Where Good Ideas Come From, 4 minute version

Here's a short video promo for Steven Johnson's upcoming Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation, a lecture on the way that transformative ideas incubate for long times, come out of left field, and thrive best when there's no one foreclosing on them because they're too weird or disruptive. It's inspiring stuff, and a real indictment of proprietary and closed systems that put blocks and hurdles in the way of creators in the name of "good user experience" or legal compliance.

WHERE GOOD IDEAS COME FROM by Steven Johnson (via Kottke)


  1. “2 or 3 years, sometimes 10 or 20 years”

    He’s selling pure science short…

    Actually, it’s 2 or 3 years, sometimes 10 or 20 years, sometimes 100 or 200 years.

    If it’s 2 or 3 years, we call it engineering. If it’s 10 or 20 years, we call it applied science. If it’s 100 or 200 years, we call it pure science.

    (We don’t have a separate word for “1000 or 2000 years”, but the only example I can think of is more a question of “and then the Romans invaded and nobody did any new mathematics for close on two millenia”.)

  2. Cory, Cory, Cory.

    ‘a real indictment of proprietary and closed systems that put blocks and hurdles in the way of creators in the name of “good user experience”‘

    You cannot resist trying to bruise an Apple, can you?

    1. “You cannot resist trying to bruise an Apple, can you?”
      Well, of course he can’t, and that’s totally fine by me. Screw the new Microsoft.
      Those walls aren’t just barriers to cultural and scientific innovation. Why should anyone have to pay for law reports, when they are necessary for an exact understanding of how justice is administered? Or freedom-of-information requests? Its not that there’s necessarily a widespread demand for that info, but innovation in law and politics is at least as vital for the good life as innovation in other areas, and it won’t happen as long as the professional class is the only group assured of access to that information.

    2. ‘a real indictment of proprietary and closed systems that put blocks and hurdles in the way of creators in the name of “good user experience”‘

      You cannot resist trying to bruise an Apple, can you?

      Methinks the lady doth protest too much… if you read carefully, you’ll see that Cory did not, in fact, mention Apple, and that his sentence continued. Is Apple really so bad that any mention of “proprietary and closed systems” is automatically read as being aimed at Apple?

  3. “…indictment of proprietary and closed systems that put blocks and hurdles in the way of creators in the name of “good user experience” or legal compliance…”

    Way cool to go off topic there. I know Apple has trampled your ego more than once and I kind of dislike them also, but it has zero to do with this. In fact, I would argue that Apple has created more space for creative people to intermingle with the iPhone, iChat, FaceTime, Ping, MobileMe, iSight, Wiki Server, Apple Developer Discussion Boards, et cetera et cetera. after all, that is what the Steven Johnson is saying: Communication is the essence of innovation.

    Steven Johnson never touches upon the subject of proprietary technology, you, Cory, only thought this was another opportunity to bash Apple. Can we next time we bash Apple at least have it relevant to the topic please?

  4. “It’s inspiring stuff, and a real indictment of proprietary and closed systems that put blocks and hurdles in the way of creators in the name of “good user experience” or legal compliance.”

    I have to agree with others who’ve commented. I really enjoyed this little film, and was more than a little confused by your description of it. Where/how does he even hint at closed and proprietary systems being a hindrance to creativity? That may be your personal experience, Cory, but it has nothing to do with this article. If you want to kick a dead horse, please limit it to dead-horse-kicking articles.

  5. Guys, don’t you all see?? The iPhone’s *proprietary* and *closed* browser application prevents you from exchanging ideas with other people on the web! Only people who use their own forked branch of Firefox on Ubuntu can have good ideas, sheeple!

  6. A recent article (in Arstechnica, Analog, I forget) talks about the crisis in physics. No new ideas in 50 years. The problem is traced to not enough unorthodox thinkers. Most of physics is populated by very smart people who understand physics (the equations, implications, etc). The real breakthroughs are made by people who say “I don’t understand what the heck you are doing, but here’s an explanation I do understand.” Feynman was a good example. Feynman diagrams came about because all the chromodynamics math was a pain in the ass.

    I believe a lot of good ideas come about that way. They either need to come from left field, or someone in the field who is just confused and trying to make things work.

    I can also speak from experience. I was asked by marketing to come up with a product that, I later learned, “violated physics”. For 50 years people had tried to build the device efficiently. There was even a rule of thumb on how close you could get. But no one told me.

    Being a dumb engineer from the wrong field and not knowing any better, I applied the wrong tools. And it worked. Perfectly. Physics had it wrong because of a simplification to the differential equation boundary conditions. I got it right because I didn’t know algebra wasn’t supposed to work.

    Yeah, I was lucky as hell.

  7. I get the dig at proprietary systems, it’s because Johnson talks toward the end of the vid about how the best ideas are often a conglomerate from two or more people who shared their individual ideas online, which someone or one of them then combined or remixed somehow. Proprietary systems or ideas don’t generally make it online without being wrapped in some form of “intellectual property” first.

  8. Clever film, but this isn’t really a new idea is it?

    James Burke’s whole ‘connections’ series, for example, was centered around pointing out bits of historical serendipity when ideas from different fields collided. Also, he made the point about technology allowing these ideas to collide at an ever faster rate.

    One point Burke stressed too, was that an ever-increasing level of specialization in our educational systems (and workforce overall), decreased the probability of these collisions occurring.

  9. anon #10. that is a GREAT story. Thank you for telling it.

    And kpallist. I agree with Burke’s last point about specialization. I was going to lead a brainstorming session with a bunch of engineers and was told that they didn’t want me to lead it because I didn’t know everything they did and it would just be a waste of time.

