Where Good Ideas Come from by Steven Johnson [Book Summary – Review]

4,000,000,000 years previously, atoms of carbon moved here and there in the prebiotic broth. However, when life started, atoms of carbon did not impromptu organize themselves into such complicated life forms as squirrels and sunflowers.

For starters, they needed to create easier arrangements such as particles, polypeptides, polymers, primal organisms, cells, etc. Every stair on the ladder made available opportunities for novel combinations, extending the range of the thing that was achievable until eventually, an atom of carbon became able to remain inside a sunflower.

Likewise, it was impossible to form eBay during the 1950s. Initially, it was necessary that computers were invented; after this, there was a need to find a means to link those computers; after this, a WWW was required for individuals to use the Internet; finally, we could create a platform where people could realize online monetary transactions.

Not only evolution but also innovation have an inclination to take place within the borders of the nearest possible; Put differently, the area of possibilities ready at any specific time.

Huge jumps further away the nearest possible occur seldom and are predestined to be unsuccessful in the short-run when the context is just still unprepared for them. If YouTube had begun its life during the 1990s, this might have been unsuccessful due to the absence of rapid Internet connections and of the software needed to watch videos that would be online then.

The preponderance in a lot of innovation stresses the way the nearest possible is restrained by present components and information. Multiplication takes place if some people individually discover the same thing nearly concurrently.

The isolation of oxygen was achieved by Scheele and Joseph Priestley in 1772 and 1774 respectively, both of them not knowing what the other discovered. However, there was a common beginning point since their quest for oxygen would be impossible to start before the gassy quality of air would initially be comprehended. Therefore, it was inescapable that several scientists would make their discoveries nearly simultaneously.

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Chapter 1 – World-transforming ideas typically develop gradually as small intuition instead of ‘aha’ moments.

While huge discoveries may appear as single, definite ‘aha’-moments if one looks back, they actually have a tendency to be made gradually. They resemble gradually growing leisurely intuitions, which necessitate time and development to take place.

What Darwin says is that the natural choice theory just occurred to him while he was pondering on Malthus’ scripts about the increase in the number of people. However, what his notes disclose is that very prior to this sudden realization, as he describes so in his words, Darwin had by then elucidated an almost full natural choice theory. This leisurely intuition simply evolved into a completely established theory gradually.

Simply when we take look back in the past the thought looked so apparent that this should have occurred to him instantaneously. After having listened to Darwin’s theory initially, an adherent of Darwin shouted, “How extremely foolish not to realize that!”

There is one other slow hunch that ignited a huge change in how people disseminate information in the present time: the World Wide Web.

When he was a kid, Berners-Lee perused a book that was written in the Victorian age, and the idea of the “gate for info” in the book engrossed him. After more than a decade, while he was employed at the lab of CERN in Switzerland as a counselor and partly inspired by what he had read, he was working on improving a leisure activity that enabled him to save and connect pieces of information, such as points in a web. After a decade passed, CERN officially empowered Lee to go with the project, and this eventually evolved into a web that enabled documents on various computers to be connected via hypertext links. Following tens of years of Lee’s leisurely intuition growing and improving, the WWW came into existence.

Chapter 2 – We can think of platforms as jumping-off points for inventions.

Ecologists utilize the label “keystone species” for defining organisms that have a lot more significance for the well-being of the flora and fauna. On a tiny island where there is no predator except some wolves, the sheep population remains under control thanks to those wolves, hence preventing them from consuming the island’s vegetation fully and causing the whole ecosystem to fail.

Roughly twenty years ago, ecologists became aware that some particular and significant kind of the main species guaranteed its period completely. Ecosystem engineers in fact develop livable environments for different species, constructing platforms of which some other organisms can take advantage as well. Think about, for instance, the beavers which dam rivers, causing forests to become marshland, and corals create flourishing reefs amid the ocean.

We can also find platforms like these in the field of innovation, and we use them as diving points for jumping to the nearest. The GPS constitutes a perfect instance of a platform like this. Incipiently created for martial purposes, in the present time, it has paved the way for innumerable innovations, ranging from rotation finding, services based on location, and promotions.

Platforms usually build one after another, which suggests that a single one establishes the basis of further platforms, which also play a role in a myriad of novel innovations.

Beavers cut trees that decay and draw woodpeckers to make nesting holes inside them. However, after peckers opened holes and left, songbirds started dwelling inside these holes. The pecker played a role in the formation of a place to live for songbirds.

Twitter has a story that resembles that of songbirds: that network was developed upon protocols that were present at the time, the Web became the foundation for Twitter, and Twitter became a foundation on which innumerable applications have been developed, nearest possible continued to broaden at each stage.

Chapter 3 – Invention and advancement flourish when they are in extensive webs.

