The Ecology of Thought: Steven Johnson’s Where Good Ideas Come From

Steven Johnson

I bring outstanding news to absent-minded academics everywhere: According to Steven Johnson, recent neuroscience suggests that “the more disorganized your brain is, the smarter you are.” Although the mechanism is not well-understood, Johnson suggests that this disorganization, moments when clusters of neurons seem utterly out of sync, allows the brain to seek out new organizational patterns–literally to make new connections.

Steven Johnson’s new book, Where Good Ideas Come From will interest ProfHacker readers across at least three different axes: how to fruitfully pursue longterm research; how to foster collaboration, whether among colleagues or among students; and, most surprisingly, its lucid defense of universities as a public good, a critical repository of research and development–and one made more necessary, not obsolete, by the explosive growth of the Internet.

Where Good Ideas Come From attempts to describe the features of an idea-rich ecology, the sort of environment where innovation comes almost naturally. It also looks to demystify creativity, shifting focus away from the solitary genius toward the interactions among people, networks, and other forces that allow innovation to happen.

The term ecology is not idly chosen, nor is the reference to “natural history” in the book’s subtitle. Johnson borrows liberally from evolutionary biology, noticing how the ingenuity of evolution can help explain how creativity works. A good example is exaptation, which is the way particular structures or traits can be repurposed by selective pressures into altogether new functions. Or, as William Gibson once out it, “the street finds it’s own uses for things.” Another example is the idea, borrowed from Stuart Kauffman, of the “adjacent possible,” which reminds us that at any given time only certain ideas are possible, and they can only be discovered in particular ways. At the same time, some discoveries become almost inevitable, given the right technological, economic, or political developments.

Johnson devotes three chapters to serendipity, error, and “slow hunches,” each of which can be a source of creativity and which, according to Johnson, can be harnessed by individual researchers. Countering the usual curmudgeonly complaint that the Web kills serendipity, Johnson argues that the ubiquity of mobile computing makes new forms of serendipity possible: “If the commonplace book tradition tells us that the best way to nurture hunches is to write everything down, the serendipity engine of the Web suggests a parallel directive: look everything up.”

Johnson also explains how the best ideas are a bit like LEGO bricks, in that they come ready-made for new connections that can’t yet be anticipated. His great example here is the Application Programming Interface, or API. (See Julie’s API series: part one, two, three, and four.) Johnson attributes the success of Twitter, for example, to the fact that it was an API even before it was a real service, and the proliferation of Twitter apps and 3rd-party add ons has made the service a vital source of connection and exchange.

Johnson’s most important claim is that we consistently overvalue the idea of the lone inventor, or of proprietary research, in thinking about creativity. Many ideas are discovered at more or less the same time by different people (calculus, natural selection, etc.), and some of he most important ideas emerge almost without an inventor (double-entry accounting.)

The research university, Johnson suggests, plays an important role in facilitating, even driving innovation today. By bringing together teams of researchers, and by making their research as publicly available as possible, universities allow more and more ideas to come into fruition. (This also suggests the moral imperative behind open-access scholarship, in that the rapid, free exchange of information is the key to creativity.) the tenure system in universities also facilitates the playing out of slow hunches.

Thanks to the information networks of the Internet, even academics at non-research schools are better able to contribute to the flow of ideas than in previous generations. This is the real payoff of academic blogging and Twitter networks: a professor at a smallish school, without teams of graduate students or colleagues engaged in similar work, can nonetheless exchange ideas and problems with researchers worldwide. And it helps explain why posts such as this one are so wide of the mark: As Johnson says, “Good ideas may not want to be free, but they do want to connect, fuse, recombine. They want to reinvent themselves by crossing conceptual borders. They want to complete each other as much as to compete.”

So often these days you hear technopundits and futurists proclaiming the death of the university, often with a little too much glee. The author of Everything Bad Is Good For You, Johnson certainly has technopundit credentials, and he calls us to remember the most important functions of universities: to open up ideas and make them accessible. An important implication of this argument is that it’s important to preserve the aspects of universities that make idea-generation possible. Rather than armies of contingent wage-slaves flitting from campus to campus to teach their classes, universities need faculty who have the time and the resources to do sustained research projects. It is depressing to think how often in recent years universities have turned their back on both openness (by pursuing patent arrangements and spinning off startups) and a broad-based commitment to vital research (by shifting resources to a few stars and employing more and more contingent faculty).

On the one hand, longtime readers of Johnson will recognize parts of this book–he’s been writing about cities and brains and the emergent properties of networks for a *very* long time now, and his piece about how he uses DevonThink is also widely known. On the other hand, this is also Johnson’s best-written book, and it’s an argument that this connection-making thinker was seemingly born to pursue.

Full of stories of innovation from across the disciplines, but with recurring themes from biology, cities, the arts, and the web, Where Good Ideas Come From is an unmissable book for anyone who cares about creativity, innovation, networks, or higher education.

Image by Flickr user Meet the Media Guru / Creative Commons licensed

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