1. Skip to navigation
  2. Skip to content
  3. Skip to sidebar

The Ludwig von Mises Institute

Advancing Austrian Economics, Liberty, and Peace

Advancing the scholarship of liberty in the tradition of the Austrian School

Search Mises.org

Connect Ideas, Don't Protect Them

Mises Daily: Wednesday, January 19, 2011 by

A
A
Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation
"We are often better served by connecting ideas than we are by protecting them."
Steven Johnson

Every day, virtually every minute, someone's good idea is making your life better. You're staring at one right now and later you will likely have a miniature version in your hand. Except, someone decided along the way that it could be part of a telephone, which of course used to be plugged into the wall, but was eventually freed to be carried about.

Remember the phone Gordo Gecko called Bud Fox on, while walking on the beach at sunrise, telling Bud he would be rich, in the movie Wall Street back in 1987? As cutting edge as it was at the time, movie audiences hooted in laughter last year when in the opening scene of Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps, Gecko collects a few personal belongings upon leaving jail, among them, that phone: a plastic brick with an antenna no less. You couldn't make a butt call with one of those, for sure.

Now of course, your phone fits in your palm, shoots pictures, and does most of the things your PC does. What you use everyday started out as good ideas. Good ideas are built upon by better ideas. And the results are not just felt in the abstract but become very real to millions.

"Thoughts and ideas are not phantoms," Ludwig von Mises wrote in Theory and History. "They are real things. Although intangible and immaterial, they are factors in bringing about changes in the realm of tangible and material things."

So where do these ideas come from, and how can we come up with more of them? What is the best environment for breeding ideas? That's what Steven Johnson looks to find out in his book, Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation.

Johnson starts his story wading in the emerald waters of the Indian Ocean with Charles Darwin, who groped around for an answer as to why an ecological cornucopia of animal life was thriving in the corral reefs. Next, Geoffrey West stumbles on to evidence that as cities grow in population creative output grows exponentially. And now the 10/10 rule has become 1/1: instead of it taking a decade to build a new platform and another decade for it to be accepted by the masses, that timeline has shrunk to a year and a year.

Combining the three vignettes he opens the book with, Johnson looks to break out of the textbook way of analyzing innovations. Johnson doesn't see breakthroughs coming from the single isolated mad scientist tinkering in his or her laboratory or the equivalent.

"If there is a single maxim that runs through this book's arguments," writes Johnson early on, "it is that we are often better served by connecting ideas than we are by protecting them." The author understands that "environments that build walls around good ideas tend to be less innovative in the long run than more open-ended environments."

Instead of the intellectual-monopoly world of guarding ideas with the goal of exploiting them for material gain, Johnson writes that ideas must "connect, fuse, recombine." Indeed they do.

Unfortunately, governments are standing in the way of all of this potential fusing and connecting, as Stephan Kinsella explains.

Copyright and patent keep getting worse. The Western countries are twisting the arms of emerging economies like China to adopt a draconian Western-style intellectual property. This ACTA treaty that is coming up is terrible. It probably will be passed and it will impose protections around the world similar to what we have in the United States in the DMCA (Digital Millennium Copyright Act).

So while governments are banding together to enforce their bad idea of keeping good ideas from mingling and blending, Johnson counters with seven patterns that could combine to be society's idea petri dish. Along the way, the author tells fascinating stories of creation and genius and connects the dots of how one innovation led to another and another and so on to make his points.

"Environments that build walls around good ideas tend to be less innovative in the long run than more open-ended environments."
Steven Johnson

While there is the occasional Willis Carrier who singlehandedly conceived of a way to reverse the process of heating to create cold air and make life bearable in many new parts of the world that previously were uninhabitable, many ideas are, as Johnson says, bricolage, "built out of that detritus," he writes. "We take the ideas we've inherited or that we've stumbled across, and we jigger them together into some new shape."

So forget isolation; the adjacent possible and slow hunches are fostered in liquid networks. Platforms are built from serendipity, errors, and exaptation.

When we think of innovation, the errors along the way are never known. The great creators are just envied if their discoveries make them wealthy. "You know I thought of that first," says the wise guy at the end of the bar crying in his beer. If you're the Winklevoss twins, you sue the creator and settle, and sue again, for an idea you couldn't make happen but somebody else could.

Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg told Leslie Stahl on 60 Minutes that he had made numerous mistakes in building his company and product, illustrating a point made by William Stanley Jevons, that Johnson cites:

In all probability the errors of the great mind exceed in number those of the less vigorous one. Fertility of imagination and abundance of guesses at truth are among the first requisites of discovery; but the erroneous guesses must be many times as numerous as those that prove well founded.

The middle seven chapters of Where Good Ideas Come From abound with as much life as Darwin's corral reef. Then the reader swims into the fourth quadrant. This quadrant is open source, collaborative, and efficient. Johnson cites Thomas Jefferson's wonderful quote on ideas at length, including, "He who received an idea from me, receives instruction himself without lessening mine; as he who lights his taper at mine, receives light without darkening me."

"It is society that keeps [ideas] in chains," writes the author. Then we turn the page. For 241 pages the author has beautifully made the case to abolish IP laws. Ideas make the world go around, and ideas must be free. But maybe that kind of talk doesn't sell books at Barnes & Noble.

"Does this mean we have to do away with intellectual property laws? Of course not," writes Johnson, who goes on to admit he is sympathetic to the argument that "people simply deserve to profit from their good ideas," because, after all, he makes his living selling books.

Johnson essentially admits he can't make an incentive argument for IP and rightly describes IP laws as "deliberate interventions crafted by human intelligence and are enforced almost entirely by non-market powers." But he understands the inevitable. "Ideas are intrinsically copyable in the way that food and fuel are not."

Johnson has this sort of government-private sector fantasy in his head because the government funded the platform that is the Internet. He doesn't think we should count on the competitive market for all good ideas. "Yes, the market has been a great engine of innovation," he writes. "But so has the reef." Surely, he can do better than that.

Mr. Johnson gives us much to chew on and ends with personal advice to help tease the creativity from each of us. Despite his brief couple pages of IP support, he urges us to let others build on our ideas, to walk and write and keep messy journals, hang out in coffeehouses, cultivate hunches, take on hobbies and make mistakes.

Mises wrote, "Everything that happens in the social world in our time is the result of ideas. Good things and bad things." Rightly, we spend lots of time opposing the constant onslaught of bad ideas from government. At the same time we should encourage and champion the constant flow of the market's good ideas for which the brutality and cruelty of governments are no match.