Any existence in our planet (and possibly any alien life forms in the universe) originated from carbon since it is essentially great at creating links to surrounding atoms and is, therefore, able to build intricate strings of particles. These links enable novel structures such as proteins to begin to exist. Had it not been for carbon, our planet would probably have stayed as a still blend of chemicals.

Links help ideas become easier as well. After humans initially started to adjust to encampments, cities, and districts, they began to be part of webs, which helped humans be introduced to novel ideas and enabled them to disseminate findings. Prior to these connections, a new idea that someone came up with could completely vanish with its owner due to the absence of any network for the idea to disseminate. Excellent ideas emerge among the masses.

In order to better comprehend the sources of scientific discoveries, psychologists during the 1990s devised a plan which involved recording all that took place in 4 biological science labs. When we think of such a field as molecular biology, important breakthroughs are carried out by scrutinizing by means of a microscope. Impressively, the psychologists found out that the most significant ideas popped into microbiologists’ heads when they are at routine lab meetings in which the scientists colloquially talked about their work.

There is also different research that has demonstrated the most inventive people possess wide social webs that go beyond outside the organization they’re working for and thus gain novel insights by way of a lot of diverse contexts.

Cities render large networks like these easier and large networks enable the dissemination and combination of ideas in new forms. This makes up one reason that megacities are creative compared to tinier settlements like towns. In the present time, however, the city lost its position as the best creative network to the WWW, which develops, brings together, and spreads ideas better compared to any network prior to its existence.

Chapter 4 – Cooperation is as significant an impetus for invention as a rivalry.

The capacity of creators and business people to profit from their breakthroughs is usually considered an important impetus for innovation. However, though the marketing potency of innovations really promotes innovation, it creates copyrights and further limitations preventing the spread and additional improvement of ideas.

Therefore, in concern of innovation, the exact markets that are expected to ensure efficiency through recognizing creators are actually structurally against efficiency since they artificially hinder ideas from diffusing and coming together with others. 

During the last sixty decades, huge breakthroughs and inventions appear to have more and more veered away from single inventors to a web of individuals. Furthermore, as the era of capitalism came into existence and developed, many huge breakthroughs have remained unrecognized through the marketplace. WWW, relativity theory, X-rays, computers, heart batteries, and antibiotics make up several examples in which the creator did not earn money.

Surely, market-driven innovation has proved to be a lot more efficient than invention in such command economies as the USSR, however, this does not indicate that is the best method to go forward. It is true that inventors may indeed merit to be recognized, however, the actual question we should pose is what is the way of boosting innovation at large.

In his book On the Root of Types, Darwin put equal stress on the miracle of intricate cooperation among types like the natural choice that takes place due to rivalry for materials. Likewise, overt networks of collaboration among innovations have the capacity of being just as productive as a hard rivalry. Unoccupied marketplaces have hugely driven innovation, however, the same thing goes for collaboration as well, overt method of disseminating information on webs.

Chapter 5 – Arbitrary links in ideas spur innovation.

The capacity of carbon in binding to surrounding atoms was crucial for the development of existence, however, there was a second vital factor that was required: H2O.

Water acts calmly and violently, dissolving and wearing down all that stands in its way, hence nurturing novel sorts of links among atoms of the primal soup. Equally significant, the powerful hydrogen connections of water particles played an important role in securing those connections.

This blend of disorder and balance is the reason behind liquid networks’ being the most appropriate for the development of existence and creativity. It is necessary for innovative networks as well to totter on the verge of disorder, in that generative area between stability and chaos, in the same fashion as water.

Arbitrary connections prompt lucky breakthroughs. Dreams, for instance, can be considered as the primal soup of invention, in which ideas bind with each other apparently haphazardly. Really, neuroscientists have corroborated “sleeping on something” is of big assistance in finding an answer to it. Over ten decades prior, a German chemistry specialist Kekulé saw in his dream a huge mythological snake gobbling its tail, immediately later he understood the way carbon atoms as a circle created the particle “benzene”.

However, it looks like disruption and inventiveness have a connection at a neurological stage.

Ideas actually display an intricate web of nerve cells sparking around our brains, and novel ideas are likely to occur only if novel bonds are established.

For reasons not yet disclosed, nerve cells in our brains change from conditions of disorder – in which they fire totally at random with one another – to arranged stage-lock conditions – in which big groups of nerve cells spark at precisely the same rate back to states of chaos.

How long one spends in each of the states varies from one brain to another. Slightly illogically, research has demonstrated that the more extended the period of chaos one’s brain is inclined to live, the intelligent one generally is.

Chapter 6 – Haphazard breakthroughs can be rendered easier through a common mental or bodily area.

