Steven Johnson


American Popular Science Author and Media Theorist

Author Quotes

Who was keeping the streets alive post-9/11 in my neighborhood? It was the whole city.

The technology is not a single cause of a cultural transformation like the Renaissance, but it is, in many ways, just as important to the story as the human visionaries that we conventionally celebrate.

Who decides that SoHo should have this personality and that the Latin Quarter should have this personality? There are some kind of executive decisions, but mostly the answer is ? everybody and nobody.

The time travelers are usually adapt at intercrossing different fields of expertise. That's the beauty of the hobbyist: it's generally easier to mix different intellectual fields when you have a whole array of them littering your study or your garage.

The trick to having good ideas is not to sit around in glorious isolation and try to think big thoughts. The trick is to get more parts on the table.

The wetland created by the beaver, like the thriving platform created by the Twitter founders, invites variation because it is an open platform where resources are shared as much as they are protected.

This is how great intellectual breakthroughs usually happen in practice. It is rarely the isolated genius having a eureka moment alone in the lab. Nor is it merely a question of building on precedent, of standing on the shoulders of giants, in Newton's famous phrase. Great breakthroughs are closer to what happens in a flood plain: a dozen separate tributaries converge, and the rising waters lift the genius high enough that he or she can see around the conceptual obstructions of the age.

This is not the wisdom of the crowd, but the wisdom of someone in the crowd. It?s not that the network itself is smart; it?s that the individuals get smarter because they?re connected to the network.

Time travelers tend, as a group, to have a lot of hobbies.

We are often better served by connecting ideas than we are by protecting them... Environments that build walls around good ideas tend to be less innovative in the long run than more open-ended environments. Good ideas may not want to be free, but they want to connect, fuse, recombine.... They want to complete each other as much as they want to compete.

We are strangely biased, as individuals and media institutions, to focus on big sudden changes, whether good or bad - amazing breakthroughs, such as a new gadget that gets released, or catastrophic failures, like a plane crash.

What I'm saying is individuals have better ideas if they're connected to rich, diverse networks of other individuals. If you put yourself in an environment with lots of different perspectives, you yourself are going to have better, sharper, more original ideas. It's not that the network is smart.

What you end up seeing when you look at history is that people who have been good at pushing the boundaries of possibility, and exploring those frontiers of good ideas and innovations, have rarely done it in moments of great inspiration. They don't just have a brilliant breakthrough idea out of nowhere and leap ahead of everyone else.

The march of technology expands the space of possibility around us, but how we explore that space is up to us.

What's encouraging is that the early new platforms - Kindle and iPad - are clearly leading to people buying more books. The data is in on that.

The patterns are simple, but followed together, they make for a whole that is wiser than the sum of its parts. Go for a walk; cultivate hunches; write everything down, but keep your folders messy; embrace serendipity; make generative mistakes; take on multiple hobbies; frequent coffeehouses and other liquid networks; follow the links; let others build on your ideas; borrow, recycle; reinvent. Build a tangled bank.

When it first emerged, Twitter was widely derided as a frivolous distraction that was mostly good for telling your friends what you had for breakfast. Now it is being used to organize and share news about the Iranian political protests, to provide customer support for large corporations, to share interesting news items, and a thousand other applications that did not occur to the founders when they dreamed up the service in 2006. This is not just a case of cultural exaptation: people finding a new use for a tool designed to do something else. In Twitter's case, the users have been redesigning the tool itself. The convention of replying to another user with the @ symbol was spontaneously invented by the Twitter user base. Early Twitter users ported over a convention from the IRC messaging platform and began grouping a topic or event by the hash-tag as in #30Rock or inauguration. The ability to search a live stream of tweets - which is likely to prove crucial to Twitter's ultimate business model, thanks to its advertising potential - was developed by another start-up altogether. Thanks to these innovations, following a live feed of tweets about an event - political debates or Lost episodes - has become a central part of the Twitter experience. But for the first year of Twitter's existence, that mode of interaction would have been technically impossible using Twitter. It's like inventing a toaster oven and then looking around a year later and discovering that all your customers have, on their own, figured out a way to turn it into a microwave.

The problem is, there are definitely some genuinely lame things on television, and there's more at the bottom of the barrel, because the barrel in a sense has gotten bigger.

When it's a sharing and improvisational meeting, where you're riffing off other people's ideas, that actually can be productive.

The question is to invent ways to explore the possible limits of what surrounds you. This can be as simple as changing the physical environment at work, or cultivate a specific type of social network, or maintain certain habits in search and archive information.

When one looks at innovation in nature and in culture, environments that build walls around good ideas tend to be less innovative in the long run than more open-ended environments.

The second analog-era mechanism that encourages serendipity involves the physical limitations of the print newspaper, which forces you to pass by a collection of artfully curated stories on a variety of topics before you open up the section that most closely matches your existing passions and knowledge.

When you don't have to ask for permission innovation thrives.

Sometimes the effect arrives thanks to a different kind of breakthrough: a dramatic increase in our ability to MEASURE something, and an improvement in the tools we build for measuring. New ways of measuring almost always imply new ways of making.

Thanks to the printing press, the Continent was suddenly populated by people who were experts at manipulating light through slightly convex pieces of glass. These were the hackers of the first optical revolution.

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American Popular Science Author and Media Theorist