three-and-half-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
50-Jan-Feb-2011
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The Natural History of Innovation

A-Where Good Ideas Come FromA former columnist for Slate, Wired, and Discover Magazine, Steven Johnson has published several works of popular science, including best-selling accounts of the race to understand a devastating disease (The Ghost Map: The Story of London's Most Terrifying Epidemic--and How It Changed Science, Cities, and the Modern World, 3.5 of 5 Stars Jan/Feb 2007) and the discovery of oxygen (The Invention of Air: A Story of Science, Faith, Revolution, and the Birth of America, 3.5 of 5 Stars Mar/Apr 2009).

The Topic: "If we want to understand where good ideas come from," declares Johnson, "we have to put them in context." Drawing on psychology, history, and the natural sciences, Johnson sets out to determine the types of environments that are most conducive to generating good ideas. Favoring the "slow hunch" nurtured by years of reflection (rather than the exceedingly rare and overrated "eureka" moment), he argues that new ideas are limited by the supply of existing ideas from which people can draw inspiration. Consequently, innovation thrives in open networks of freely flowing information from various disciplines where ideas collide, break apart, and recombine in new and unexpected ways. "The more we embrace these patterns," Johnson argues, "the better we will be at tapping our extraordinary capacity for innovative thinking."
Riverhead. 336 pages. $26.95. ISBN: 9781594487712

Dallas Morning News 4 of 5 Stars
"Reviewers with a strong ideological bent (toward either left or right) are likely to take issue with his conclusions about the value of market-based economies, intellectual property restrictions vs. open-source technologies, and individual vs. collaborative models of innovation. But few will dispute that the book is thought-provoking in the best possible way." Fred Bortz

Independent (UK) 4 of 5 Stars
"What do coral reefs, Italian Renaissance city states and Twitter have in common? Steven Johnson's achievement in Where Good Ideas Come From is to establish such connections entirely convincingly. The book is subtitled ‘a natural history of innovation', and delivers precisely this, shedding equal light on evolution in the natural world and in human culture and technology." Peter Forbes

Los Angeles Times 4 of 5 Stars
"Like all of Johnson's books, Where Good Ideas Comes From is fluidly written, entertaining and smart without being arcane." Alex Soojung-Kim Pang

Oregonian 4 of 5 Stars
"He's excessively sanguine--and at times a bit glib--about the impact of iPods, iPads, Web searches, text messages and Tweets. ... Whether he's illuminating the ‘slow hunch' that led Wilson Greatbatch to invent the cardiac pacemaker or comparing the role of serendipity in newspapers and the Web, Johnson is always provocative and never dull." Glenn C. Altschuler

Boston Globe 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Johnson's concepts are strong and his explanations are credible. But after a while one tires of explanation. Ultimately, good ideas come from people. Johnson is most convincing when he slows down to let us spend time with them." Buzzy Jackson

Scotsman (UK) 3 of 5 Stars
"At its best, this book is a skilful work of intellectual synthesis, but though Johnson's examples are imaginatively chosen and the lessons drawn from them are never dull, Where Good Ideas Come From is essentially an argument by anecdote, sometimes supported by incomplete précis. Despite the delight it takes in weaving skeins of connective tissue between disparate ideas, it reads like an overextended New Yorker article with none of the gritty detail that would ultimately convince." David Stenhouse

Wall Street Journal 3 of 5 Stars
"Where Good Ideas Come From is filled with fascinating, if sometimes tangential, anecdotes from the history of entrepreneurship and scientific discovery. The result is that the book often seems less a grand theory of innovation than a collection of stories and theories about creativity that Steven Johnson happens to find interesting." Megan McArdle

Critical Summary

Applauded as "a voyage of discovery" by the Dallas Morning News and "a magical mystery tour" by the Oregonian, Good Ideas is an in-depth exploration of creativity that mines both the human and natural worlds for insights and patterns in an attempt to understand what stirs the human mind. The critics were generally pleased with Johnson's nimble writing and illuminating conclusions, but a few pointed out some problems in execution--namely, the copious anecdotes he uses to support his arguments. Though entertaining, the dizzying jumps from one fascinating story to the next, often covering several centuries and multiple continents in a single chapter, overwhelmed the narrative. However, Johnson's skepticism of "eureka" moments is worth the price of admission.