Nathaniel Turner's Reviews > Where Good Ideas Come from: The Natural History of Innovation

Where Good Ideas Come from by Steven Johnson
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it was amazing

There's a lot of material to discuss with this book, and I have gone off on several tangents in my rather extensive notes. As a result, this book review is only complete here, on my blog, where the more religious comments will not distract folks who are simply looking for a book review.

First, general comments: I like the book. I rented it from the library at my office, but I am considering purchasing it because of the wealth of information it supplies--especially information that is inordinately useful for an author of science fiction. The development of ideas is a crucial study for anyone who wants to suggest what future ideas will be; I think that I have benefited well from reading this book, and especially recommend it to anyone interested in the history of ideation or its possible future (i.e., science fiction). (It's also good reading for anyone looking to form an environment that promotes innovation--you know, the intended audience of the book.)

There are very few typographical errors; I can only recall two, but I do not have the quotes or page numbers on hand. The book is very well-written; Mr. Johnson has no trouble formulating his prose. Now on to more specific comments:

Perhaps the first thing you'll notice when you start this book is that it spends a lot of time talking about evolution. Mr. Johnson's argument is that ideation (the development or "evolution" of ideas) is largely similar to biological evolution (as are cultural and social development). I, personally, have no training in the field of evolutionary biology, so I can hardly comment on these issues. Many people agree with them, many others don't. From what little I do know, he does not misrepresent the point, and it plays well into his subject matter (i.e., he's not mentioning it to be confrontational, but rather, he has good reason to do so in the context of his book).

One of the great things about this book is that it highlights the way great story ideas coalesce--especially notable is the "Slow Hunch" chapter. Frequently, I don't come up with the best novel idea ever in a flash. I come up with a good idea, and then I let it sit for a while and think about other things. Eventually, another idea--whether one I've had recently or very long ago--will collide with it, and I'll have an even more complex, more gratifying story. For every one of the ideas I have (which I fully intend to write, sooner or later), this has happened at one point or another. I'll think, "This song is inspiring. I should write a story that incorporates some of these ideas." And then I'll hear a saint's life that lines up with that idea precisely. I'll read someone else's work, or postulate theories about the end times, or read a non-fiction book about French pirates in 18th century New Orleans, or devise a science fiction universe with my best friend, and things will come together to form a solid book idea. It's great.

On the other hand, something that I think Mr. Johnson does not devote enough attention to is the formative and inspirational power of others' literary works. His focus is primarily on inculcating an environment of liquid networks, where information flows freely and people share data, to produce the largest "adjacent possible" and lead to the greatest innovations. What he does not acknowledge (or at least not explicitly) is that a liquid network can form within a single mind, not just between neurons, but among the great minds of history. Theology, philosophy, science--all can be formed, adapted, expanded by studying people who have been dead for a century or more. He might relegate this to the contemplative life for which no one has any time anymore (a lament he makes when wishing that we could all spend our lives focused on developing ideas, as Darwin and Berners-Lee could), but even with a family, there is always enough free time to engage in study and contemplation... You just have to choose that over, say, watching another movie on cable or hitting "next episode" on Netflix or Hulu. Time is about choice, not constraint. Most people do not actually lack free will regarding their daily activities.

He does discuss the value of reading when it comes to the exploration and collision of ideas (pp112-113), but this is in brief. His main focus is the exploration--moving beyond the confines of daily activity--and the lament that most people don't have time for reading. Again, make time. Also, he praises the web for its capacity to make connections (and responds to arguments that the Internet reduces serendipity by hyper-focusing everything); this is his true ideal for reading, that people find topics randomly and search for more information, not that they pursue the ideas of the ancients. It's a component, but not a very large one. Perhaps he would argue that it's excellent to use literature to formulate and combine ideas, but it is an incomplete architecture that does not afford every opportunity for liquid networking, slow hunches, and random connection.

Long story short, I really enjoyed this book, and I highly recommend it for purposes of (A) creating an environment that encourages innovation, (B) studying ideation in a historical narrative and imagining what may come about in the future, or (C) better understanding viewpoints that are certainly widely held among people with whom you disagree (supposing you disagree with the content of the book). Read on for more exploration of the subjects and my many digressions on matters of religion.
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November 6, 2013 – Shelved
November 6, 2013 – Finished Reading

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