Steven Berlin Johnson is an American popular science author and media theorist.
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I’m Steven Johnson, author of a bunch of books on Reddit-y topics (Emergence, Everything Bad Is Good For You, Where Good Ideas Come From, Future Perfect) and co-founder of three web sites: FEED, Plastic, and outside.in. Tomorrow is the publication date for my new book, How We Got To Now: Six Innovations That Made The Modern World, which looks at the surprising history of glass, air-conditioning and refrigeration, clean drinking water, artificial light, sound recording, and clocks. How We Got To Now will also be a six-part series on PBS — hosted by me! — premiering Wednesday, Oct. 15, at 9PM ET. Also check out our new site on the future of innovation, How We Get To Next. Ask me anything!
Updated, 1:15 EST: Aaaannd... that's a wrap! Thanks y'all! Hope you get a chance to read the book and check out the series!
Hi Steven! I loved your book Where Good Ideas Come From. In that book you are quoted as saying:
> "The trick to having good ideas is not to sit around in glorious isolation and try to think big thoughts. The trick is to get more parts on the table."
I was wondering, what are some ways in which you 'get more parts on the table'?
I know this sounds like I am preaching to the choir, but honestly, sites like Reddit are a great place for that kind of inspiration. For me, I've tried to cultivate a diverse "coffeehouse" of people that I follow on Twitter: writers, scientists, musicians, politicians, etc. They're constantly recommending stories or albums or films that I had no idea I'd be interested in. Those are my "parts on the table."
what was the most unexpected invention/innovation you uncovered in How We Got to Now? and how did you come up with the different categories to explores - artificial light, sound, time, etc?
One of the stories I love is how Gutenberg's printing press set off this interesting chain reaction, where all of a sudden people across Europe noticed for the first time that they were farsighted, and needed spectacles to read books (which they hadn't really noticed before books became part of everyday life); which THEN created a market for lens makers, which then created pools of expertise in crafting lenses, which then led people to tinker with those lenses and invent the telescope and microscope, which then revolutionized science in countless ways. I love that story because I thought I knew the story of Gutenberg's influence, but it turned out to have this other strand that had never occurred to me.
Hi Steven - I saw your appearance on the Daily Show and was really intrigued by your book. My question: how much of what we "know" is politically influenced? Climate change is the first thing that springs to mind, but how prevalent is political bias throughout science/knowledge?
Thanks for the AMA!
Certainly political bias shapes a great deal of how we think about the world. But in a way, one of the interesting things that I tried to write about is how scientific/technological ideas shape our political bias as well -- the way new technologies make new political alliances possible. Air conditioning, for instance, ends up re-drawing the political map of the United States after millions of people move to the Sun Belt, etc.
You certainly know your reddit audience. I take it this isn't your first time here?
I've been following reddit for years, but have never done an AMA before. And also, the site we created fourteen years ago, Plastic.com, was very similar to Reddit in many ways, so the format is something I've always loved.
Which of your books most surprised you during the research and writign process?
Probably Ghost Map, because I thought I already knew the story when I sat down to write it: lone genius John Snow makes a map of a cholera epidemic and discovers that the disease is caused by contaminated drinking water. But once I dug into the research, I found out that it was much more complicated, and interesting: Snow had been tinkering with the waterborne theory for years, and he had some very important collaborators who were crucial to the story.
Where do bad ideas come from?
From everywhere! But often from being too locked into a single point of view. That's the beauty of collaborative networks where the participants have different fields of expertise (a big theme of the show and the book, BTW). It's so much harder to get locked into a mistake when you're constantly bouncing ideas of off people. If there is too much similarity in a group, you can get mistakes that emerge from a kind of herd mentality or groupthink. But if you diversify that's not as much of a problem.
Hey Steven - my wife was very inspired by your writing on your decision to move from Brooklyn to the SF Bay Area.
We've recently moved from Brooklyn to Berkeley ourselves, and I was curious: How did it all turn out for you? Are you glad to be in SF? Have you moved back to Brooklyn after all? Did it slow down time as you hoped?
As you know from that post, we were planning on moving back after two years, but we liked it so much that we decided to stay for three years, and then we liked it so much (but missed Brooklyn too) that we have now decided to try to live on both coasts. I'm typing this in Brooklyn very happily, but missing California -- fortunately I'm going to be there three times next month.
Hi, Steven! Old outside.in contributor here.
How do you think Everything Bad Is Good For You stands up, almost ten years later? Both TV and gaming culture have seen some meaningful changes since then--for example, shows like Lost and Mad Men have continued to grow more narratively complex, but quasi-reality programs that appear less intellectually demanding than their Survivor-type predecessors (e.g. American Pickers, the ghost hunting genre, etc.) are proliferating.
Are the trends you discussed potentially changing, or does this point of view not give the newest media a fair shake?
