Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation
by Steven Johnson. Riverhead Books, 2010
Protecting our ideas from others may mean they never see the light, according to Steven Johnson in his new book, Where Good Ideas Come From. By sharing these thoughts, however, we can connect with our peers and contribute to powerful networks that “shape the flow of information and inspiration.” Take the invention of GPS. This handy navigation system was originally invented because scientists were trying to determine the precise location of the Russian satellite Sputnik at any moment as it traveled.
Johnson argues that although we tend to think that good ideas emerge from our mental prowess, our environment provides an equally crucial influence. If we isolate ourselves from the intellectual influence of others, good ideas rarely develop. Johnson illustrates this point by discussing research by psychologist Kevin Dunbar, who studied how scientists work in the laboratory. Dunbar set up cameras to watch and listen in and found that the most important ideas were not generated by individuals but by groups of scientists who exchanged information in lab meetings.
Johnson also tells us that eureka moments are rare. The best new ideas develop by gradually adding bits of complexity to older ideas. For instance, the Web has become increasingly complex since it was invented 20 years ago. From just a few thousand Web sites, the network has ballooned to more than 100 million sites with 25 billion pages of information.
Sometimes, however, ideas can be too advanced for their time. Charles Babbage, for instance, spent 30 years developing the Difference Engine, which 100 years later would become the basis for the modern computer. The problem, Johnson tells us, is that Babbage had envisioned a tremendously complex machine in the middle of the steam-powered age. He had no one to share and combine ideas with, which, according to Johnson, stalled the birth of his innovation.
Johnson successfully synthesizes the main point of this book when he likens ideas to neurons in the brain. A single neuron firing alone produces nothing. It is when thousands of neurons fire in sync that an idea is born.