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Review of Steven Johnson's "Where Good Ideas Come From"

Original post made by Brian King, College Terrace, on Nov 22, 2010

Real Innovation is More Than Connectivity

Steven Johnson's Where Good Ideas Come From: A Natural History of Innovation

Riverhead Books
326 pp.

By Brian King

Innovations don't just pop into one's head, with a light bulb appearing above as in cartoons. That's old hat, implies Web guru Steven Johnson, who wrote about the eighteenth-century scientist Joseph Priestly (“The Invention of Air,” 2009), for which “Where Good Ideas Come From” serves as a theoretical foundation.

Connectivity, which shines through each of his seven “patterns” for creating good ideas, is today's buzzword. His is a kind of popular science self-help book for our society. How can we generate innovation? In Johnson's long range view finder, he advocates networking our creative pursuits “in the organizations that employ us, in the communities we inhabit.”

But connecting is not enough. If only we got together and put our “spare parts” on the table, as did Deke Slayton on the Apollo 13 mission when he built a carbon dioxide filter to save the astronauts.

So, how do we push our brains into the creative realm? The answer: “You have to place it inside environments that share the same network signature.” Isn't this the same mantra we hear about the future of “the human network,” in which we are going to be together as never before, exchanging information? Of course, this kind of putting minds together and sharing research would benefit some fields, such as medical, scientific research, technology development.

Forget about individuals cooking up “good ideas…in glorious isolation,” says Johnson. But this is precisely what Johnson leaves out of his equation, the human element, the human personality. Look at the innovators of the past two hundred years alone, and we find people with an inordinate amount of drive and courage, and an almost irrational belief in themselves. This belief is what drove Thomas Edison to experiment with endless filament materials to produce an electric light bulb, and James Joyce to write Ulysses, and Zora Neale Hurston to write novels about black life in the face of opposition in her own community. How these innovators developed from infancy, to curiosity in their teens, to obsession as adults is highly individual. It is not an equation.

Of course, Johnson points to the conception of the World Wide Web, and Google, and a plethora of scientists and inventors. This is where his theory is most comfortable.

As much as we yearn to produce, induce, and inspire creativity, it is necessarily a mystery of the mind. We can teach it to produce new ideas in the community, say, and stimulate it through connecting in the ubiquitous networks of modern society. But our connectedness cannot produce personalities capable of achievement far beyond what has come before. Despite this new collective knowledge, it is still ultimately dependent on the development of each human being. Before we become too giddy about our new networks and their possibilities, let us pause to wonder just who is providing the spare parts, and how does their creative process work?

(Brian King is an author, currently working on “The Genius Generation, 1880-1900.” He can be contacted at his website,, or by e-mail at

Comments (1)

Like this comment
Posted by Anon.
a resident of Crescent Park
on Nov 24, 2010 at 7:54 am

I liked Johnson's "Mind Wide Open" which caught the beginning of the current neuroscience fad ... and was an entertaining read. I hope to get his new book on audio whenever it is going to come out, it keeps getting pushed back. Thanks for the review.

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