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Evolution of ideas

Book>> Where good ideas come from, a natural history of innovation • by Steven Johnson • Allen Lane • US $25

By Pratik Majumdar
Last Updated: Saturday 04 July 2015

imageWhen German inventor Johannes Gutenberg devised the printing press, he scarcely had an inkling of his debt to China.

But as Steven Johnson writes in Where Good Ideas Come From, A Natural History of Innovation, the 15th century inventor would not have managed without Chinese ink and movable type. The science writer believes that innovation owes as much to the exchange of ideas—often unknowingly—as to individual brilliance.

Johnson also probes into why some places—and periods in history— teem with ideas, while others are intellectual deserts. Johnson seeks his forebear in Charles Darwin. Darwin’s influence can be traced throughout the book and Johnson acknowledges that ideas transform much like the evolutionary processes that led to present day life forms. When there is minimal control over ideas, they migrate to those who use them in ways the “creators” had not imagined.

imageJohnson believes that innovations happen at places where contradictory ideas from many disciplines cross paths, where institutions and governments do not have firewalls over ideas. He shows how various experiments over many decades led Tim Berners-Lee invent the World Wide Web.

In the final part of his book, Johnson argues for an academic model in which information flows through an open network. He criticises the corporate model, but does not take up cudgels against patents outright. Going against the grain of most of the book, the writer concludes that people who create intellectual property need to be paid. Perhaps he has the interests of his publishers in mind.

Pratik Majumdar teaches physics at Kolkata University

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