Westerners, in particular, seem to like to believe in the myth of the lone inventor: the mad scientist who after much agony comes up with the Next Big Thing. Or unlocks the secrets of the universe — it doesn't much matter which. This mythology is undeniably convenient for our intellectual property system, since it's a lot easier to decide whom to reward for a new invention if there's a single named person or entity responsible.
Of course, anyone who's ever created anything knows that new ideas come out of old ones: "If I have been able to see further than other men, it is because I have stood on the shoulders of giants" (generally attributed to Sir Isaac Newton, but Wikipedia has an interesting history of this trope from John of Salisbury in 1159 through to The X-Files). But they also come out of the zeitgeist; anyone trying to create something new in a given field studies all the new developments in that field.
In Where Good Ideas Come From, Steven Johnson calls ideas "works of bricolage" put together out of the detritus of older ones. "We like to think of our ideas as a $40,000 incubator, shipped direct from the factory, but in reality they've been cobbled together with spare parts that happened to be sitting in the garage."
The difference is crucial if you're a business trying to come up with your next strategy or product. If you believe the lone inventor myth, you must fight to hire exactly the right people and pay as much as you have to for them. But if you follow Johnson's notion, what you do instead is create an environment in which half-formed, even half-baked, notions can collide with each other to form new and useful whole ideas. His analogy is to the early conditions that created life on this planet: a mess of basic molecules waiting for the right spark. Until that spark comes along to drive them in a particular direction, those molecules can go in any of many directions: scientist Stuart Kauffman's "adjacent possible". What they can't do is skip over a few thousand generations to make sunflowers. Those intermediate steps are vital in producing the right environment. A great idea may be "ahead of its time" simply because it's proposed in the wrong environment. Also vital are the workings of time that allow a "slow hunch" to develop into a working hypothesis.
Johnson draws many of his examples from the history of science: Darwin's notebooks, Babbage's efforts to build a computer, the exploration of space. Today's technology, Johnson argues, both emulate and speed up the methods they used. Where once people kept pieces of ideas — "broken-up reading" — in commonplace books, today the web supports exactly that kind of serendipitous connection, while social networks provide the kind of environment where half-formed ideas can meet and create a valuable whole. More than anything else, he says, "Ideas need to collide".
Where Good Ideas Come From: A Natural History of Innovation By Steven Johnson Allen Lane 290pp ISBN: ISBN 978-1846-14051-8 £17.99