Idea Book

In his mind-opening new book, Where Ideas Come From, Steven Johnson explores the seeds of innovation.
By Parul Sehgal, Publishers Weekly Sep 27, 2010

E-books have found themselves a passionate and articulate champion in Steven Johnson, the bestselling author of Everything Bad Is Good for YouThe Ghost Map, and The Invention of Air.

As he wrote in the Wall Street Journal, books’ migration to the digital realm is “not a simple matter of trading ink for pixels”—e-books are going to radically change the “core attributes that we have associated with book reading for more than 500 years.” Reading won’t necessarily be immersive and solitary—it might be dizzyingly social and rapidly interrupted. We might read books as we do articles on the Web, in fits and starts, now rapt, now distracted, now moving on to something else entirely.

Johnson’s approach is as distinctive in its unsentimentality as in its copiousness—books, he reminds us, are but one vessel for ideas and information, and have been too long the hermetically sealed bystanders of the infosphere’s merry hyperlinked connectedness. The e-book revolution will allow us to harness this “vast trove of knowledge” on an unprecedented scale, and with each word searchable, there is peerless potential for creating new forms of scholarship and “new forms of discovery.”

Johnson’s newest book, Where Good Ideas Come From, provides a key to his enthusiasm. Whether switching between historical case studies of, say, the 1854 cholera outbreak in London (The Ghost Map) or au courant analyses of neuroscience (Emergence) or in his capacity as founder of the hyperlocal Web site, he has been consistently preoccupied with how ideas are developed and adopted. In his latest, he takes the reader from the coral reefs off Sumatra, where a 27-year-old scientist named Charles Darwin “stands at the edge of an idea,” to San Francisco, where three friends—Chad Hurley, Steve Chen, and Jawed Karim—frustrated at their inability to share videos, create YouTube; his refrain: “we are better served by connecting ideas than by protecting them.”

PW caught up with Johnson to talk about ideas, innovation, and the book business.

There’s a repetition of themes and a revisiting of areas of inquiry—innovation, culture, cognition—that make me wonder: are all your books in deliberate conversation with each other?

That’s definitely true, and especially with this one. This book feels like the one that reveals the secret connections that run through all the others—

The Rosetta Stone!

Exactly! I used to joke about the diversity of topics—oh, I wrote a book about video games, and now I’m going to write a book about cholera, and then brain science. This is the first one that synthesizes and connects directly to all five of the other books. It’s most directly connected to Ghost Map,Invention of Air, and Emergence, I think, but it has roots in all of them. I went back and read a chapter from Mind Wide Open and was surprised to find a riff on hunches—which I write about extensively in this book. I’m partly satisfied with that—this is exactly the network property of ideas I talk about, where you are in a dialogue with yourself and your own past ideas. And part of me feels that maybe I’ve reached the end of a process and I should move on to vampire fiction.

Charles Darwin is a major character in the book. Darwin’s hunches about the fecund, collaborative ecosystem dovetail with your argument that the Web has some of the same properties. What’s gained by looking at the Web through this particular metaphor?

The ecosystem metaphor has become very popular, almost too popular. What I’m trying to say is that there are different kinds of ecosystems, and the Web is a specific variety. I don’t think the Web is a desert ecosystem, where energy bounces off the desert floor and isn’t used by life, nor is the Web a big open ocean ecosystem with little life and biodiversity. The Web’s closest counterpart would be a rainforest or—the metaphor I use in the book—a coral reef.

By rights, the coral reef should not be the incredibly diverse city of the sea it is. But it works because there’s this elaborate symbiosis between organisms, and it’s a wonderful pageant of life because of this collaboration. The Web has evolved from a desert ecosystem to a coral reef. What happens on the Web is that you take one little piece of information—someone tweets, say, a restaurant review. Google takes that link and uses it to organize the Web; other people take that information and figure out where to go eat the next day, advertisers use the location pointed to in the tweet to figure out what they can sell to people nearby—all that information gets circulated in all these ways that the original creator of the information really knew nothing about. The movement from a simple network where you can post something and people can link to it to this recyclable, collaborative world is a huge transformation, and it’s been happening so steadily over the past 15 years, I don’t think we’ve fully grasped it.

I recently interviewed Clay Shirky and he mentioned disliking the term “ecosystem” for the Web—that it implied some sort of abdication of responsibility. What rights and obligations do we have?

We, unlike coral polyps, are aware of the dynamics of the ecosystem, and we can make changes to it. That the Web has moved from the desert to the coral reef over the past 15 years is a reflection of people consciously saying: “here are properties that the original Web didn’t have and we would like to add because we are responsible for the future of this space.” Location, for example. It’s now much easier to tag a piece of information with a machine-readable location, which enables a whole set of other things to happen. That was not a part of the original Web’s specs, but we decided, because we’re smart and self-aware, to add that to the ecosystem. Clay is right in the sense that you don’t want to just say, “let the ecosystem decide,” in the way you’d say, “let the market decide.” But the metaphor is useful in describing how information flows and what kinds of environments tend to be better at generating new ideas and transforming themselves.

You observe that most of the major innovations over the past 200 years have come from networks of individuals who rarely capitalize or even intend to capitalize on their work. How is that possible?

We underestimate how much innovation comes out of the university system. If you look at where innovation, defined as ideas not as commercial product, tends to live, the university system is remarkably innovative. Like the Internet, which no one owns and which generates vast fortunes for people who build on top of it, the university system, through a collaborative, open network, creates ideas that become platforms that enable people to build businesses stacked on top of them. We’re seeing it with genomics: core research is happening in universities that’s going to lead to vast fortunes for big pharma. I hope this section in the book will make people pause and reconsider their belief that markets drive innovation better than anything else. They do sometimes, but when you combine creative chaos and connective power, you create environments where ideas can truly network, rather than being locked away in an R&D lab somewhere.