    They believed that they had already come up with any possible new ideas that would be useful and someone from another field couldn’t help them.

    Luckily their boss over ruled them and I didn’t take the slight personally (okay I did, but I tried to get over it.) The session I lead came up with 1 new successful product 2 successful marketing campaigns and one award winning concept. Sure they “did it all themselves” but someone was there helping them link the “slow hunches” as Johnson would say.
    I was very proud of my work helping them.

  10. Cory has become an example of the engineers in the comments who couldn’t get past the hump. The iPad is a dumb device that can’t be used to create because Cory sees it as a dumb device that can’t be used to create, never mind the many people who are actually using the device creatively. Luckily for us Cory doesn’t create these devices (only writes about them), otherwise we’d have overly complicated devices designed to do and allow everything but none of it well.

  11. I like the ideas put forth in this video, but the visual technique has definitely taken its inspiration from this little animated film about Google which uses the same zoom-out-to-form-a-bigger-picture trick:

  12. PS: If you want a strict example of a proprietary, closed system that throws barriers and hurdles in the way of new ideas, take a look at scientific publishing. The vast majority of scientific papers are not generally available on-line beyond the abstract. It’s not a big hurdle to get access to them [*], but big enough to derail a train of thought, especially if it was a tangent followed out of mere curiosity to begin with.

    [*] Generally the choice is between going through a paywall [+], visiting a university library in person and e-mailing the author to ask for a copy.

    [+] This payment is to the publisher only; the authors and reviewers are not paid by the publisher for their work.

  13. Not to take away from the brilliance of the presentation, but he just told us something we already know, to anyone who ever tried to be creative, this is but a generalization of being creative, except nobody needed examples to prove it; when an complementary idea strikes, no matter the source, eureka! Spelling it out does nothing for the process, by nature, the hunger exist seeking to fill that blank part. I would say the message about perseverance in there is more important.

    1. It might seem obvious to creative people, but to businesses whose job involves innovation, it isn’t obvious at all. From think thanks, to R&D groups, to intellectual property, to academia, companies like to take their unique ideas and close them off from the rest of the world. Sure, they will put our press releases saying they discovered something new, but they won’t let you know how it works until you pay them a lot of money and sign away your rights.

      I read about new inventions every day, but I can never find out how and why they work, because I have to go through science journals or NDAs to find the real information. I could spend thousands of dollars just reading papers to find that one hunch that collides with my own. If that’s my job, and I have good funding, then that’s what I’ll do, but most people who half of a good idea are only casually perusing the research looking for clues and aren’t about to spend thousands of dollars on it. Creativity suffers because of it.

      It’s no different within companies. The engineers are costly and their time is limited, so we don’t want the researchers talking to them until they have something that’s ready to build. We don’t want to talk to customers and perform studies until we know there is money on the table. Companies trip over themselves all of the time because they don’t want to try anything until the idea is present, but without giving it time and room to mingle, that idea will never be born.

      Artists and musicians are running into this constantly. Sampling and remixing has produced untold hundreds of albums by combining ideas from multiple artists to produce something new, but the copyright system has made that entire process illegal. Indie artists can’t pay hundreds of thousands of dollars for the rights to a song just so they can make their own mashups that they will then give away for free, and why should they? They are producing their own works, not redistributing the original, copyrighted work. We should be encouraging derivative works, not chaining them up with legally-enforced monopolies.

      And yes, even Apple’s policies stifle innovation. Forcing new apps to go through the app store. The restrict policies of the app store. Disallowing people from seeing and modifying the underlying OS. Apple has placed strict guidelines on what people are allowed to innovate on. You can make anything you want, as long as you don’t try to improve on what Apple has already done.

      If we want to stimulate creativity, we need to tear down the walls. Let people combine anything they can see. Let them modify everything they can get their hands on. Let them distribute their works and ideas, without anybody saying which ideas are worthy of attention. We need to stop making everything secret and start sharing our ideas again.

  14. While it is true that there is a lot of information and cool stuff behind the walls of copyright, professional publications, intellectual property, trade mark, and corporate walls, I think this objection is largely beside the point. Creative thought starts with conditions at a pretty basic and available level: the ordinary business of life, the world and the way things function. Anon #10’s post about his invention that “violated physics” speaks to the point that having access and understanding of complicated existing systems is not always an advantage to creativity. “Luck” and serendipity, also sometimes called “historical necessity,” are part of the mix, but perseverence is required. The passage of time, as sabik pointed out, is out of our control.
    For example, the Library at Alexandria which was burned in the first century A.D. (or C.E.), is believed to have contained the highest concentration of knowledge in the western world at that time. There were few actual humans who could travel and access that information, yet the innovations and creativity of that period were not necessarily cramped by its inaccessibility, any more than creativity came to a complete halt after it was destroyed. The “Pax Romana” of that period provided instead a boon to connectivity, if you will, that has been unrivaled in its impact by anything short of the world wide web.
    It is the peaceful, available connections between people, such as the comments in this blog, which can lead to new ideas. While they may be hampered by the legal and financial walls erected by corporations, I think it is clear from the comments of RevEng, sabik, fergus, et al., that in fact corporations are inimical to innovation (for all their “need” for “new” products and services), and have already cast themselves, along with the locked vaults of professional knowledge, off to the side of the fascinating journey toward new ideas.

  15. Interesting, but at its root, it’s epistemologically sloppy. NONE of the important concepts are defined in any way other than by relying on loose, common-language definitions of critical terms, such as “idea,” “hunch,” “creativity,” and “innovation.” No sense of what determines whether an idea is good. Without a firm notions of “what” is being described, how can you have a point of view on where it comes from?

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