Authors@Google presents Steven Johnson: "Where Good Ideas Come From"

Uploaded by AtGoogleTalks on 20.12.2010

>>Amy: Hi. Isaiah Berlin wrote that "the fox knows many little things, but the hedgehog
knows one big thing". Steven Johnson knows many big things. Steven Johnson is not only
the author of books like "Everything Bad is Good for You," "Interface Culture" and "Mind
Wide Open." But he's also an entrepreneur and founder of early online communities. He
founded "", a provider of hyper-local news and information as well as two influential
websites; the pioneering web feed, "Seed," and the community news discussion site,
"Emergence" is not only a title of one of his books, but is also a theme throughout
his works. "The Ghost Map" illustrates the emergence of public health; "The Invention
of Air", the emergence of science, and his latest book, "Where Good Ideas Come From:
The Natural History of Innovation", looks at the emergence of the new. Innovation is,
of course, central to Google and in his latest book, Steven explores the space of innovation,
observing the environments and networks from which good ideas emerge from coral reefs to
Building 20 at MIT. He debunks the myth of the lone genius, suddenly struck by inspiration
and instead, dwells on all of the work that that genius has built on and connects to.
And most importantly for Googlers, Steven proposes six specific patterns that foster
innovation within environments. So, please join me in welcoming Steven Johnson to the
Authors@Google series.
>>Steven: Thank you, Amy. It's great to be back at Google. As always, you all are wonderful
people I like to be around. I’m always inspired by the things that you do, so it's an honor
to be back to talk about this new book. So, I wanted to say I come here via Chicago, where
I was talking on Wednesday night, but before that, I was in D.C., talking to some people
in the government and did a very fun thing at the White House. But then on Tuesday, I
was talking about this book and these ideas in the intelligence community, because they
were doing a series on being more innovative and creative inside of bureaucracy. So, they
invited me to come in and give this talk and they called me up and they said, "Listen,
here's the deal. We have to send a special car to pick you up because the building where
you're gonna speak does not show up on Google Maps anywhere, even in satellite view. You
won't see it at all. So, we have to take you to this special, secure, undisclosed location."
Which sounded really intimidating, but then when I got there, it turned out it was great
because there's very little Foursquare competition there, so I'm now the mayor of the location.
I think Cheney was the mayor before, but I can't come out.
Anyway, so it's nice to be in a slightly more open, architecture environment. So, I wanna
talk about this new book, and talk about a little bit about the arguments and then talk
a bit about some of the things that I think are happening, particularly with books and
e-books, and some of the things that you guys are on the cutting edge right now. So, I'm
gonna do a little bit of the book talk and a little bit of something custom-tailored
for this particular venue. One of these I would start by doing is telling you a little
bit about how I got to this project. It actually dates back to book that Amy alluded to, which
is a book called "The Ghost Map", which I was here talking about four years ago. "The
Ghost Map" is a story about a cholera epidemic in London, in the 1850s. And I got interested
in the story because it was one of those things that I kept colliding with from different
angles. So, I'd be reading something about the history of science and I would stumble
across this story. And then I'd be reading something about interface design, or cartography,
because there's a map at the center and I would stumble across this story, or I would
read about something and the history of public health and I would stumble across this story.
And anytime there's some interesting nugget of historical data or some perspective of
person that you keep colliding with from different angles, it's always a sign that something
interesting is going on. And so, I decided to dig in a little bit more and the story
is I heard it; went something like this: It's 1854 in London. The city, like many cities
in Europe and in the United States, is being regularly attacked by this terrible disease
of cholera. Every five years or so, a big epidemic will roll through the city. Five
thousand people will die over the course of a summer. Nobody really understands it, but
the reigning orthodox theory about cholera is that it's in the air. It's the miasma theory
with the dominant model for understanding it, which was somewhat understandable because
London was probably the smelliest city in all of the world at that particular point.
