Wordstock 2010

Wordstock 2010: Steven Johnson at the Bagdad Theater

A writer finds the source of all good ideas—and offers a few of his own

By Martin Patail October 12, 2010

Steven Johnson’s lecture at the Bagdad Theater on Friday evening struck a critical blow to sensationalism and punditry on behalf of everything that is right and rational. Also, there was beer.

Johnson—a contributing editor for Wired and a frequent writer for the New York Times , Time magazine, and the Wall Street Journal —is the public intellectual we deserve. He neither complicated the story to appear more intelligent than his audience, nor did he dumb down important ideas, ranging freely from 18th century chemistry and Joseph Priestley’s dephlogisticated air to Sputnik and the invention of the GPS.

Johnson’s is not just a great story-teller, he is an incredibly ambitious thinker: 2006’s Everything Bad is Good For You, for one, turned the notion that popular culture makes you stupid on its head, arguing that “passive” experiences like video games might even make you smarter. But with his most recent book, Where Good Ideas Come From: A Natural History of Innovation (2010), Johnson has taken on the biggest idea of them all: the source of big ideas themselves.

Lest I butcher his argument, here it is in his own words… with silly pictures:

Johnson wants everyone to find an open and connected space where ideas can grow by themselves. More ideas come from open environments, he says, than from private, market-driven ones (though the latter, he admits, can be a powerful force in focusing intellectual energy).

As it turns out, one of the best open and connected spaces is one we already have in Portland in spades: Coffee shops.

Here are 5 things you missed:

1. A free, autographed, hardcover copy of his book. Need I say more?

2. Ideas start as hunches. Hunches eventually connect to other hunches, slowly evolving into great ideas. Hunches need time and space to grow.

3. Gutenberg was inspired to invent the printing press while drinking wine in the Alps.

4. The “Eureka moment” is a lie! Even though Darwin had the idea of natural selection fully-formed in his journals, it took him over six months to realize that it was the theory he needed.

5. How do you become a genius? Take notes. You will forget your hunches. Write them down and reread them so that someday they can change the world. (Drinking wine in the Alps can’t hurt, either.)

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