Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Book Review: Where Good Ideas Come From

This is the book that gave me a reason to buy a Mac. But it's still not my favorite by the author -- I'll have to reserve that honor for The Ghost Map, which has a paradoxically broader impact by focusing more on a historical narrative, by, for example, including the contribution of the local parson and the conservative intransigence of the scientific establishment, both aspects missing from Where Good Ideas Come From's larger-view but also more selective history. Still, it's better than The Invention of Air, reviewed previously on this blog, because the lessons are more coherent and the take-home message is simple and solid.
The main thing I take away from this book is not so much the ideas contained in it -- as Steven Johnson admits in the final paragraph, the ideas are simple (although he doesn't connect them to the religious values of wonder and humility as I would!) -- but rather I take away a few pages in which Johnson described in glowing terms Devonthink, the writer's database that he uses to find hidden associations among his notes. Devonthink uses a very cool AI system to suggest relatedness among quotes that don't share words, but do share underlying concepts.
Unfortunately, Devonthink is ONLY available for the Mac. All I have is an old iPhone, and there's Devonthink To Go for that, except ... the AI search is not included in that. I'm going to have to hope someone makes a cool search tool for OneNote, which I have, that would do something similar. I'm not holding my breath. I'm going to have to recreate the 19th-century "commonplace book" using the 21st-century tools at hand! Proprietary walls of the sort that Johnson decries ironically keep me from adapting his favored program to my writing. Alas.
The book is haunted by Malcolm Gladwell, and to Johnson's credit he cites Gladwell when appropriate. It's practical, extremely easy to read, and includes stories about innovation that are novel and useful. It's just not quite the sum of its parts. One thing that bothers me about all these innovation books is, where's the theology? Where's the innovation in theology caused by Gutenberg's innovation? What role does that have to play in things? Johnson's approach is deliberately bottom-up, from nature to innovation, but I have a hunch that the other direction may be somehow fruitful too. It seem omitted from the entire genre. This isn't really Johnson's fault, it's more a cultural blind spot.
Useful quotes that are going in my OneNote database soon to be started:
"The trick to having good ideas is not to sit around in glorious isolation and try to think big thoughts. The trick is to get more parts on the table." (After a nice reference to the best scene in Apollo 13) p.42
"If you looked at the map of idea formation that Dunbar created, the ground zero of innovation was not the microscope. It was the conference table." p. 61

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