So people naturally assume that this noxious air that they were breathing had to be the
culprit here. But, in fact, we now know that cholera was in the water. It was not at all
a problem of poisonous vapors; it was because the water supply was contaminated by this
bacterium. So, this outbreak rips through the neighborhood of Soho in London in late
August, early September of 1854. It kills ten percent of the population in the space
of about ten days. And in the middle of all this, this lone genius, this brilliant man,
a local doctor named John Snow goes right into the belly of the beast of the outbreak
and starts knocking on doors, investigating what's going on with this outbreak and calculating
who has died at what address. And he built this map, and the map shows the number of
deaths at each address in the neighborhood with this little, black bars. And when you
look at the map, you can see very clearly that there's this very strong pronounced cluster
of deaths right around a popular pump at the center of Soho at 40 Broad Street. And you
can see the further you get from the pump, the deaths fade away. And so he looks at this
map and he says, "Aha! The problem is with the water. It's not in the air. Cholera is
a water-borne disease, so if we can clear the water up whatever this is causing this;
we'll rid the city of this terrible menace." So, he goes to the authorities, convinces
them of his theory. They remove the pump handle, the epidemic stops, they start building things
like the London sewers to clean up the water supply and by 1866, the cholera is gone from
London forever. So I thought, "That's a great story. It'll be like a Victorian episode of
CSI. It's got a page-turner kind of feel, but it's a triumph of science and all this
kind of stuff." So, I started to really research it in earnest for this book, and what I found
was, quite quickly, was that almost every important fact in that story that I just told
you was wrong. And the first part of it was that Snow had the theory of cholera as a water-borne
disease for six years before the outbreak came to Soho. He was convinced in late 1848
that, in fact, everybody was wrong about this disease and, in fact, it was a water-borne
problem, not an air-borne problem. And he wrote a number of essays, wrote a number of
letters to "The Lancet", he actually created a couple of other maps and basically, his
whole theory was roundly ignored by the authorities for a very long time. When the outbreak finally
came to Soho, the map he made was actually not triggering a eureka moment--a sudden moment
of clarity in his head--it was, in fact, more of a marketing vehicle for an idea that he'd
had for a long time that he'd been working on for a long period of time. And it turned
out, also, that Snow's interest in all this was actually just a hobby that he had on the
side. Most of us don't have cholera as a hobby, but Snow was that kind of guy,
He was trained as a physician and an anesthesiologist, but he was interested in a million different
things, and cholera was one of those things. In fact, it turns out to be a trait of a lot
of people that I look at in this new book that unusually innovative people have a lot
of hobbies. This is a very interesting characteristic. So, it turned out to be precisely because
he did have a number of different hobbies and interests that it was the interaction
between all these different passions that allowed him to see around a lot of the orthodoxies
of the day and solve this riddle in a way that other medical authorities couldn't. But
the most important thing that I found in researching this book was that Snow had a collaborator
that no one had talked about. It was almost entirely written out of the historical accounts
of this outbreak. And this collaborator was this guy named Henry Whitehead, who was a
local vicar; not at all a man of science. He was one of these local vicars, he was a
classic connector figure who knew everyone in the neighborhood, he had a great social
intelligence and he got involved in the case, initially actually, to try to prove Snow wrong,
which was kind of funny, and then became an ally of Snow's. And it was Whitehead who did
a lot of the shoe-leather detective work; particularly in tracking down people who had
left the neighborhood because he had these thick ties to them socially. And it was Whitehead
who ended up tracking down the patient zero of the whole outbreak, which turned out to
be crucial in addition to the map in convincing the authorities that Snow's theory was right.
So, what had been this kind of classic story of the lone genius having a eureka moment
of sudden clarity, turned out to be a much slower, much more complex, and much more collaborative
and networked process than the story had originally been told to me, and I thought much more interesting.
And so, I realized as I was writing that book that there was, in a sense, a latent theory
of innovation of breakthrough ideas in the environments that make them possible that
was lurking in the background of this story I was telling you about cholera. So, I decided
to make that story, that theory, front and center in a new book. And so, I went to my
publisher and persuaded them that I should write a book about innovation and the spaces
that encourage innovation. And early on, I decided that I would look not only at human
societies and cultural environments, but also biological ones and that there would probably
be an interesting set of analogies to draw between human innovation and biological innovation.
And so, I knew that I wanted to look at environments like rainforests and coral reefs that have
a long track record of generating biological diversity, because I figured there would be
patterns that you would see in both of them. The problem was then, when I actually sat
down to decide what would go into the book, I realized that I had set the scope of this
project ridiculously wide because it could include potentially, any good idea that any
human being had ever had in the course of human history, or any interesting life form
that ever evolved in the course of life on Earth, which, when you're sitting--
with Google search box open on your desktop and a cup of coffee in the morning, is daunting
when you can include everything like that. So, I had to figure out and for a while I
panicked and thought that I had made a terrible mistake. But, eventually what I realized is
that I was seeing these recurring patterns that were showing up again and again in the
environments that I was looking at. And I decided that each chapter, basically, should
be devoted to one of these patterns and eventually came up with seven of them really. There's
an introductory one that you can count as one or not. And once I had that, it got a
lot easier to write because the patterns, in a sense, became these magnets that would
attract all these different stories to the right slot and then it became really fun.
And it was almost a question of "where do I stop?" cause there was so much to say. And
I wanted to talk a little bit about a few of them and tell you a little bit of my theory
about them. The first is one that we've already seen in the case of Snow. It's what I call
"the Snow hunch." There seems to be this almost innate desire to tell stories about innovation
in terms of eureka moments. For some reason, we just want to condense them down to these
moments of sudden clarity where a light bulb pops over someone's head and they suddenly
see the world differently. The apple falls from the tree and they have a theory of gravity;
whatever the trigger is. But when you actually go back and look at it, it turns out that
the historical record is an historical record of innovation. Eureka moments are the exception
and not the rule. Almost always, there is a very long incubation period that goes into
a breakthrough idea where people start with this inkling, this sense, that there's something
interesting in a particular problem; a feeling that the authorities are missing something
or there's an opening, but they can't quite put their finger on it. And for whatever reason,
they have patience or they have a work environment, or they're just stubborn or they have good
tools that help them remember these things and they are able to keep these hunches alive
for long periods of time. This is a great example of this. I show this slide a lot.
This room will probably guess what this is cause you can see in the upper left hand corner,
it says "CERN." It says, "This machine is a server. Do not power down." Right? So, this
is the first World Wide Web server that Tim Berners-Lee put together. This is back in
the day when the World Wide Web was on one server, where you could trip over the power
cord and be like, "Oh, I'm so sorry. The World Wide Web is down."