If ideas meet in a common bodily or mental area, for instance, people from diverse fields gathering, inventive collisions take place. Think about the contemporary societal inventions in the 1920s. Most of them followed hugely from authors, artists, and poets coming together at those similar cafes in Paris. Common interplays let ideas spread, roam, and become blended arbitrarily with people.

At the personal stage, rendering easier haphazard connections like this is merely about concurrently presenting ideas from diverse fields into your mind. Such innovators as Charles Darwin and Benjamin Franklin preferred studying on various projects concurrently, in a sort of sluggish multitasking fashion. An idea may occupy their minds for a long time at a moment; however, then it would remain at the rear of the brain afterward as well, thus it would be possible to establish links to ideas.

John Locke, a philosophy person, recognized the significance of citation at a very early time, in 1652 in which he started creating a complex system for listing what included his run-of-the-mill book – originally a logbook of intriguing ideas and findings. Books like these established his treasury of thoughts and intuitions, developing and anticipating to be combined with novel projects.

At an institutional stage, the important thing for invention and revelation is a web that helps intuitions to develop, spread, and connect to other people freely.

The most prominent of such a network that exists is, certainly, the Internet, in which a treasury of thoughts is both accessible and hyperlinked for simple bonds between various fields.

Chapter 7 – Excellent innovations arise from environments partially spoiled by failures.

Failure exists not only in the development of existence but also in the invention of important projects, and this can be a good thing.

Think about natural procreation: genes passed down from father to progeny, giving “construction prescriptions” for the way the progeny should grow. Unless random mutations hadn’t taken place, which refers to arbitrary failures in these prescriptions, development could have stopped a very long time ago. Tusks of elephants or feathers of peacocks could have never developed had solely the best reproductions of present genes produced. Mutations provide life forms with novel features. Though many of those turned out to be drastically unsuccessful, these errors create several winners as well, therefore being an impetus for evolution.

Likewise, the sole reason as to how Alexander Fleming found out penicillin was an error: Fleming wrongly let a bacteria specimen be polluted by moldiness and started to contemplate what had annihilated the bacteria. Really, huge novel scientific theories usually start as annoying little mistakes in the throughput that continuously show that there is something erroneous in the prevailing theory.

Those errors that we cannot overcome urge us to take on novel tactics and to renounce our outdated theories.

In one research, Charlan Nemeth, a psychology specialist demonstrated two sets of individuals presentations that have diverse tones and wanted the participants of the research to link phrases once they’ve viewed one slide every time. This is where the error lies: In the second set of people, Nemeth added participants who sometimes claimed to view distinct shades than the original one displayed, for example, “green” while the presentation was actually blue.

The initial team said just the most expected associations (such as “airspace” for the blue presentation), however, the other was a lot more creative than the first group. The “error” inserted into the second group compelled them to think up more potential associations than merely the expected ones.

Chapter 8 – Innovation flourishes through reinvention and reusing of the former.

Biology specialists of evolution utilize the term exaptation to explain the phenomenon in which a feature first formed for a particular aim is ultimately utilized in a thoroughly diverse means. Feathers, to give an example, first developed as a means of temperature adjustment, however, in the present time, the pinion structure assists birds to fly.

Usually, ideas have likewise new aims that are different from the original. Lee invented the Internet for the purpose of a device for academicians, however, over time, it began to be a platform for buying stuff online, social networking, pornography, and so forth. Johannes Gutenberg, however, came up with a creative benefit from a millennium-old invention: he joined the old technology of winepresses – employed in getting the juice of grapes – with his information regarding metallurgy and built the world’s earliest printing press.

Unusual applications of old or even outdated objects and ideas drive invention. Nairobian shoemakers produced rubber sandals by way of vehicle wheels, further, Gustave Flaubert penned Sentimental Education for a distortion of the old novel genre. It is reconfigured into the novel.

Abandoned spaces undergo change via innovation, too. In the same fashion that the skeletal shape that remained after the death of coral establishes the foundation of the diverse and blooming ecological system of the cliff, deserted buildings, and neighborhoods in poor conditions are usually the original houses of inventive city subcultures. Usually, their unorthodox ideas and experimentation are not suitable for superficially showy run-of-the-mill malls or shopping streets at first, however, old structures enable subcultures to get in touch and create projects that afterward spread and seep into the ordinary.

Where Good Ideas Come from: The Natural History of Innovation by Steven Johnson Book Review

Not only evolution but also innovation flourish in cooperative networks in which there are possibilities for haphazard connections. Huge breakthroughs usually mature as leisurely intuitions, developing, and bringing together other ideas in the course of time.

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Savaş Ateş

I'm a software engineer. I like reading books and writing summaries. I like to play soccer too :) Good Reads Profile: https://www.goodreads.com/user/show/106467014-sava-ate

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