If you are of a disposition to worry that Google is taking over the world, this is a book that may either annoy you or perhaps change your opinion.

As someone who’s used email since 1982 and the web since 1991, I felt Johnson overcooked his argument slightly in places. I’m not convinced that the ‘serendipity’ that search engines can deliver is quite the same as the serendipity of browsing in a good book shop – and the argument that good bookshops are disappearing because of Amazon seems to be missing from Johnson’s overview too, even if the ‘you might be interested in’ links on Amazon have led to books and music I doubt I would otherwise have discovered. The comparison of the historic tradition of the ‘commonplace book’ – a personal assemblage of jottings from inspiring sources, interspersed with personal commentary – with his own use of DEVONthink software (which uses AI to help draw connections in disparate sources) also struck me as dissembling to some degree. The software may well be inspiring either by design or by luck (or, more correctly, by triggering fresh thinking of his own), but the most fruitful suggestions I’ve followed across a string of websites often come from the deliberate links left by others. Vannevar Bush – whose thinking was one of the inspirations for the World Wide Web – is a strange absence in Johnson’s book, despite ticking some of his boxes (eg interconnected thinking, inspired by values as much as the potential for profit) and having been influential on Tim Berners-Lee, who stands on a deserved metaphorical pedestal on several pages. (For more on Bush, read our earlier profile.) While the links in Bush’s memex were individual to the machine user, the value I derive from much of the web comes from vetting and selective pursuing the direct suggestions of others, not the ones that software has deduced or inferred.

The other fair point is that this is not a ‘how to’ book – although I could easily be persuaded that the most thought-provoking and inspiring books rarely are. And this is a line of potential attack the author responded to directly in interview:

“I didn’t want it to be a straight sort of business, self-help, management-type book—which I have no interest in writing,” he says. “I did want it to have a feeling where you read it and think, ‘Oh yeah, I could use that.’ When you succeed in writing an idea-book, it becomes this platform that other people get to build on, or take and put to new uses.”

That said, the reader who is in for the slighter longer haul is likely to be rewarded – or at least prodded – by persisting with the book. Having worked as a writer, musician, magazine editor, copywriter, artist and video producer, the descriptions of productive, creative environments ring true from personal experience. The most creative work – and the greatest productivity – tends to occur in loosely defined and loosely managed environments where diverse groups of people interested in each other’s contributions can associate and bounce ideas off each other freely. I’m thinking of two particular examples:

  • A magazine run as an unpaid co-operative to produce an arts and listing magazine in a new town devoid of any such publication (or source of information). A University campus equipped with a desktop publishing lab (this was the mid-1980s) provided a platform, in Johnson’s sense: the means existed, even if the end hadn’t been part of the rationale for building it. The diverse group existed – a charity fund-raiser who could sell advertising, a production manager who could manage print buying, devotees of art, music, film and community life who would eagerly compile listings, and editors to write features and pull the whole together. We actually beat Apple – whose software and machines we were using gratis – to producing the world’s first totally desktop published magazine and (despite not meaning to) ran at a profit. Accidents will happen.
  • A rehearsal-space-cum-studio in a disused mill in Leicester, where a diverse group of people formed numerous bands (the city’s ethnic mix colliding Indian, North African and Western traditions into collaborations that included flamenco-jazz and Moroccan rap), produced posters, flyers and leaflets for an enormous range of events, and ran informal workshops to teach and enthuse others. What attracted everyone there to begin with was a lack of rules and a lack of cost: it was a dank, chilly space, but it was very cheap and everyone was interested in what everyone else was doing and encouraged people to share ideas. As Johnson says in the book, innovation thrives in discarded places.

Later in the book, he holds up Williamsburg in New York as the archetypal bohemian, creative hothouse neighbourhood. Yet I remember a recent Guardian article mourning its decline, as the chain stores move in, the rents rise, and the people that made the area’s “name” are forced to move on. Guy Debord would have fulminated about recuperation; latter-day Naomi Kleins might curse about corporatisation, but as Joshua Freeman, a professor of New York history at the City University of New York, comments in the piece:

Cities and neighbourhoods change all the time. You can’t freeze them. You don’t want to create a sort of museum.”

Noting to myself that the comparison itself is a sort of example of the kind of thinking Johnson might admire, I also caught myself thinking about Francis Spufford’s recent, fascinating and extra-ordinary book, Red Plenty, a fictional account of 50s/60s Russia based on factual accounts, in which he describes life in Akademgorodok, a multi-disciplinary academic facility created to explore the role of sciences in producing the perfectly managed economy. The parent system may ultimately have failed – having strangled its odd offspring first – but it was a place of unique freedoms and cross-disciplinary fertilisation of ideas within an otherwise stifling society.

There may be no secret recipe for innovation – in a sense, the recipe has to create itself – but there are certainly ways of making the magic chewing gum lose its flavour. Creating melting pots that have only one ingredient to melt, for example, achieve little. Even with multiple ingredients, they have to be prepared to actually melt: a miscellany is not the same as an amalgam. Neither regulation (and especially intellectual property protection, which is designed to stop ideas travelling) nor corporate management and cost-control is especially conducive to innovation: environments such as the assembled boffins of Bletchley Park in the 1940s, the cafes of Europe’s cities in the late 19th century, and university campuses are more likely places for ideas to not just circulate, but to percolate, brew and ferment.

Johnson’s parting advice reads as follows:

Go for a walk, cultivate hunches; write everything down, but keep your folders messy; embrace serendipity; make generative mistakes; take on multiple hobbies; frequent coffeehouses and other liquid networks; follow the links; let others build on your ideas; borrow, recycle, reinvent.”

If that sounds more like a campus picnic or a festival, perhaps that’s the challenge for tomorrow’s organisation: to be more like those things, and less like an office? Your organisations’ songbirds might evolve more new melodies if their cages are left open, and the song sheets are merely suggestions rather than rigid scripts. And if the golden goose doesn’t respond to battery farming, a free range option might be the way to keep it laying.

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