Which we've moved beyond that. But, it's a famous story, but Berners-Lee, this is a classic
instance of a slow hunch, right? He starts working at CERN in 1982, almost as a consultant
and he's overloaded with all the information and projects and people who are there and
so he starts working on this project he calls ENQUIRE for a while. And then he puts that
aside and a few years later, he starts working on something called Tango, which doesn't really
take off and then it's only three or four years later after that, that he starts working
on something that he ends up calling the Web. And, of course, he's basing it on existing
platforms that are out there; he's basing it on the Internet, of course, and parts of
SGML and things like that. And it's only eight years after this hunch starts to be cultivated
in his mind that he finally goes to his bosses and says, "I think I may have invented a new
global medium here. Could this be part of my day job, please?" Right? And I think it's
in part because he didn't set out to invent a globally transformative communications platform
in 1982, that he was ultimately able to do it. If he tried to do that from the beginning,
it would have been too much; it would have been too ambitious, but because he started
with a smaller, less ambitious project and let it incubate for a long period of time,
and because he had an environment and a certain sensibility that allowed that to happen, he
was able to turn it into something that changed all of our lives and made this company possible.
You often find, even in individual cases, people in telling the stories of their own
innovations, they will invent these eureka moments, even if it turns out it didn't really
happen. So, one great example of this is Darwin. For many years, the standard story of Darwin's
discovery of the theory of natural selection was that he had this epiphany. In his study,
late one night in October of 1838, when he was sitting around--
reading Malthus' book on population and he writes about this in his autobiography; he
actually describes this what scholars eventually call the "Malthusian Epiphany", where he's
reading Malthus one night and, as he writes in the autobiography, suddenly the idea for
the algorithm of natural selection pops into his head. And he writes, "At last I had a
theory with which I could work." And it all sounded great and he writes this in his autobiography.
And for a hundred years that was the canonical story of the roots of evolutionary theory.
But about 20, 25 year ago, a really interesting scholar named Howard Gruber went back and
read through all of Darwin's notebooks from this period. And Darwin kept these wonderful
notebooks which were called in that period "The Commonplace Books." And the whole genre
of "The Commonplace Book" is very interesting. Many Commonplace Books, which were crucial
to the explosions of intellectual activity and the enlightenment in the 1700s and 1800s,
what people would do with Commonplace Books, is they would find interesting quotes and
jot them down, transcribe them word by word in these Commonplace Books and they would
intersperse them with their own ideas on thoughts about the world and their various inquiries
and crucially, they would then go back and reread through these books. And so, they would
take all these different voices and different snippets and remix them, intersperse them
with their own ideas and by rereading all these different voices, they would give birth
to their own intellectual sensibility to the world. Thomas Jefferson did this, John Locke
did this, Darwin did this, Erasmus Darwin did this and it was actually a really crucial
intellectual vehicle for the period and I'll come back to that in a second. With Darwin,
he kept these wonderful notebooks, or he wrote a lot of his own ideas as well as borrowing
quotes and things and doing sketches and stuff like that. We have all these notebooks. So,
Gruber went back and read through all these notebooks; they're all chronologically organized
very clearly, and what he found was there is, in fact, a moment of excitement in late
October of 1838, when Darwin is reading Malthus. There are a lot of exclamation points that
night and he's all excited. But, what Gruber found was, in fact, there are many, many passages
from months and months before the alleged epiphany where Darwin writes out whole paragraphs;
it seemed like they are taken straight from a contemporary evolutionary theory textbook,
where he seems to have the whole theory of natural selection in his head on some level.
And then you have the epiphany, and the next day there's no sense that he's passed this
really important watershed point, like he's not like, "I have solved my big problem."
He goes and writes his own entry on the sexual curiosity on primates that has nothing to
do with his big, new discovery the night before. He's had the most important idea in 19th century
science and the next morning, he's like, "All right, I'm gonna do the crossword puzzle."
There's no sense that some momentous thing has happened, right? And, in fact, it's not
for another two months before Darwin actually starts writing about his theory as this thing
and he has to then figure out what he has to do with it, which he spends, of course,
20 more years trying to figure out. And so, Gruber's point is if you try and pinpoint
the exact moment that Darwin has the idea, you can't do it; that you can say pretty confidently
from the notebooks that he doesn't have it three months before the epiphany and he clearly,
fully has it two months after. But when you try and get more precise in that, it's actually
very blurry. It's really hard to specify and that's because the idea is not a single thing
that happens in an instant; it's a much more evolutionary process, a much slower process.
Now, when you think about the process of innovation as something that is built around hunches,
and it built around ideas from other people colliding and being mixed in other ways, it
sets up, I think, a lot of different assumptions about the kind of tools that you use to make
sense of these ideas and to keep track of them. So, for many years, I've been using
this piece of software--I think I may have talked about this in one of the times I was
here in the past-- that is called Devonthink. How many people have seen Devonthink? Anybody
else? Yeah, a couple folks have seen it. I should get royalties from these people. I
think I've about this. This is an obscure, German software company that makes this thing;
it's Mac only, but I've been using it for a long time. And it is my version of the Commonplace
Book, although, I'm working on something that will be a little bit different that may replace
this. For years, I've been keeping digital clips of quotes that I find useful from books,
anticipating that software like this was gonna come around. So, initially, I would actually
just take the book and I would type in the excerpts. I tried OCR-ing the books to get
the text in there, which never really works very well. I had this amazing technology called
A Research Assistant, but it's fantastic, very accurate and just a little more expensive
than some of the other techniques to get the quotes in digital form. And now, of course,
because of e-books, it's getting easier and easier, although it's harder than it should
be which I will get back to. To get quotes from books and put them, store them here.
