How Cafe Culture Helped Make Good Ideas Happen It is easy to talk about great ideas as if they were light-bulb moments — sudden epiphanies where everything comes together for you. But Steven Johnson, author of Where Good Ideas Come From, says the great ideas of the past have taken a lot more hanging out than you'd expect.
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How Cafe Culture Helped Make Good Ideas Happen

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How Cafe Culture Helped Make Good Ideas Happen

How Cafe Culture Helped Make Good Ideas Happen

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GUY RAZ, host:

Scientific breakthroughs, it turns out, hardly ever come from just one person in one lab working alone. Innovation is almost always the result of collaboration.

And that's the premise of a new book. It's called "Where Good Ideas Come From." And in it, the author, Steven Johnson, describes what he calls stacked platforms. They're basically ideas that allowed other people to build on them.

And the result, well, everything from the Gutenberg Press to Miles Davis' "Kind of Blue" to Google to hip-hop sampling.

Mr. STEVEN JOHNSON (Author, "Where Good Ideas Come From"): Ideas come together from kind of fragments that you borrow from another field or another person that you recombine and kind of remix into a new form. And that's much more than the kind of traditional image of the sudden eureka moment. That remixing is really where great ideas happen.

RAZ: We think of the lone genius working in a lab, but it really isn't about that. It's about that lone genius banging his ideas off other lone geniuses.

Mr. JOHNSON: Yeah, and that's why, I mean, you know, one of the spaces that I talk about in the book is the coffeehouse in the Age of Enlightenment, which was a huge driver of innovation both in politics and in science and in religion.

And it was precisely because people would hang out in this kind of intellectual hub and have these free-floating conversations about all these different interests and passions.

RAZ: It created exchanges.

Mr. JOHNSON: That's right. It was an important space because all these people had different interests. You know, Ben Franklin is a perfect example of this. He had this club that would meet - called the Club of Honest Whigs, and they would meet at this coffeehouse in London called the London Coffeehouse, which there should be a plaque to commemorate it, because it was a great, you know, hub of innovation. They would just hang out.

RAZ: Where is it?

Mr. JOHNSON: It's near St. Paul's, actually, and it's in St. Paul's churchyard. I went by there actually a year or two ago, and there's a Starbucks near there, but it's really...

RAZ: There's no difference.

Mr. JOHNSON: Yeah, it was really a tremendously generative space because -in the book, I kind of describe these as liquid networks, where there's enough kind of fluidity in the conversation, but it's also a network of different people with different perspectives coming together.

RAZ: Now, it's not always about direct interaction. Sometimes it's about building on ideas that have been out there for a long time. And one of the sort of famous examples you point to is Darwin's Theory of Natural Selection.

He described it himself as this great moment of insight that kind of just happened. That wasn't really how it happened, though.

Mr. JOHNSON: Yeah. There seems to be this weird, innate tendency that we all have to condense down stories of great ideas to these moments of sudden epiphany.

But when you go back and look at the historical record, when you kind of rewind the tape and watch it slowly, it turns out that those eureka moments are really, really infrequent.

And Darwin is a great case in point. Darwin, in his own autobiography, writes about having this epiphany one night in late 1838 while reading Malthus on population. And he says, ah, suddenly I understood the principles of natural selection. And, you know, at last I had a theory with which to work.

And for years, for a century, that was the canonical story of the kind of the birth of Darwinian thought, that he'd had this great epiphany one night.

But about 20 years ago, a wonderful scholar named Howard Gruber went back and re-read all of Darwin's notebooks from the period - and Darwin kept these copious notebooks where he wrote every little hunch down.

And it turns out that actually six months before this alleged epiphany that Darwin had, he was writing out the full kind of theory of natural selection in his notes. But then it isn't for another three months that he actually starts writing out the theory in a complete fashion.

And so what Gruber points out is actually that the idea was more evolutionary in Darwin's mind. It took about six months...

RAZ: Pretty appropriate.

Mr. JOHNSON: Yeah, exactly. And it took about six months to kind of fade into view over that. So this is what I call the slow hunch, and it's this idea that these ideas often require long incubation periods, and they aren't sudden moments of insight, but they're much more quiet and they kind of linger in the background.

RAZ: My guest is Steven Johnson. His new book is called "Where Good Ideas Come From."

