It takes a bit of hubris to write a history of good ideas. Good ideas are those which separate themselves above those that come before, so to attempt to provide insight into a wide swath of those ideas means you must fancy yourself fairly insightful. That generally yields books like Harold Bloom’s Genius: A Mosaic of One Hundred Exemplary Minds, which crafts a complicated kabbalistic schema to organize brief biographies of one hundred great minds from the history of literature. The results read like a well-crafted reference book that leaves the reader with a sense of awe for these authors. What we don’t get is much insight into where these good ideas came from, which I should add Bloom never really promises. He’s just fine with us being in awe.
The difficulty inherent in choosing to write about good ideas is partly what makes Steven Johnson’s Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation such a darn clever book. Instead of focusing on the good ideas themselves, which out of context leave us with a sense of awe, Johnson focuses on the places where good ideas come from, finds patterns in the conditions that foster creativity, and suggests ways we can create those spaces in our own creative endeavors. The results are both insightful, inspiring, and extraordinarily useful for anyone interested in coming up with good ideas themselves.
If you read just a few of the other posts on this blog, you’ll see why the theory that environment plays a large role in the creation of good ideas is so attractive. The premise for the theory is that good ideas don’t tend to spread out randomly across the centuries, as they would if created by innate geniuses. Instead, good ideas bunch together around certain periods of time and places. This clustering suggests that those ideas depend as much on the when and where of their creation rather than the who. That lends credence to the central idea of my project here; becoming a good writer is not written in genetic code and is therefore attainable by most with right practice and nurturing. And there’s a lot we can learn from Johnson about what that right practice and nurturing looks like.
Throughout his book, Johnson presents anecdotes about some of the most influential inventions in history: Darwin’s natural selection, Guttenberg’s printing press, Berners-Lee’s world wide web, etc. However, rather than focusing on the eureka moment like many histories of inventions tend to do, Johnson looks at the messy parts of the creation process, those times where it seems these inventors are either remarkably stupid to not see the connections that are right there in front of them or remarkably lucky to have a break fall into their lap. The goal is not to present an argument that these inventors are not geniuses, but rather to show how much the environment around them plays a role into helping them make the kinds of connections between ideas that lead to world-changing inventions.
Of these stories, I think that Gutenberg’s may be my favorite. Most people think that Gutenberg’s printing press freed the world from the need to have books copied by hand, changing the face of education, law, religion, and nearly any other cultural field that depends on print culture. That’s not the case. Movable type had been around in Gutenberg’s time for at least four hundred years, but it was inefficient due to the laborious process of imprinting the letters onto the page by hand. Not even the press itself was original. For that, he adapted a screw press that vintners in the Rhineland used to mass produce wine in the region. Gutenberg’s real contribution was marrying the two technologies together and making the process more efficient. That marriage, aided with a few tweaks in the workings of the metal type (Gutenberg was a trained metallurgist) and to the workings of the press itself, created the invention that changed the course of history.
I love that story because of how normal it all seems, something any tinkerer might have come up with. Johnson shares Gutenberg’s plans prior to working on the press: a scheme to sell mirrors charmed with healing powers to pilgrims that failed when the bubonic plague drastically reduced the number of pilgrims. While I’m sure the story is simplified for the book, it does make one think about the number of other geniuses out there who we’ve elevated into demigods. How many of them might have simply been snake oil salesmen if the Black Death hadn’t killed off all their customers?
The meat of the book comes in Johnson’s maps for seven patterns that he finds reoccur in the history of good ideas. Patterns is Johnson’s word, and it’s used only for a lack of a better one. Each pattern is really more of a concept or a paradigm. For example, the first pattern, the adjacent possible, describes the notion that most innovations occur in a conceptual zone that is very close to the one we occupy now. Gutenberg wasn’t some visionary who saw that writing by hand was inefficient, he saw what was possible by combining what was already there. If he was truly a visionary that saw an invention several steps ahead of the adjacent possible, it’s likely that he’d have failed to make the impact he did because no one else would have seen the need.
The rest of the patterns, the slow hunch, serendipity, liquid networks, exaptation, platforms, and error, are similar conceptual frameworks distilled into a one or two word phrase. That prevents me from going too deep with an explanation of each item, but essentially they all work off of one another. Serendipity and error for example seem to be two opposite results for the same chance occurrence; the lesson contained within each is that many inventions come out of attempts to create something else. Exaptation and platforms have to do with the concept of building on top of other inventions. Finally, the slow hunch, liquid networks, and adjacent possible all refer to the process of creativity and how it is aided by being connected to larger networks of diverse ideas. If there’s any nugget that you can take from all this, it’s a lesson in the importance of being connected to other thinkers who might help spark the connections you need to advance your own ideas (or whose ideas you might help spark.)
Johnson’s conclusion seems at first to be a bit disconnected from his descriptions of the patterns. In the final section, rather than drawing conclusions from anecdotes of great ideas, he spends more time grouping ideas together, graphing them within four separate quadrants based upon whether their creation was individual or networked (i.e. done in groups) and whether they were created to capitalize directly on the information (market) or to be open source and accessible to all (non-market.) All of his patterns from previous chapters, however, are contained within one of these spheres, and the upshot of this approach is that it lets Johnson see how invention has changed over time. What he finds is that innovation has increasingly moved towards the fourth quadrant, where he locates ideas that come from non-market/networked creation. The networked part is not surprising; many of the ideas discussed in the book depend upon access to others’ ideas. The non-market side of this is surprising, and I admit that it probably raises a few eyebrows and potentially suspicions that he has an anti-capitalist agenda. Johnson doesn’t really go towards economic implications as much as he preaches the value of open ideas so that others may build upon them.
Johnson’s book should get writers’ pondering the implications of his ideas in their own work. The biggest takeaway I find here is the importance of continuing to read, write, and network even when the use of such activities might not be transparent. The idea that many great ideas require an incubation period where they exist in a half-formed state, sometimes for years or even decades, suggests the importance of patience. There is a lot of wisdom in Johnson’s idea that keeping and attempting to index a commonplace book for storing those ideas and half thoughts is important to anyone who seeks to create. Johnson’s work also suggests that those writers who expect writing and research to be a linear process will be sorely disappointed, which I can attest is the case. In researching especially, it is important to read around within a topic and to follow tangential paths to discover ideas that provide context and meaning for otherwise bland thesis statements.
More than anything, I think readers should walk away with a new view of genius, one that is less awe-inspiring and just plain inspiring. In education, or at least American education), we base the value and worth of our ideas on the assessment we can give them. It can be too easy to internalize those assessments and to compare them to the writers we see around us. When we do that with a sense of awe, it’s hard to imagine we’ll ever be successful. However, we need to recognize for ourselves that those assessments are of the product and not the potential of those ideas and they are contingent upon our own adjacent possible. Succeeding in creating something new is a long process, and it’s good to have the mindset that we’re making tiny bits of progress the more practice we put in. Otherwise, we’re liable to end up leaving off ideas before they finally come to fruition and becoming mirror salesmen instead.
Note: I wrote about talks that Johnson has done in the past in the context of brainstorming. That post can be found here.