So, I've collected, I don't know what it is now, six thousand fragments from books and
from webpages and various things that I found that I've been working on for basically 12
or 13 years. And so, I've curated this Commonplace Book of interesting ideas that I don't know
really where they're gonna be useful or what they're gonna be good for, but I've been storing
them around and porting them along from computer to computer. Now, what Devonthink does is
it lets me store all that stuff, but basically it lets me do a pretty smart, semantic analysis
of text of these little snippets so that I can select one and say, "Show me things that
are like this." Right? So, I use it sometimes as a straight search query where I'm like,
"I need to find that one passage about turtles." And so, I search for turtles and I find it.
But the interesting use that I have for it is I use in an improvisational way, right?
I use it an idea association generating way as a triggering tool, not just as a search
and retrieval tool. And so, I'll take a passage that I'm interested in and I'll say, "Show
me other things that are like this. Do you wanna think?" And it'll give me this list
of things. Sometimes, I will write a passage in my own words and I'll say, "Show me things
that are like this passage that I've just written," because the number of things that
you've, of course, forgotten that you've read, even things that you really love and found
interesting is immense. You forget much, much more than you remember, right? So, keeping
this outboard memory is extremely valuable to me. But what's crucial about it, is that
it's not everything. It's not everything I've ever read, it's not everything in every book
that’s ever been written. It's massively filtered by my own interests, my decisions
to read a certain book and then my decisions to pick these passages as being the most important
ones. But it also has this noise to it, right? It's not tremendously accurate. Oftentimes,
the number one result will be the next paragraph from that book that I've quoted at the beginning
to start the search query, and I'm like, "Yes, do you even think I know that passage is interesting?
I just read it." And sometimes it'll be irrelevant, but the noise, the surprise and serendipity
that you get from the software suggesting things that are kind of off but not totally
off, has generated a number of trains of association and some of which have led to entire chapters
of books that I've writ. And so, there's a very interesting question, which of course,
you all wrestle with all the time, which is "When I have that idea, when there's an idea
suggested to me in association between something I've read and something else I've read, and
it leads to something as substantive as a chapter in a book. Who's having that idea?"
Is it me or the software, all right? On some level, obviously it takes me to curate it,
it takes my intelligence to curate, my intelligence to recognize that that's the valuable connection
and my intelligence to then build a whole chapter out of it, and that's important. I
still have value in that chain, right? But I probably wouldn't have made the connection
without the associative intelligence of the software. And so, in a real sense, it's a
duet between these two different--very different--kinds of intelligence collaborating on new ways
of thinking. So it's the beginning of that digital Commonplace Book I think that could
be so powerful if we keep working on this. But it's not just environment; it's like software
where ideas come together, where hunches can collide with other hunches. I also spend a
lot of time in the book looking at physical environments, I've got some insight; physical
environments that have been unusually innovative, real world environments where people get together,
where ideas get together and I look at environments. It's like office environments and cities and
things like that. Well, one of my favorites, which I've now written about in a couple of
books, is the coffeehouse of the 18th Century. The coffeehouse, particularly in London and
Paris and in Vienna and a little bit in Boston and United States, the coffeehouse was a tremendous
driver of innovation in this period and just an amazing number of really world-changing
ideas in science and in politics and religion and in business, technology, have somewhere
in their story a coffeehouse. And the question is why? What is it about this space that made
it so generative? What were the core ingredients that made it so powerful? Now, one answer
which is important but a little off-topic, is the fact that they were drinking coffee,
right? I mean, this is not a trivial thing, right, because until coffee and tea became
affordable for mass audiences, the daytime beverage of choice for both mass and elite
people was alcohol. It was the safe thing to drink because the water wasn't safe to
drink; it was the healthy choice, basically. So, people would wake up and they would have
some beer with breakfast and then would have a little more beer during the morning and
they'd have some wine at lunch and in the 1600s, they drank a lot of gin. Gin was the
big craze in the 1600s. And so, you really, truly had a population that was just drunk
all day long. That was the standard state of existence in society. And so, it's--sounds
like a joke--but it's not an accident that when a society moves from a depressant to
a stimulant in their daily intake, they're gonna have better ideas as a society.
It's just gonna happen. So for those of you who spend all day drinking alcohol, you should
think about, and one of the key takeaways; my talk is maybe wanna switch to coffee.
But it wasn't just the coffee. What was so important about these environments is that
they were hubs where different interests and passions and hobbies were able to collide
and connect with each other in surprising new ways, right? When Ben Franklin would hang
out at the London coffeehouse near St. Paul's, he would have this group called the Club of
Honest Whigs. This was during the period of time, the long period of time when Franklin
was in London and they would meet every fortnight and they would hang out and they would have
these five hour long sessions where they would just talk about the American political situation
and the science of electricity and new developments in chemistry and business models and all this
kind of stuff. And it was precisely because the space wasn't so structured; it wasn't
an office environment, it wasn't a lecture, but it wasn't completely chaotic and disorganized.
