Monday, March 9, 2015

Steven Johnson

I first became aware of Steven Johnson when The Beloved Spouse and I watched his six-part miniseries, How We Got to Now on PBS last fall. (How we became aware of the miniseries eludes me.) By Episode 3 I had already placed the companion book on my Wish List. TBS doubled down at Christmas, buying both that and one of Johnson’s earlier books, Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation.

Johnson has two great gifts. His engaging personality conveys well on screen, and in his writing. He approaches weighty subjects with respect but no fear, making what might have been difficult concepts less intimidating though his easygoing prose. He makes no pretense of having figured out any of what he writes about on his own. In fact, that’s an underlying theme of both books: no one (hardly) ever figures out anything on his or her own. Everyone stands on the shoulders of those who came before in order to see farther than their predecessors. Others are working on similar things at the same time; knowledge spills over. He even has a term to explain why things work this way: the adjacent possible. (Which term he lifted form someone else and uses to good advantage.)

Johnson’s other, and most compelling gift—there are lots of personable people in the world who aren’t good for fuck all else—is an ability to tie things together, and to see where they came from. Charles Babbage was a genius of inestimable insight. His mechanical forerunner of the modern computer anticipated virtually every aspect of computing we have come to take for granted, yet he could never build one; it wasn’t practical without vacuum tubes. The electric light bulb has come to symbolize an inventor’s “Eureka!” moment, yet Edison did not have such a moment when working on his bulb. Edison did not, in fact, invent the first bulb. He didn’t even invent the first practical bulb, not on his own. What Edison invented was the process—not unlike an assembly line—that allowed his teams of engineers and scientists to create the first practical bulb. While it may seem prosaic to the average person, that’s the invention that has more lasting implications: creating a process than can be scaled and duplicated.

Where Good Ideas Come From ends with an attempt to quantify how the major scientific and technological advances of the past several hundred years came to be. Conventional Wisdom, at least in this country, holds these advances are the work of entrepreneurs working with profits foremost in their minds. Looking at the origins of key advances shows they are far more likely to come about through non-market-oriented collaborative networks, in part because market-driven innovation creates knowledge silos, and doesn’t continue down roads that do not appear to be profitable. The collaborative approach avoid both pitfalls.

I can get down a rabbit hole talking these books; they fascinate me. You’ll have a lot more fun, and learn exponentially more, by reading them yourself. Johnson now occupies a unique position in my reading rotation: the only non-fiction writer on it. I have every intention of reading everything he writes, which means I should never run out of fresh material. Johnson’s 13 years younger than I.

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