Sunday, September 09, 2012

Review: Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation

Where Good Ideas Come From is a book about the history of innovation. As a book, however, it's not terribly innovative, with only one or two new ideas in the entire book.

The central idea Stephen Johnson advocates is that the environment has to be right for new ideas to develop. A great new idea by itself in the wrong environment is death. For instance, Charles Babbage's Difference Engine was a success, while the Analytical Engine was too far ahead of its time to have any discernible impact.

To bolster this thesis, Johnson points to many analogies. For instance, coral reefs are comparatively productive, while the rest of the open ocean does not support as diverse a collection of underwater life.

His other big idea is that even within an individual, the most productive people don't just have one project, but have multiple projects and lots of different hobbies. The main reason for this is that having such a diverse set of interest is generative: it makes it more likely that you'll be able to cross-connect apparently unrelated parts of your life. (He doesn't mention that having lots of different friends would most likely be also good for similar reasons) In most cases, the breakthrough doesn't come about as a result of a single a-ha insight, but comes through constant and consistent exposure to the problem space over long periods (decades is the usual answer). He even points out that "Eureka" moments described by scientists (for instance, the description of the Benzene as a ring structure by Kekule) came about only after pondering the problem for a significant amount of time.

Unfortunately, Johnson does not take his story to the ultimate conclusions: that our current tendency towards specialization in the sciences almost seems designed to thwart otherwise fruitful cross-pollination between specialties and sub-specialties, at precisely the time when such collaboration would be useful. He points out that recent productive innovations (such as the Internet, the World-Wide Web, and even YouTube) come about as a result of government funded research and academia, where capitalism plays very little role, while less open structures have stagnated.

In the end, I wonder if Johnson ended up reading his own book, since one cannot avoid that the path American society is leading down (the massive reduction in our science budget as well as increased specialization in subfields) would lead to less innovation in the future.

Nevertheless, his book is worth reading in that it's short: fully half the print pages were devoted to bibliography and references. And even if he doesn't correctly draw the correct conclusions from the data, you could.
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