It was in this middle zone that I call "the liquid network," where ideas were free to
bounce off each other and collide and take these new forms. It was the multi-disciplinary
nature of the space that made it so powerful. And, in fact, went back to London when I was
writing this last book, "The Invention of Air", to see if there was any plaque or anything,
but this London coffeehouse was absolutely just an amazingly historic place for so many
different reasons, and there's no record of it anywhere, except there is a Starbucks basically
right where it used to be.
So, they're holding, they're keeping the torch alive, basically, for the memory of it. And
so, it's that kind of environment, that liquid fluid environment, where there's a lot of
diversity in the points of view and in the hobbies of all the people there that you're
so often the generator of innovation. Now, in biological terms, there's a clear parallel
here in terms of the importance of diversity and multi-disciplinary thinking. It's a somewhat
awkward word, but I find it really useful; it's worth knowing. Originally coined by Steven
Jay Gould and Elizabeth Verba about 30 years ago in a paper about the mechanisms of innovation
in evolution. And the word for it is "exaptation." And exaptation is the idea that there is a
feature of some kind, that is sculpted by evolution for a certain purpose. It turns
out, when the environment changes for some reason or some new possibility opens up, turns
out to be good at something else that wasn't the original point of that feature, of that
trait. So, the classic example is feathers, right? Feathers originally evolved, we think,
for thermal regulation, for just keeping an organism warm and it turned out that some
of the feather owners decided to adopt this crazy new lifestyle of flying and the ones
that had feathers were suddenly better at it. And so after that point, feathers started
to get sculpted by selection to be more aerodynamic. In fact, you can see a very clear difference
in the feathers of flying birds versus non-flying birds, because non-flying birds' feathers
are perfectly symmetrical, which makes them less aerodynamic. So, what Gould and Verba
were saying is that that's a big driver of new lifestyles and new features and new functionality
in the evolutionary record, which is that things designed for one thing turn out to
be good some surprising new use down the line; it's not just driven by mutation, but it's
driven by this kind of migration across different uses. So, something is exapted for a new purpose.
That's the way you use that phrase. And it turns out that the history of technology is
replete with examples of exaptation, right? I mean, think of all the ways in which the
Web has been exapted to do all these things that Tim Berners-Lee never dreamed of, right?
That's so much of what we do in this business is take old things and put them to new uses
that were not in the minds of their creators by any means. But it actually dates back to
early technology, so when Gutenberg was coming up with the original technology of the printing
press, he'd done this amazing work with movable type and with inks he'd had this state of
the art technology because of his skills of a metallurgist, but he didn't actually have
a pressing mechanism for all this. And so, he's missing this key component and so he's
stuck. And so, it turns out to be wine grape harvesting season in Rhineland, Germany, so
he goes up to the hills and decides to drink some wine because coffee wasn't available
And he's hanging out there and one day looks over and he sees this ancient technology,
the screw press, which is being used to press grapes and has been around for two thousand
years. And he looks at it and he's like, "Hahaha, that's what I need." And so he exapts this
very old machine designed to press grapes and reconfigures it, remixes it, and turns
it into a machine for printing Bibles. And so, that kind of borrowing of ideas of across
their original uses and across disciplines is really a crucial part of it; the history
of innovation. Now, this has an interesting implication, which is that there is conceptual,
all creative value that comes from surrounding yourselves with a diverse set of influences.
There was a really interesting study a number of years ago by a Stanford Business School
professor named Martin Roif, who looked at unusually innovative people in corporate America
and entrepreneurs and looked at their social networks, not their Facebook, Twitter networks,
but the people that they actually know. And then compared their social networks to folks
who were--to put it nicely--less innovative in their careers, which is, by the way, the
part of the experiment you don't want to be asked to participate in. When they call you
up and say, "You seem very dull. Could we talk to you a bit about your friends?" Don't
answer the phone, right?
So, Roif looks at all these things and what he finds is that unusually innovative people
have this very distinct pattern in their social networks, which is that they have strong and
weak tie connections to a much more diverse range of professions, right? So, they work
in an ad agency, but they're friends with an architect, a Web developer and a Popular
Science writer and government contract writer, a lawyer and a plumber. Whereas, the less
innovative people are just friends with other people who work in ad agencies. And what I
think that shows is that in a sense, the power, the creative power of exaptation, you're an
architect and you're talking to your Web developer friend and there's something in the way that
the Web developer deals with his kind of work flow that turns out to be really interesting.
