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Mothers of invention

Tracing the creative connections that spark big ideas

Steven Johnson’s latest book focuses on what he calls “the space of innovation,’’ in other words, the context in which great ideas arise. Steven Johnson’s latest book focuses on what he calls “the space of innovation,’’ in other words, the context in which great ideas arise. (Nina Subin)
By Buzzy Jackson
Globe Correspondent / October 24, 2010

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Since there’s no copyright on book titles, Steven Johnson could have called his new book “The Structure of Scientific Revolutions’’ even though Thomas Kuhn used it in 1962. Although indebted to Kuhn, Johnson is interested in much more than just scientific revolutions. Johnson covers everything from the history of reading to the influence of Brian Eno on hip-hop producer Hank Shocklee. But mostly it’s about Charles Darwin.

“Where Good Ideas Come From’’ begins and ends with Darwin, the genius whose insights into everything from the formation of tropical atolls to the process of evolution underlie so much of modern life. Darwin is the perfect foil for Johnson, both for his creative ideas as well as his creative habits. If that sounds confusing, consider how Johnson describes his book: “This is a book about the space of innovation. . . . If we want to understand where good ideas come from, we have to put them in context. Darwin’s world-changing idea unfolded inside his brain, but think of all the environments he needed to piece it together: a ship, an archipelago, a notebook, a library, a coral reef. Our thought shapes the spaces we inhabit, and our spaces return the favor.’’

“The space of innovation’’ is a pretty abstract concept. Johnson knows it and equips himself with an entire ordnance depot full of examples in order to explain. He’s not interested in merely recounting the well-known tale of how 17th-century coffeehouses fueled the European Enlightenment. This is a rapid-fire tour of “spaces’’ large, small, mental, physical, and otherwise — we’re talking reefs, webs, brains, networks, platforms, and quadrants.

Johnson steps back now and again to remind us of the bigger picture. He’s distilled seven patterns or properties and assigned a chapter to each: The Adjacent Possible; Liquid Networks; The Slow Hunch; Serendipity; Error; Exaptation; and Platforms. “The more we embrace these patterns,’’ Johnson argues, “the better we will be at tapping our extraordinary capacity for innovative thinking.’’

Johnson has been interested in these ideas for a long time. Nearly every book he’s written addresses an aspect of human innovation or the properties of intellectual networks, from his very first, “Interface Culture: How New Technology Transforms the Way We Create and Communicate’’ (1997), to “The Invention of Air: A Story of Science, Faith, Revolution, and the Birth of America’’ (2008), and it’s clear that his research on the subject runs very deep.

“Where Good Ideas Come From’’ may be the ultimate distillation of his thinking on these issues, and at times it reads less like a book and more like a series of interesting concepts. Take the first five paragraphs of the Exaptation chapter, for example, in which Johnson leaps from Pliny the Elder and the invention of the screw press (for making wine) to 15th-century Rhineland and the bubonic plague to a first-century Chinese blacksmith named Pi Sheng (the inventor of movable type) and finally Johannes Gutenberg, who “took a machine designed to get people drunk [the Greco-Roman screw press], and turned it into an engine for mass communication.’’ One admires the intellectual athleticism of Johnson’s maneuvers here, yet one can’t help wishing for a bit more time with each of these fascinating characters and their inventions. Distillation is a fine thing, but it’s also nice to sit back and slowly enjoy a tumbler of whiskey.

Johnson achieves a more pleasing balance of story and factoid in the chapter called The Slow Hunch. Here, he constructs a dramatic and chilling set piece about the “Phoenix Memo,’’ the unheeded July 2001 warning from an Arizona FBI field agent named Ken Williams who tried to alert his superiors in Washington, D.C., and New York to the presence of suspicious foreign students enrolled in American flight schools. Johnson threads the tale of the Phoenix Memo throughout the chapter, visiting Darwin’s journals, John Locke’s indexing system, a Victorian England how-to book called “Enquire Within Upon Everything,’’ Tim Berners-Lee’s invention of the World Wide Web, and the corporate environment of Google. Although packed with wide-ranging details, the narrative shadow of the doomed Phoenix Memo is always present, adding weight and a sense of foreboding to Johnson’s larger argument about the power of the “slow hunch.’’ It’s one of his most important ideas: that great innovations do not usually appear in a flash of inspiration but instead they accrete “by stealth, in small steps. They fade into view.’’

Johnson must occasionally wonder why his best-selling books haven’t become zeitgeisty pop blockbusters in the manner of Malcolm Gladwell’s. While Johnson and Gladwell write about many of the same issues (they’re equally obsessed, for instance, with “the strength of weak ties’’) and bring their ideas to life through the use of capsule biographies, Gladwell lingers on the unexpectedly interesting quirks of a high school basketball coach or a forgotten 19th-century scientist (and yes, sometimes he lingers too long, but that’s another review).

Johnson, meanwhile, speeds through the connections among the coach, the scientist, and 15 other seemingly disparate people across time to make his point about creativity, about communication, about idea-making. Johnson’s concepts are strong and his explanations are credible. But after a while one tires of explanation. Ultimately, good ideas come from people. Johnson is most convincing when he slows down to let us spend time with them.

Buzzy Jackson is the author of “Shaking the Family Tree: Blue Bloods, Black Sheep, and Other Obsessions of an Accidental Genealogist.’’ E-mail her at AskBuzzy@gmail.com.

WHERE GOOD IDEAS COME FROM:
The Natural History of Innovation

By Steven Johnson
Riverhead, 326 pp., $26.95