(Soundbite of music)

RAZ: Steven Johnson, we are hearing a track off the 1981 record "My Life in the Bush of Ghosts" by Brian Eno and David Byrne, one of my personal favorites. And I don't think that matters, but it just happens to be - you write about this -this is a record that many people would regard as groundbreaking, right, especially in its use of samples.

Mr. JOHNSON: Yeah.

RAZ: And you write about this record as one of those ideas moments.

Mr. JOHNSON: Well, Eno had moved to New York in the late '70s at kind of the nadir of New York's, you know, entire neighborhoods burning down.

RAZ: Son of Sam hanging out.

Mr. JOHNSON: Terrible crime rate - waves, and everything like that. And he said that he spent, you know, most of his life listening to things like the BBC, where you had these very kind of sober, controlled voices on the radio, announcing the latest classical music selection and things like that.

And he got to New York, and he was listening to a lot of AM radio, and he was just amazed at the amount of just kind of crazy ranting that was going on on the radio.

And so, initially, he was so amazed with it, he started - he said, oh, I have to tape this one guy who's ranting because this is so crazy, and I'll never hear it again. And then he realized that...

RAZ: (Laughing) It was all over the place.

Mr. JOHNSON: ...the supply of craziness was basically infinite. But he started taping all these voices, and it was preachers, it was radicals, people just kind of losing their minds on the air and shock jocks and all this kind of stuff.

And at a certain point, he was beginning this collaboration with David Byrne, and he started to think that maybe these little kind of samples that he made of these radio things could be put into a new context, kind of ported over from one purpose and brought over into a new environment and turned kind of against all odds into music.

And that became kind of the sampling style that defined that record, which then had a huge impact on Public Enemy's "It Takes a Nation of Millions," which was, you know, one of the defining kind of sonic experiences of that entire decade.

And the important thing about it is that it came from this borrowing and kind of decontextualizing of a sound or words taken out of context and put in a new place. And it's that pattern of borrowing and remixing that defines so much of great ideas in culture and in science and in technology.

RAZ: And there's another piece of music you write about, as well.

(Soundbite of song "So What")

RAZ: This, of course, is the opening track from Miles Davis' classic recording "Kind of Blue." This is the record where he basically breaks with bebop. You call this an example of a stacked platform. Can you explain?

Mr. JOHNSON: You know, this is kind of a metaphor that I use from software in a way, that people build on software platforms so that somebody invents the Internet, and then somebody can build the web on top of the Internet, and somebody then can build Twitter on top of the web.

And what makes it so powerful is that these platforms are beneath us that support what we do. So we don't have to, when we want to sit down and create a new website, we don't have to invent the entire Internet to do it, right?

RAZ: Right.

Mr. JOHNSON: So in the case of "Kind of Blue," there are a whole number of things - yes, he is breaking from a tradition, but he is also kind of building on a bunch of other conventions that's in the kind of Dorian D scale that he's playing there, which is a very, very old...

RAZ: Ancient scale, right?

Mr. JOHNSON: Yeah, the Grecian scale.

RAZ: Yeah.

Mr. JOHNSON: Yeah. It goes back and so he doesn't have to kind of figure out that whole scale. He has to just figure out a new kind of configuration of notes to play within that scale.

He obviously has the technology of the trumpet. He doesn't have to build his own trumpet every time he sits down to play. And so, in fact, even the most individual works of art involve much more complex, layered networks, where you're building on other platforms that have come before you.

RAZ: After looking at all these inventors and all these ideas throughout history, were you able to sort of determine whether the best ideas come as a result of market forces or does innovation come when it's motivated by something else, like the greater good?

Mr. JOHNSON: I think what I found is that while it's true that market forces have driven a lot of innovation, which is kind of the conventional wisdom about this, that if you look at the long view, the good ideas that underlie most of the great, you know, kind of changes in our society that have driven progress, more often than not actually have roots in the open kind of information commons of the university or the British coffeehouse or hobbyists or people kind of working outside of market pressures.

And it's precisely because in those environments, ideas are free to connect with each other and build on top of each other without having to worry about the restrictions of intellectual property law or, you know, closed proprietary labs.

RAZ: That's Steven Johnson. His new book is called "Where Good Ideas Come From."

Steven, thank you so much.

Mr. JOHNSON: My pleasure.

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