If you poured it over architecture, it does something new and it gets you out of your
conventional way of thinking about the world. And so, where you end up when you think about
things that way is in a sense the non-political argument for diversity. It's not that we'll
be better as a society and more tolerant to society if we surround ourselves with people
who are different from us. That is certainly true, but also, that will be smarter on some
level. We'll be more original in our thinking if we surround ourselves with people who have
different interests. And that's part of the reason why people with hobbies are so innovative
in their careers; it's because hobbies, in a sense, give you that kind of coffeehouse
environment, even when you're by yourself, right? Because you're constantly bouncing
back and forth between different kinds of projects and different interests. One of the
things that happened after Gutenberg is the printer and the printer's workshop became
the coffeehouse of this period. This is one of Gutenberg's original disciples who went
on to; he's Peter Schiffer, who went on to become actually the first financially successful
printer because Gutenberg was kind of a disaster as a businessman. But Schiffer built this
printing business and it became this really interesting hub where all these different
people from the community--you had religious people coming to talk about the Bibles, you
had technology who wanted to help build the machines, you had businessmen who were coming
in to think about investing in this and you had the secular, intellectual groups, such
as they were, the protoscientists and things like that hanging out because this is where
the ideas were. And so, you had this interesting hub that was created by this technology, but
supported this interesting space of diversity that led to the early, late-Renaissance, early
enlightenment stuff that the book unleashed. Now, one of the things that Schiffer did in
the years after the first printing presses were created, it's a wonderful period to study
and there've been a bunch of interesting pieces, written about Clay Shirky has written about
it a little bit and talked about it recently, because in a sense, what happens all these
early printers, is that they have this feature war that breaks out where they're printing
new books and they're talking about the new books that they're doing, but they also start
innovating in terms of the features included in their books. So, they start saying, "Hey,
we've got a new index," or "we've got this new way of organizing of the pages," or "we've
got this new supplementary material." And literally, the language they use sounds like
the language we use to describe new software features. So, this right here is this edition
of St. Augustine's, "On the Art of Printing," which was published in 1467, I think it was.
And it is, we believe, the first printed book to have an alphabetized index. You see it's
alphabetical down the side. They don't actually have page numbers, where we didn't have Arabic
page numbers for another hundred years; it hadn't become standardized. But this idea
of alphabetizing all these things that you could go and find things, in some fashion,
which is big innovation and Schiffer's description of the book actually included this plug that
said, "You know, the index is worth the price of the book alone. It makes it much more easy
to use." So, he's literally like, 'it's user friendly! You should adopt this book cause
of these new features we have. It's got a great interface for finding the information."
This is 15th century search technology right here, is what you're seeing. Now, what's cool
about this is the idea that they were competing, although the problem with it is that each
new feature would come out every 20 years. It was an arms race, but it was very slow
arms race between all the competing printers. But, when all of these things coalesced, when
you developed page numbers, when you had alphabetical indexes, when you created a system of citation
and footnotes and all that kind of stuff and a reliable way of storing these books, that
became a platform that sustained alongside the coffeehouse, a lot of the great, amazing,
extraordinary, world-changing innovations of the enlightenment, because you had a whole
system of agreeing on where the information was and how to point to it, right? There was
a whole standardized way of saying, "Here's this idea that somebody has and now I'm gonna
build on top of that idea and we've agreed on a way to figure out where it is, what it's
address is, and how we point to it." And it was from these early innovations coming together
to form the standardized platform that everyone adopted, basically, in terms of scientific
reference. It became one of the key architectural frameworks that made the enlightenment possible.
So, you know the parallel here, right? You know where I'm going with this, right? This
is exactly what Berners-Lee did; this is exactly what this business was built around; this
world-changing consensus of agreeing where the information lives and how to point to
it. That created a platform that enabled this company and enabled millions of other businesses
and non-profits and amazing innovations that have happened because we had this kind of
standard agreement about where the information was and how to get people to it, right? Now,
the question is what is happening now with that agreement and that platform? And that's
really what I wanna just say a couple of words about, then we can answer some questions and
I'm happy to sign books because there's this big article that Chris Anderson did, The Web
is Dead, and all this talk about apps and things like that. And the truth is I'm not
so worried about the app world because there's a lot of what's happening in apps that is
not necessarily, we don't necessarily need to have it be linkable in the way that we
have. I mean, nobody needs to link to one particular screen of angry birds. I think
that's all right if you lose that ability to point to that information, right? But there
is information that is going to be built and stored in the app world that will be unlinkable,
or we haven't figured out a way to make it linkable. But more importantly, there is a
massive influx of information and really the best information in the world that is coming
online at an incredible speed or becoming digital at incredible speed is because of
e-books, all right? My last book, I think, two percent were in e-book format; this book
will 20 to25 percent in e-books, right? Within two years we've had two percent to 20 percent.
This is actually faster way of than I think we saw with the original Web in '94, '95,
'96. And that's really extraordinary. And right now, all that information is digital,
so it should be part of this whole world, part of this platform, it should be the ideal
mechanism for creating commonplace books. It should be a fantastic mechanism for going
in and pointing to things and citing them and building platforms and doing all the amazing
things that we've done on the Web and open up all space for innovation on the Web. We
should be able to that with the world's best information; the information that's stored
in books, but it's not quite working right the way it is now. We don't fully agree on
a standard of how you link like cite a particular point in a book, right? The Kindle has locations;
they've done away with page numbers altogether. You can point to a particular page, in a google
book edition online, and that can work, but that's not the standard reference URL for
that page. And being able to move text around and grab a quote and put it somewhere else,
put in on a Devonthink, share it, send it to a friend, is very complicated--the new
Google Book Reader, as far as I can tell, does not allow you to copy text at all in
any form. I may be wrong about that, but it seems from my experiments with it in the last
two days, it doesn't seem like you can actually select text and copy it. And it seems to me,
I understand why publishers and authors guilds, I mean, I'm going against my constituency
here in saying this, but I know that the publishing industry is the driving force behind this
and they're saying, "No, no, no. We don't want to have another Napster for books." And
they're all concerned about words getting out there. But it seems to me, at a certain
point, the whole point of having digital text is that you can do stuff with it. You can
move it around, you can take it into new environments, you can borrow it, and repurpose it and remix
in all these different ways. And when we have software that keeps you from actually being
able to just select a paragraph and paste it somewhere else, but that's not a feature
we'd like to have, or something that would be nice to have. That's almost an inalienable
right of digital text in this age, right? Copy and paste within limits, right? Put limits
on it, so you can only copy and paste ten percent of this book, that's fine. We can
establish those things. Fair use limits is perfectly appropriate. But to not allow it
at all, to have the words, in a sense, behind glass there where you can't touch them and
move them around, I think is a great mistake because we have this wonderful opportunity
to build a new platform with a whole new trove of information that's out there. And so, to
me, the overarching message of this book is we spent a lot of time historically thinking
about new ideas and innovation in terms of the importance of protecting those ideas.
