What do coral reefs, teeming cities, 18th-century English coffeehouses, and Google’s casual workspace have in common? As author Steven Johnson will explain when he leads tonight’s “Words & Wine” salon at the Sorrento Hotel, all are hothouses of ideas, broadly construed—environments in which information, from DNA to political theories, gets freely swapped, mixed, matched, and amplified. Places unlike the FBI, which (in Johnson favorite cautionary example) notoriously failed to connect the screaming dots before 9-11. Places "where good ideas come from," as the title of his stimulating new book puts it.
Where Good Ideas Come From pushes to the front the underlying themes of Johnson’s heralded historical narratives The Invention of Air and The Ghost Map. Both concerned heretical innovators who swept away the established pseudo-sciences of their day to respectively, discover oxygen and the respiratory cycle and solve the mystery of London’s great cholera epidemic, in the process founding the science of epidemiology.
Where Good Ideas Come From is the practical companion to these tales. Johnson enumerates tricks that these and other original thinkers (notably Darwin) have used to get to new truths. His prescriptions are refreshingly down-to-earth and, for us messy-desk types, reassuring: “Go for a walk; cultivate hunches; write everything down, but keep your folders messy; embrace serendipity; make generative mistakes; take on multiple hobbies; frequent coffeehouses and other liquid networks; follow the links; let others build on your ideas; borrow; recycle; reinvent.” Think across disciplines. Don’t focus so damn much.
Johnson himself is a stellar example of this approach—an exuberant polymath leaping nimbly from business to biology to information theory to cultural history. His freshest insights concern the commonalities between fecund natural and human-made environments—hence his subtitle, “The Natural History of Innovation.” But he passes over a key implication of that connection: the role of privation in spurring innovation. Coral reefs are poor in nutrients, so critters devise elaborate strategies and collaborations to get them. Bacteria diversify more when starved of food. It’s the penniless poets and tinkerers in the coffeehouses, not the smug lords in their manors, who change the world.
Johnson also cheers too hard for the new information technologies. Yes, Google and Wikipedia encourage serendipitous browsing more than library shelves do. But an old-fashioned encyclopedia can encourage it even more.
Maybe I’ll argue that point with Johnson tonight. True to its title, his book should be good fodder for words and wine.
Steven Johnson, Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Evolution
Presented by Kim Rickets Book Events
Thursday, Oct 7, 7pm
Sorrento Hotel (Top of the Town ballroom)
900 Madison Street, Seattle
$50 includes wine, appetizer, and a copy of the book