What kind of ecosystem is book publishing right now, desert or coral reef?

I was talking with Kevin Kelly about this—he’s got a lovely parallel book, What Technology Wants, coming out around the same time. We’ve both written about the future of books in different contexts, and we were agreeing that this is the most exciting time for books in 600 years. Books have been locked down—understandably—for centuries by the limitations of a printed book, and they’ve only now been flung open to yield incredible, open-ended possibilities. It might lead to an overall decline in the profitability of some institutions or bookstores. I don’t have an answer to that. What I do know, from the perspective of a reader and as an author, is that there’s a tremendous new opportunity to figure out what the book should be in this new kind of world.

What’s encouraging is that the early new platforms—Kindle and iPad—are clearly leading to people buying more books. The data is in on that. Books are not going away; in fact, publications seem to be increasing and people are willing to pay money for them. And what we’ve seen in just the past four or five months has been this incredible arms race between the Kindle app and the iBook app; every month they’re like—now we’ve got a dictionary app, now you can take notes, now you can share your notes. The bells and whistles around the text are constantly getting improved. One of the things that’s fascinating about the Gutenberg era is how long it took them to invent the things we now take for granted. Gutenberg comes out with the book, and they figure out how to make an index 60 years later. They had 60 years of “You know, it would be really nice if we could look something up.”

Imagine, combining words and numbers!

We’re having comparable breakthroughs every six months now. I spoke earlier this year at Columbia University about how infuriating it is that you can’t copy text from iBook editions. The whole point of digital text is that you can move it around and recombine it. When you build something with digital text that cannot be copied and pasted, it’s broken. That is a bug. That is not a feature that we decided not to add. I don’t know where that comes from. Partially pressures from the Authors Guild, of which I’m a member. But I’ve disagreed with them on a lot of their Google books positions. I’m all for putting reasonable fair use restrictions around things—say, you can only copy 10% of this book, fine, but not to let people copy at all. There are great missed opportunities to curate and share the amazing content that’s stored in all these books. We have to be willing to embrace this. Allowing people to copy a couple paragraphs from a book is not going to have any impact on when or whether or how a digital copy gets in the wild and starts getting shared. All you do is annoy people [by not letting them do that].

What opportunities are being lost?

Publishers are missing out on great marketing. You want to be able to say, “My cousin Jay will love this quote; I’m going to send it to him with a link to the book so he can buy it.” There’s this intra-book viral marketing that has never existed with print books that’s a huge thing on the Web—people sending shared links and passing them around, and what they’re doing is deliberately disabling that feature because they’re afraid full text editions will be swapped. And as much as I love print books, once you start putting the recent books you’ve read in digital form on your computer, the fact that you can’t search your library starts to feel like your library’s broken.

Especially because you have a very unique process of writing.

I have a very weird process. It’s actually a commonplace book idea; you collect snippets and quotes and map them onto chapters and a chronology. In a sense, you have your arc, but it’s built entirely of other people’s quotes and ideas you found influential, and you trying to make the connections.

Which is, as you write, very similar to how the mind works and builds associations anyway.

When I gave the book to Kevin Kelly to read, he wrote back, “It’s a book about how ideas are networks that are made up of a network of ideas.” I love that. An idea is not a single thing. It’s literally a network in your brain, and it’s almost always a network in terms of the flow of information that leads to the idea. A solitary moment of inspiration is absolutely the exception, not the rule.

Until I encountered your description of the Web as a developing city, complete with homage to Jane Jacobs, I hadn’t realized how much I wanted a visual analogue to understand how the Web is evolving.

You know how people talk about American exceptionalism? I think there’s a kind of Web exceptionalism, where people say the Web and the Internet have these magical properties, where open source software can happen and people can collaborate and make Wikipedia, but that these kinds of things never happen in the real world. Part of my argument is to show how these patterns of innovation have a long history in the so-called real world. When you think of the organizational structure that sustained Renaissance development as being partially the city states, you have to understand the particular quality of cities: they’re not really owned by anybody. They’re collectively built, and although they are the seat of commercial activity that is closed and propriety and market-driven, the space the city creates is not. When you push the analogy over to the biological systems and you can see the innovation that develops in those environments, you start to see deep patterns. People often talk about the Web like it’s this 1960s commune—”Oh, the Web, weird things happen there!”

Tim Wu has a book coming out called The Master Switch, that I think is going to be an interesting complement to yours. He describes how after any major innovation, there’s a moment of chaos before the medium is locked down by a monopoly. Do you think this is true and is it a potential problem?

There’s a Wired cover story that just came out that everyone’s talking about—Chris Anderson’s “The Web Is Dead”—which says something similar. There’s a natural period of anarchy and openness, which is then constrained because that’s how capitalism works: it enforces structure and it does so in part by making better products. Consumers aren’t forced to buy things from the App Store; they actually like to buy things from there because they work better.

I wrote a piece for the New York Times about the App Store and why it’s been probably the most innovative software platform in recent memory. The article showed that the Web is growing proportionally smaller compared to these other activities that are happening, apps and other things. And people who believe in open systems, as I do, we need to wrestle with this: openness leads to innovation and the possibility for someone creating a closed platform. You can’t just denounce it or pretend it’s not there. But for the past 15 years, the Web has always figured out a way to win, precisely because of its openness.

There’s no question that people are going to get things out of apps that they won’t get out of the Web, and that the app world is going to get bigger, but that doesn’t mean that the Web isn’t an essential part of culture—and essential precisely because it is open. It is a bit like saying, books are dead because they don’t dominate the culture the way they did in the 19th century. It’s important to point out that just because books aren’t the dominant information form, they can still remain relevant and vital. The same is true for the Web.


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