Keeping them locked up in R&D labs, wrapping them around in intellectual property laws
and patents as best as we can, and making sure that they're hidden away so they're valuable,
but I think what's happens when you look at the history of innovation from the perspective
of these different patterns, both in the online world and the history of science, even in
the history of nature, is that we do ourselves a disservice if we only emphasize the protective
side of information. That, in fact, there is oftentimes more value and more creativity
that comes from connecting ideas; making those new links and building platforms to make those
connections easy to make. Thank you very much for listening.
>>Steven: OK, we got a few minutes for questions about any of this stuff?
If anybody's working on the e-book side, I would love to hear what you are thinking of.
I'd like to learn, take this opportunity to steal some ideas from you all. Yeah?
>>audience #1: I was interested by--
>>Steven: OK.
>>audience #1: OK, so I was interested in your discussion of the feature wars in the
early days of printing with moveable type.
Can you tell us about any innovative features introduced in that time that didn't work out
and that we don't remember today?
>>Steven: Oh, that's a really good question. That's a great way of approaching-- I'm trying
to think if there's anything that jumps to mind. One of the things I'm really interested
in terms of the history of ideas is that kind of reverse history, where we tend to tell
the history of the winners. And it's just as important, I think, to look at two different
kinds of losers. I'm gonna give a theoretical answer because I can't think of a good concrete
example. There are two different kinds of losers that are worth studying. The first
is, the good idea that failed, right? So, in the book, one of the things I talk about,
I'm sure this is familiar to most people in this audience; one of the most fascinating
stories in the history of technology was Charles Babbage. And basically, inventing the computer,
the digital computer in the middle of the 19th century, with Ada Lovelace, the first
programmer; Lord Byron's daughter, helping him. It's such a cool story because he was
literally a hundred years ahead of his time, which almost never happens, right? It's amazing
how reliably ideas come at the right time; people really jump a hundred years ahead.
And what Babbage was trying to do was build a programmable computer with steam industrial
era parts. He was trying to build a steam-powered programmable computer and you just couldn't
do it, right? So, that's one way in which-- his idea, as visionary as it was, it was so
far ahead of its time, it died out and most of the principles had to be rediscovered a
hundred years later when people started actually to build computers with vacuum tubes and so
on. So, there are ideas that fail because they are good, but they're just ahead of their
time in some kind of way. The other question is ideas that in a sense are bad ideas that
stick around for too long. This is a big thing that I think intellectuals historians should
spend more time on; the history of being wrong. Because no doubt, we're all walking around
with our own biases or misunderstandings of the world that 30 years from now, or a hundred
years from now, we're gonna go, "How were we so stupid?" Right? And trying to figure
out how those ideas have historically stayed in place for such a long time. In the "Ghost
Map", the theory of the Miasma theory, the cholera being in the air is one of those.
Like, why did it stick around for as long as it did? I think it's a really interesting
kind of problem. So, to totally fail to answer your question, but hopefully say something
interesting, I think that going back and looking at innovations that failed, either because
they were wrong or poorly designed, but interesting. Or innovations that were so good that people
couldn't deal with them yet on some level. That's a really fertile field of discovery.
Go ahead.
>>audience #2: I'd be interested in your take on a classic question from the history of
technology, which is, are innovations inevitable?
Or, meaning, could ideas come together by someone who just puts them together in the
right way or is it a matter of genius, or a matter of an individual’s contribution
seeing things that maybe are apparent to others, but who they fail to put together?
>>Steven: Yeah. It's a great question. By the way, another fantastic book that deals
with this and maybe a little bit more, although I talk about this is Kevin Kelley's book,
"What Technology Wants". I'm sure Kevin has been here, or is coming here yet.
Two weeks ago, there you go. Kevin and I, we did a fun event near a public library,
which is online, actually. And we talked about this quite a bit. There's a term for it, which
is the multiple, right? In the history of science and technology where they're again
and again, there are these multiple, independent discoveries, or inventions, or the same basic,
the same thing, happening without direct interaction between the participants and it just, there
are like, 150 of them in the canon of big ideas that are out there and have been collected.
