'Where Good Ideas Come From' - Book Review

Steven Johnson caught my attention with The Ghost Map, which I still consider - without exaggeration - to be the best non-fiction book ever written. In that case he's tackling a subject where the reader knows the outcome (even if he didn't tell you in the first few pages, you could probably guess that the guys he's talking about solved the mystery or he wouldn't have been writing about it) and yet the book reads like a tense and well-written murder mystery. It's a brilliant and eye-opening book about the changes the 1854 London Cholera epidemic brought to science, medicine, and sanitation. So when I went looking for another good non-fiction read a month ago and his name came up attached to Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation, I immediately ordered the book from the library.

He examines not just "ideas" - which most of us read as "inventions" in this context - but also "ideas" as the changes wrought by evolution, both Darwinian and metaphorical. He introduced several concepts I wasn't familiar with: "the adjacent possible" and exaptation being the most interesting. One of his big examples for "the adjacent possible" is Charles Babbage's Difference Engine. The Difference Engine was essentially a calculator: it was a breakthrough invention, but previous ideas had brought to light the concepts necessary for its construction. Those previous ideas open the door to "the adjacent possible" (a term Johnson borrowed from scientist Stuart Kauffman). Insights combine available ideas to create something that's possible and conceivable by the right person at the right time. Likewise, life itself came from a slow series of recombinations: DNA isn't within the adjacent possible when all you have is a soup of hydrogen, oxygen, nitrogen, carbon, and phosphorus: you need quite a number of other reactions to happen first to create the base molecules that DNA is built out of. After Babbage invented the Difference Engine, he dreamt up the Analytical Engine. It was, essentially, a mechanical implementation of a modern computer. And it was so far beyond the adjacent possible of the time that it proved impossible to build. Johnson offered that as "the exception to the rule:" concepts like that, relying on multiple leaps of logic, are fantastically rare (and rarely useful).

Exaptation is the process of a thing being successfully used for something it was never initially intended for. The primary example he uses is dinosaur feathers, which were initially intended simply to keep the animals warm ... but were co-opted and redesigned by nature for flight. The same process can also be seen in the history of invention, his favourite example being Gutenberg's use of the screw press (used by wine makers to extract juice from grapes) to create a printing press.

Some of the other subjects he covers are related to the environments and circumstances most likely to produce good ideas: cities are hotbeds of creativity, and people are more creative when they talk to others (rather than working alone in their office or garage).

I was mildly disappointed - but not surprised - that by the end I didn't have a silver bullet to start spewing brilliant ideas all over the place. But the book was a really fascinating read on the subject, and his closing paragraph summarises a number of the processes that lead to good ideas:

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, re-invent.