I think Everything Bad has held up very well in terms of TV. There is a general consensus that television is having its Golden Age right now, and certainly the complexity of the stories has been increasing on average. It was a much more contrarian argument in 2004-5. With games, the one thing that I didn't see coming were the mobile games, which obviously got much simpler and more elemental than the SimCity-style games that I celebrated in that book. But the main thing that I think about now that I have older children is how addictive the games can be. If I were writing the book now, I would talk more about the downside of that.
kind of a serious question ... were all of the innovations you highlight developed by white men? Ethnic western Europeans?
Not entirely -- we have a few women (Hedy Lamar, Marie Curie, Ada Lovelace, etc) and a few African- and Native-Americans who played interested role in the history of refrigeration. But because so much of it is set in the 18th- and 19th century, it is dominated by the stories of white men, for sure. We really spent a lot of time trying to include a diverse group of people in terms of the experts that I talk to in the show, since the history, given the nature of society back then, was so limited.
Steven, I enjoyed your book 'Where Good Ideas Come From' so much, that I made a website dedicated to the last section of the book in which you went through some of the most significant inventions over the past centuries.
Hope you like it! It's called Progress Timeline
How cool -- I will spend more time on it when I'm not furiously answering questions on Reddit!
Hi Steven. What are your favorite computer interfaces, including web and mobile apps?
Ah, that's a great question. It's such a wonderful time to be interested in interface design (the topic of my first book!) I still think one of the coolest UIs in the past five years was Apple's design for GarageBand for the iPad. So many interesting tweaks in there -- taking metaphors from physical instruments where appropriate (strumming strings) but also reinventing them given the flexibility of the computer screen itself (chord progressions mapped onto the fretboard, etc.) It made me wish Apple would design a completely new instrument from scratch for the touch UI.
What's your favorite science documentary/tv series?
You know, it's funny, I actually don't watch a ton of documentary shows -- I had to go and sit down and familiarize myself a bit with the genre when we started working on ours. Every since my second book, Emergence, people have been telling me that my work reminds them of the great BBC series Connections (and its sequels) which I had never seen as a kid. But I went back and watched/read them after I kept hearing this from people. How We Got To Now has a similar approach to history as James Burkes's shows/books, though stylistically they are quite different.
In terms of what I actually watch, because I have three pre-teen boys, we have watched an insane amount of Man vs. Wild in our house.
My dad's name is Steven Johnson. Are you my dad? And if so, how'd we get to now?
I am indeed your father. Sorry to break it to you in this context. Now go clean up your room!
Hi Steven. I´m writing from Buenos Aires, Argentina. How long does it take you to write a book? Do you have a routine?
It really depends on the book. I wrote the first draft of Everything Bad Is Good For You in about three months. Good Ideas took about 8 months to write, but almost four years to research. (Invention of Air was in a way part of the research for that book.) When I'm working, I just try to write 500 words a day, usually in the morning over the first or second cup of coffee. If you do that every day for a few months, you have a book!
> I think there is a bit of a bias on my part in that I have never listened to audiobooks personally
Oooh — quick plug for audiobooks as a medium:
If it wasn't for audiobooks, I'd get through about 1/10th the number of titles. It's rare that I can sit down and consume a book in print (mix of ADHD and heavily time-chunked schedule), but I can listen intently while I'm driving, washing dishes, cutting the lawn, et cetera.
They do have their shortcomings (especially in nonfiction, where I might miss out on relevant images or graphs), but the sheer quantity of books it allows me to engage with (and, therefore, ideas I'm exposed to) makes them worthwhile.
Not sure if any of that is relevant from an authorship standpoint, but as a consumer of books, audio has been a game changer. I highly recommend trying one out! : )
my biggest problem is that I read very quickly, and so audiobooks have always seemed too slow for me, though I gather you can listen in accelerated mode. also, until we moved to California three years ago, I never drove anywhere because we were living in NYC. I should have tried it when we were living in CA full time, though I actually enjoyed that car time for making phone calls to friends/family (which I was notoriously bad at doing back in NY.)
Do you ever use outside researchers for your books? I'm interested in finding out how to become an independent researcher for others.
I used to have researchers back in the day when you really needed to go to libraries to track down obscure periodicals or out-of-print books. So they were there mostly to bring me stuff from the library, and type up quotations that I find interesting in the books so that I had a searchable database of all my notes. But starting around 2007, Google Scholar/Books and then the Kindle made all of that unnecessary, so I didn't have as much help for the last three books. But we had amazing researchers helping with the PBS series, which then fed into the material in the book.
Have u seen Kirby Ferguson's documentary Everything is a remix??? PrettySimilar to your book...where do good ideas come from..
Yes -- that's a very fun one. Lots of overlap, but of course, that's what we were both trying to champion in those projects.
Tell me this...do you believe..this world actually belongs to memes..and human minds are just vehicles for their propagation and replication??? Read this in a Smithsonian article called what defines a meme??