And historically, it's been described in this very vague zeitgeisty way. Like, something
was in the air, and I think that in saying that these ideas on some level are inevitable,
that you reach a certain point and someone will figure out how to build a personal computer,
digital computer, a phone, is true. It doesn't mean there aren't geniuses, right? This book
is not against the idea that some people are, by nature of their genes or their education
and probably some mix of that; some people are smarter than other people. So, whoever
it is who gets to discover that thing in that particular moment of time is gonna be more
likely to be someone who's smart and well-educated than someone who's not, but it's very, very
hard for someone to have that insight at the wrong time, right? It's impossible to invent
a microwave oven in 1650. It just cannot be done, right. There are just limitations on
that. So, the example that's very close to my heart is, in The Invention of Air, the
hero of that book is Joseph Priestly, who is most famous for isolating oxygen for the
first time. He's known as the discoverer of oxygen, although when he did it, he called
it "dephilostigated air" instead of oxygen, which was not a very good brand and didn't
really stick. And it turned out that actually, two other people, Lavoisier and Scheele, the
Swedish, I believe, scientist, also isolated oxygen within about a year; somewhere between
1772 and 1774. Three people, more or less independently, have isolated oxygen for the
first time. So, weird, right? How did that happen, right? But when you go back and look
at it, you realize that there are a set of supporting platforms that basically make that
thought thinkable for the first time, right around that period. And some of it is technology,
right? One of the key things that they has is they developed, in the 1750s, very accurate
scales. And part of the way that they could figure out that oxygen was something was that
when you burn things, they got ever so slightly heavier, right? Because of combustion and
so, but you couldn't pick that out if you didn't have really, really precise scales.
And the other thing they had was they discovered vacuums about a century before. And up until
the discovery of a vacuum, people never thought of the air as been something you study; it
was just this empty space between things. If you were gonna use this great, new scientific
method, you wanted to study a tree or a body or a rock, but why would you study the stuff
between all those things, right? But then they figured out that there was this thing
called a vacuum, which seemed to look just like air, but not be air. And so, it suddenly
suggested this idea that there was something between us all that we could study. So, without
unlocking that as a kind of a paradigm that you could get interested in, you couldn't
even start to solve the problem. So, I think what happens is there are these stages and
the technology advances, the perspectives advance and they unlock a whole new set of
possibilities. In the book, I call this the adjacent possible, which is a phrase from
Stewart Kaufman. And then who actually explores the adjacent possible, some of it is luck,
some of it is environment, some of it is education, some of it is skills, mental skills, curiosity,
but there are many, many doors that can't be unlocked until you get to the next level,
which is suddenly sounding like a video game, but anyway.
That's the video game theory of scientific creativity. All right. We probably have a
little bit of time, yeah?
>>audience #3: So, this isn't exactly a question about your book, but I was wondering if you
could say a little biographical background, what led you to write about the things that
you've written about--
>>Steven: Yeah.
>>audience #3: and have the entrepreneurial experiences that you've had. What's your background?
>>Steven: Yes. Sure. Well, it's very funny because I'm more often than not described
as a science writer, which is hilarious because I have no scientific training, whatsoever.
My parents are still like, "We saw your biology grades in high school." Like, this is ridiculous;
what's going on? Well, my background is media theory. I did graduate work at Columbia in
English Literature, actually. And I studied the 19th century metropolitan novel, so I
spent a lot of time on the cultural history of London and the city. So, some of "Ghost
Map" is out of that, but I always had a technology interest. And so, when I was still in grad
school, I started "Feed", the first online magazine that had established writers writing
for it. And really, in a way, that's become a lot more common now. It built my writing
career by publishing myself and my friends at my web scene, basically. We didn't have
blogs back then, we had web magazines. And so I sold my first book, which was "Interface
Culture", about technology and interfaces on the backs of my experience with "Feed".
So, it was the first generation of writers who built a career for themselves through
the self-publishing mechanism of the Web, which is now much more commonplace. And then
at a certain point after I wrote that book, I looked at my shelf and realized the last
30 book I've read were all science books and that was just the direction my brain was going
in. So, I thought, "OK, maybe I could try and do that myself." And so, I wrote "Emergence",
which is half technology, half science, half urban theory I guess. And I loved so much
this moving back and forth between different disciplines; all the things I was talking
about today. And the only other thing that's interesting I would say about my career is
that I've done these little start-ups while writing the books. And the start-ups, in a
way, are hobbies that I was talking about, right? I think of myself primarily as an author,
but I love going off and starting some new Web thing and actually going and hanging out
with human beings and talking to them and building something together. And each start-up
I've done has had a direct connection to something that I was writing, in one way or another.
And so,, the hyper-local service, came out of writing "Ghost Map". I was writing
about communities and maps and neighborhoods and I was reading all these local bloggers
in Brooklyn where I live. And truly, I actually owe you all a thanks for this; the Google
Maps API had been released, so I was writing about neighborhoods, communities, I was reading
local bloggers and there's this new platform of mapping that was suddenly possible. And is the intersection of those three vectors, basically. The best thing about it
is that I've been incredibly lucky that I basically get to write about whatever I'm
interested in and sometimes my publisher is like, "Wait, what are you writing a book about
18th century chemistry? What's going on?" But most of the time, they've let me just
do these things and trusted me, which is a great gig.
All right. All right, thank you for coming out. It's great to see you all here and I'd
be happy to sign some books.