The Acid Tongue
Christopher Bray doesn't think Steven Johnson has good ideas
Selected By Cyril Wong
Self-help books disguised as pop-philosophy expositions are easy to hate, especially those drummed up by self-proclaimed gurus eager to persuade disenchanted corporate-slaves that they can make a real difference in the world. It is with the hope of being empowered (presumably to make more money) and enlightened (so that they too can blow away the competition in this Twittering, iPhoned, socially-networked age) that readers are eager to make affluent spurious philosophers like Steven Johnson by buying into his latest offering. I am thus heartened that Christopher Bray has a similar opinion when he writes in his review of Johnson's Where Good Ideas Come From in The Independent (7 Nov 2010):
I don't know about good ideas, but it's pretty obvious where Steven Johnson got the inspiration for his seventh volume of pop technologese – Malcolm Gladwell's third volume of pop economics, Outliers. That book related, with a Sybil Fawlty-like talent for stating the bleeding obvious, how success in everything from musicianship to middle-management is as much the result of good luck as hard graft. Who but a swivel-eyed free-market Tory, one fancied, could demur?
...Implicit in the arguments of this "Natural History of Innovation" is the idea that we are all capable of consciousness-changing, world-shattering insights – if only we can be bothered to ensure that our living- and working-spaces are designed to foster Eureka!-style moments.
Johnson could, indeed, be the patron-saint of the obvious. Yet, as Bray pointedly suggests, Johnson is really not at all saintly when the latter diminishes the real achievement of someone like Charles Darwin, no less:
Not even Darwin is taller than Johnson, who cuts the great man down to size by adopting the historic present when discussing his work: "Darwin possesses the puzzle pieces but fails to put them together in the right configuration," writes the schoolmasterly Johnson, for all the world as if he were standing over young Charles and seeing just where the poor chap... is going wrong... how small a brain would you need to believe that a theory as big as Darwin's could spring fully formed into even as capacious a bonce as his?
Bray sums up Johnson's "grand" philosophy as merely being about how "good ideas are the occasional by-product of the work of gifted people" and how "ideas grow out of ideas the way the natural world synergises." Nature proves a rich source of analogy too for Bray when he finishes Johnson off in his almost bored-sounding, closing paragraph:
QLRS Vol. 10 No. 1 Jan 2011
Beavers gnaw down trees in which woodpeckers drill holes in which songbirds nest – and in some way, I forget quite how, it's all a bit like Twitter. Well, maybe. Reading this book, though, another analogy from nature kept riding into view. You can lead a horse to water, but you can't make it think.