I think Dawkins' idea of the meme is very intriguing. As he himself has said, the "gene"/"meme" analogy isn't really the right one; the way memes work is closer to a virus than piece of genetic code. But I think the premise that ideas that we inherit from our historical moment shape us -- limiting our ideas, but also suggesting new ones -- is clearly true. That's one of the things that I tried to examine in the book and the show.
How much can you relate to this blog post? It's about how to go about writing your book. Or its entirely subjective process about writing books? http://randsinrepose.com/archives/how-to-write-a-book/
I will try to read that blog post late today when I have more time. But for now, let me say that I wrote a series on Medium about my tricks and techniques for researching and writing books. It's called The Writer's Room.
Do you think that there are going to be other innovations that have made the modern world as time goes on?.
If you mean, are there new innovations in the works that will be as important as the ones profiled in the show and book: yes! In fact, we created a whole web site at howwegettonext.com to profile those. The show and the book are in many ways about our history, but we always wanted to have a venue that could be forwarded looking, and continually updated with new stories. So check that out...
Hi Steven, what books would you recommend as follow on to your book Where Good Ideas Come From?
How We Got To Now, both the book and the series, developed out of my work in Good Ideas, so that's a logical place to start. It takes on innovation from a different angle -- starting with the objects themselves and working backwards through the history -- but if you liked Good Ideas you will definitely enjoy these new projects.
Hi Steven, first of all I just wanted to let you know that your book, "Ghost Map" really helped me out when I did a research project on Joseph Bazalgette and the London sewer systems!
My question is that I plan on getting the e-book version of your latest book, and was wondering if you have seen these versions and if they match up to the print version. Also, any difference or preference between the Kindle and iBook versions?
I haven't seen the e-book versions, but the one thing I will say about the print version of How We Got To Now is that it is beautiful. Full-color illustrations, really nice paper stock. Definitely the nicest quality book I have ever written. So you might want to check it out at the bookstore first. At the very least, it makes a very elegant Christmas present! (Shameless, I know.)
What's your favorite book?
Not sure I have a single fave, but here are a few: Middlemarch (I was a grad student in English lit, so it has to be on the list); The Country and the City by Raymond Williams (also from grad school years.) How Buildings Learn, by Stewart Brand. 10,000 years of Non-linear History, by Manuel De Landa. Nonzero by Robert Wright. That's a start.
Given the inquisitive and connection-making nature of your books, I imagine it must be difficult to restrain yourself to a defined topic through the research and writing process (Subject A => Subjects B, C, & D => ∞).
How do you define a scope for a given book? Does that scope often change as you go through your process?
Yes, I battle that all the time. With the "straight" history books like Ghost Map and Invention of Air, I was grounded in a certain chronological sequence, so in a way it was easier to go off on a tangent because I knew I always had to return to the plot. The hardest one from an organizational point of view was Good Ideas, because it had no natural structure, and basically, from a research point of view, it could theoretically include any good idea that anyone had had over the course of human history. So I spent almost a year trying to figure out how to give that book a coherent shape.
I pre-ordered the audiobook version of "How We Got to Now", and am looking forward to listening tomorrow.
You seem very well-spoken and have an easy-to-listen-to, engaging personality in interviews — and now you even have a TV series hosting gig under your belt. Why did you not do the audio for "How We Got to Now" yourself? (I feel like you've done the audio for some of your other books...)
This happens a lot with authors who've presented/hosted in other mediums, so I'm curious whether there's some aspect of the audiobook production process which affects that decision.
Yeah, I feel bad about that. I actually have never done the audio book narration. I really should have with the ones that were more personal, like Mind Wide Open and Everything Bad. With this one, the time to record the audio book came just after I had spent days and day in a studio recording voiceover for the series, and honestly I was a little burned out. Forgive me!
Oh, I didn't mean it as a dig on the book (I'm sure the narrator did a wonderful job — there's something to be said for the quality of go-to audiobook narrators). It's a question I've had generally about authorship/audiobooks for a while now, and you were the first one whose AMA I caught : )
I think there is a bit of a bias on my part in that I have never listened to audiobooks personally, so somehow sitting in a studio and reading my own words aloud -- at precisely the point in the process when I am most sick of them -- always seems like something I can get out of...
Hey Steven...I want to know do writers have a tendency to spill the concepts of their book in articles they write during working on a book..?
I think it works two ways: you're sitting on all this exciting new material -- sometimes for years -- and you really want to share it. Or sometimes you don't realize that the material you've just put into an article or a blog post is going to be useful to a book until you put it out into the world, and then you realize: hey, that's a keeper.
I've gone two ways: some of my books you can really tell what I'm working on by looking at my posts or articles leading up to it; and some of them I've basically kept under wraps. How We Got To Now is largely in the latter camp -- I'm really excited to finally be able to talk about all these stories after working on this for more than three years!
SBJ I just want to say welcome back to Brooklyn, you were sorely missed :)
It's good to be back!