Steven Johnson’s Where Good Ideas Come From is primarily about innovation — about the circumstances that favor innovation. Thus, for instance, his praise of cities, because cities enable people who are interested in something to have regular encounters with other people who are interested in the same thing. Proximity means stimulation, friction. Iron sharpens iron, as the Bible says.

All very true, and Johnson make his case well. But as I read and enjoyed the book, I sometimes found myself asking questions that Johnson doesn’t raise. This is not a criticism of his book — given his subject, he had no obligation to raise these questions — but just an indication of what can happen when you take a step back from a book’s core assumptions. So:

1) Almost all of the innovations Johnson describes are scientific and technological. How many of these are “good” not in the sense of being new and powerful, but in the sense of contributing to general human flourishing? That is, what percentage of genuine innovations would we be better off without?

2) A related question: Can a society be overly innovative? Is it possible to produce more new idea, discoveries, and technologies than we can healthily incorporate?

3) Under what circumstances does a given society need strategies of conservation and preservation more than it needs innovation?

4) Do the habits of mind (personal and social) that promote innovation consort harmoniously with those that promote conservation and preservation? Can a person, or a society, reconcile these two impulses, or will one dominate at the expense of the other?

Just wondering.


  1. Yep. Great questions, of course.

    It feels to me, Alan, like you have been reading Wendell Berry again. I know you know his old essay "Why I am Not Going to Buy a Computer." Here's his list of criteria for buying a new tool:

    1. The new tool should be cheaper than the one it replaces.
    2. It should be at least as small in scale as the one it replaces.
    3. It should do work that is clearly and demonstrably better than the one it replaces.
    4. It should use less energy than the one it replaces.
    5. If possible, it should use some form of solar energy, such as that of the body.
    6. It should be repairable by a person of ordinary intelligence, provided that he or she has the necessary tools.
    7. It should be purchasable and repairable as near to home as possible.
    8. It should come from a small, privately owned shop or store that will take it back for maintenance and repair.
    9. It should not replace or disrupt anything good that already exists, and this includes family and community relationships.

  2. On #1, it's quite hard to properly evaluate human flourishing, particularly in the short run, and one cannot do so without explicitly invoking his values, which doesn't play well in our pseudo-secular scientific and governmental spheres.

    Some new technology (say, the codex or the printing press) may appear to disrupt society in ways that go against human flourishing in the short run, but in the long run, once things reach "steady state" again, may help it flourish even more.

    It's interesting to read about Sean Parker — he of Napster and now Facebook fame — and his intentions to alter human flourishing by technology:

    "We live in an extremely repressive era, and we fail to realize how repressive it is, because we’re told that all these outlets for rebellion, like listening to rock music, are no longer satanic. Smoking weed—that’s sort of O.K. and acceptable in some circles." To Parker, the implication is that people in his position have almost an obligation to do what they can with the tools at their disposal—software and the Internet—to free up society through disruptive technology.

  3. Emel, thanks much for the link.

    David, I haven't been reading Berry lately, but I suppose he is deep in my soul. I have been reading some Jacques Ellul, though, which gives one similar inclinations.

  4. So many questions and answers, mostly leading nowhere. Humanity is flourishing in terms of sheer numbers, and many would add, in terms of quality of life, longevity, creativity, etc. But at what cost? That calculus is obvious to many but (I daresay) distinctly invisible to most. It might be a question for philosophers, if philosophy possessed any meaning or force in contemporary life.

    Humanity set out on a course of discovery and conquest some milennia ago and has rarely paused to look back at its wake. Asking these questions now raises phantoms and ciphers we would rather pretend don't exist.

  5. @brutus

    The banality of your comment should not make us overlook the fact that we are destroying earth. We have come to look at it from a universalist stand point. Rather than be conservative, we consume resources at an unsustainable rate, with the expectation that innovation will account for this unbalance.

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