Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History Of Innovation, by Steven Johnson
The most important clue to discovering the approach and perspective in this book is the phrase “natural history.” The fact that the author discusses innovation while conflating technological advancements with scientific (or, in the case of evolution, pseudoscientific) “discoveries” is another aspect of this book that should draw concern from the reader. The author clearly writes this book with agendas. Those agendas are transparently obvious, and ought to be so to those who read this book. In particular, the author has a strong social bias when it comes to innovation that emphasizes (where it does not exaggerate) the social element of innovation as opposed to the importance of the individual innovator, which corresponds to an agenda about supporting social conditions that would encourage future innovations that are highly politically contentious. This book is a reminder, if any reminder was necessary, that people do not write about subjects out of truth, but out of biased and blinkered perspectives that influence the framing of what is being discussed. That this is true of readers (myself included) is something I feel it necessary to note even though it ought to be obvious as well.
This book of 250 to 300 pages or so is divided into seven chapters with various conclusions and appendices. The introduction of the book allows the author to reflect on the reef, the city, and the web as being similar models of collaboration where the network and proximity of various innovative and creative people allows for an environment that supports innovation. After that the author moves to the issue of the adjacent possible, which posits that problems that can be solved or innovations that will catch on must be close enough to what is already done to be recognized as worthwhile by others (1). After that the author discusses liquid networks that open up the amount of people in a given place and time that can come up with solutions to widespread problems (2). The author then discusses slow hunches, thinking that develops over time and that leads to insight (3). The author spends a good deal of time talking about the importance of serendipity (4) and error (5) when it comes to innovation, and then examines the way that innovations can be transferred from one domain to another, a process he calls exaptation (6), before he looks at the issue of platforms (7). Finally, after acknowledgments, the author includes a lengthy chronology of supposed innovations, which conflate inventions and discoveries, and comments about them.
Ultimately, the reader of this book is left in a great deal of confusion about where good ideas come from, because the author is more interested in pursuing an agenda than he is in clarifying the way that individual minds in a larger social context create solutions to problems that achieve popular support and that in turn become the conventions that later creators and innovators disrupt and reject. The author’s desire to write a natural history leads him to adopt a certain evolutionary framework that lacks a great deal of interest in what is done by individual creators but which seeks to focus a great deal of attention on social networks that are hostile to hierarchical and cultural elites. The fact that the author notes (but offers no solution) to the problem of criminal gangs and creative and innovative subcultures both thriving in the atmosphere of cities suggests that the author has little interest in moral questions or their solution and simply wants to encourage the proliferation of those who are focused merely on technological and scientific advancement and that are hostile to anything that would resist cultural and technological change that these elite technocrats which to pursue.