Book summary: “Where good ideas come from” by Steven Johnson

The book presents a robust theoretical framework around how good ideas emerged in human history and debunking myths associated with the same. The underlying theme of the book is how coral reefs, big cities, and the world-wide-web provide the right platform for innovation.

The right platform for innovation provides liquid networks that encourage rapid information sharing, serendipitous encounters, the formation of slow hunches, the exploration of the adjacent possible, and exaptation of the existing solutions for solving seemingly unrelated problems.

Introduction

  1. Kleiber’s law: Metabolism slows down with mass in proportion to (mass)3/4, so bigger animals have slower heartbeats. City growth (gasoline stations, road surface area, etc.) follows Kleiber’s law as well. However, innovation in larger cities had super-linear growth (~(size)4/3) with size.
  2.  10/10 rule: It takes about ten years to develop new technology and another 10 for its mass adoption. The web has compressed it to 1/1.

The Adjacent Possible

  1. Stephane Tarnier, an obstetrician in 1870, took inspiration from chicken incubators to construct human incubators. It was difficult to repair the same incubators in the developing world, and a new one built out of auto spare parts turned out to be better.
  2. The adjacent possible innovations come from the first-order combination of what’s already available (“spare parts”).
  3. The inventions whose raw material is not available are ahead of their time and fail to materialize.
  4. Difference Engine was in the adjacent possible, but Analytics Engine was ahead of its time.
  5. YouTube succeeded in 2005; it would have failed, if launched, in 1995.
  6. The environments where the adjacent possible can be explored lead to good innovation.
  7. Challenging problems don’t clearly define their adjacent possible. A right solution combines what’s available to solve the problem.

Liquid Networks

  1. Good ideas spill through connected “liquid” networks of individuals.
  2. Lone wolves do not make most inventions and discoveries but a group of humans exchanging ideas (“spare parts”) and problems they are trying to solve.

The slow hunch

  1. An FBI agent filed a memo in July 2001 stating that Osama Bin Laden is sending students to attend civil aviation in the US. The memo was marked speculative. A month after his memo, Pan Am Flight Academy in Minnesota reported to the FBI about a suspicious student who has more interest in cockpit doors and communication than the actual flying. The search warrant to check his laptop was not granted until Sep 11, 2001. The two agents in Arizona and Minnesota had hunches, but only if they were connected, it would have lead to something.
  2. Slow hunches stay in mind and develop into an idea over time, and liquid networks allow such feelings to be passed around and intermingled with other hunches.
  3. Commonplace books and nowadays, DEVONthink and Evernote, are ways of collecting hunches.
  4. Tim Berner’s Lee took inspiration from Enquire Within Upon Everything over time to develop his hunches around how the World Wide Web should look like. Similar ideas lead to the invention of products like Google News.

Serendipity

  1. Dreams and sudden sparks of thoughts explore the adjacent possible, combining various unrelated ideas and sometimes reveal unusual solutions to problems at hand.
  2. Dmitri Mendeleev had a dream that elements cannot be ordered by atomic weight and suggested him to use the atomic number instead.
  3. Kekulé had a dream about Ouroboros, which lead him to the structure of Benzene.
  4. Sleeping on the problem has demonstrated a strong positive impact on problem-solving ability.
  5. Large clusters of neurons occasionally fire at the same frequency, and it is positively correlated with IQ.
  6. Daphnia, a water flea, reproduces asexually under normal circumstances. The reproduction, when subjected to stress (harsh weather), starts producing males and switches to sexual reproduction. It’s a biological innovation strategy. When life is going well, it makes sense to keep doing what you are doing. Innovation is required when it’s not.
  7. Reading is an unprecedented vehicle for transmitting new ideas. But if it’s spread over a long period, then serendipitous connections won’t happen. Bill Gates takes annual reading vacations to read a large amount of text in a short period.
  8. Internal and external idea exchange platforms are all about finding and sharing hunches. (ashishb’s note: I feel that the author is over-emphasizing their success, the GreenXchange mentioned touted in the book is not even active anymore).

Error

  1. Triode, Penicillin, Photography, Pacemaker, all were results of mistakes made during the experimentation.
  2. The white noise of cosmic radiation was believed to be an error till it was realized that its a proof of Big Bang.
  3. The error acts as a dark background for exhibiting the bright truth.
  4. Good ideas emerge more from surroundings with a certain amount of noise and error, which leads to the exploration of the adjacent possible.
  5. DNA transcoding introduces a few mutations as a way of evolution & innovation.

Exaptation

  1. Gutenberg used wine-producing screw presses for printing.
  2. Feathers first emerged for warmth were later exapted for flying by birds. If they haven’t provided heat in the first place, the evolution would not have pushed towards making them worthy enough of flying. Therefore, exaptation is the only way for flying feathers to evolve.
  3. Many scientific inventions are borrowing/exaptations from one unrelated field to another.
  4. Big cities, due to their population density, support subcultures more effectively than small towns. Therefore, big cities encourage exaptation and cross-fertilization (“collision”) of ideas.
  5. Diverse, horizontal social networks are way more innovative than uniform, vertical networks of similar individuals with shared beliefs. The latter damps the creative sparks. The individuals who maintain active links to multiple diverse groups are the real source of innovative exaptations.
  6.  Coffeehouses, research labs, and similar high-density places of a diverse group of individuals lead to more collisions and exaptations.
  7. Cholera was believed to be air-borne, but Snow‘s work as an anesthesiologist convinced him that it could not be airborne, and he, eventually, proved that it is water-borne.

Platforms

  1. Before Darwin, the belief was that atolls are dormant volcanoes, Darwin realized and proved that they are built up by reef-building coral. Coral reefs occupy 0.1% of the earth’s surface but 25% of marine life species (Darwin’s paradox).
  2. Physicists came up with an idea of tracking Russia’s Sputnik satellite using Doppler’s shift, and that leads to the reverse idea of determining the location of objects on the surface of the earth, which has become the modern-day GPS.
  3. The most generative platforms are like stacks; the person working at building level 5 has to only understand level 4 and nothing beneath it.
  4. Platforms have a natural attraction towards recycling waste and abandoned. In big cities, chain stores and restaurants occupy the new construction while bookstores, struggling artists, and antique dealers occupy the old one. The riskier enterprises always have to go for the less valuable spaces, that’s why, Google, Apple, and HP were started in garages. Old ideas can sometimes use new buildings, but new ideas must use old buildings, new construction is too expensive to support them.
  5. Coral reefs have various species living in a symbiotic relationship.

Earlier, when connectivity was weak, and it was harder to capitalize on one’s innovation, the individuals mostly drove it for a non-market motive. After the printing press, the connectivity became better, and then the most innovation was driven by the networked groups for a non-market purpose. As capitalism took a firm grip on the economies, more and more innovation was produced by the networked groups working for the [captialistic] market. One problem with that, however, is that financial rewards discourage open sharing of the information and hence, make the networks less liquid. Both universities and the world-wide-web have played an active role in encouraging networked innovation with non-market motive (“commons”), leading to open-source movements and open research. And even markets have benefitted from it.

3 Replies to “Book summary: “Where good ideas come from” by Steven Johnson”

  1. […] their riches provides jobs, sometimes, side-jobs for the innovators to experiment. No wonder innovation in a city grows super-linearly (~(size)4/3) with its […]

  2. Hello Admin, you have done an amazing job in summarising these entrepreneurial books. Keep it up. You may even ask the publishers to give you some financial returns for publicising their publications 🙂 Loved these summaries.

  3. […] Summary, ‘Where Good Ideas Come From’ by Steven […]

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