Saturday, December 25, 2010

Where Do Bad Ideas Come From?

I made a mistake and bought Steven Johnson's Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation (New York: Penguin Publishing, 2010) for Christmas reading.

The central idea of this book is that good ideas are not produced by single geniuses, but by connected networks. He claims: "what you really need to kind of begin with [sic], is this idea that an idea is a network on the most elemental level." Put differently, "ideas are works of bricolage; they’re built out of that detritus. We take the ideas we’ve inherited or that we’ve stumbled across, and we jigger them together into some new shape." Or: "A new idea is a network of cells exploring the adjacent possible of connections that they can make in your mind." In supporting this notion, Johnson uses "Kauffman’s notion of the adjacent possible is the continuum it suggests between natural and man-made systems."

The two other central ideas of the book are those of "slow hunches" and "serendipity." Johnson thinks that "slow hunches ... mature ... by stealth, in small steps. They fade into view." Or: "Ideas rise in crowds, as PoincarĂ© said. They rise in liquid networks where connection is valued more than protection." Many of these ideas are serendipitous. Those who have good ideas are “always making discoveries, by accident and sagacity, of things they were not in quest of.”

The conclusion he "argues" for by producing anecdotal evidence (perhaps better stories) about discoveries in the sciences is that in order to produce good ideas, we should create an environment in which bricolage, slow hunches and serendipity are encouraged.

The book ends with a long list of "good ideas," like "World Wide Web (1989-1992)," "Asteroid Extinction (1980)," "MRI (1974)," "VCR (1956)," "GPS (1958)," "Ecosystem (1935)," "Nylon (1937)," etc., etc. These examples take up far too much of the book, as far as I am concerned. They seem to be just filler to get to a respectable number of pages for a book.

It's not that I am unsympathetic to Johnson's point of view, but I think his book represents half-baked goods.[1] My main objection to Johnson's "argument" is that he does not show where good ideas come from. At the very most, he shows how any old (new) idea may arise. But for any example of a good idea he gives, one might adduce a bad one, like "Social Darwinism," Fascism," "Nationalism," "Consumerism," "Phrenology," "Eugenics," "Epicycles," etc. And he himself mentions a few bad ones among what he takes to be good ideas, like "Gatling Gun (1861)" and "Motorcycle (1885)." How do these bad ideas arise? In the same way that good ideas arise. The trick, if it is a "trick," is to differentiate between the two. Poincaré's ideas may have arisen in a crowd, but he knew which one's to pick and develop.[2]

Johnson makes not the slightest effort to deal with that problem. It would have been good to leave "good" out of the title. Come to think of it, it would have been better for Johnson to have reflected a bit more before publishing these ideas as a book. Johnson's "slow hunch" would have benefited from being slower.

I am not sure either that Johnson has even identified the necessary conditions of the possibility of ideas, even though he may have stumbled on some of their sufficient conditions.

1. See Where Do Good Ideas Come From? and An Archipelago of Inspiring Quotes, for instance.

2. Nor is this point identical with the cautionary maxim that we should not discard ideas too early (as being obviously bad).

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