Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘Steven Johnson’

23 SEPTEMBER, 2010

Steven Johnson on Where Good Ideas Come From


“Chance favors the connected mind.”

After their animated exploration of capitalism, the RSA are back with a visual distillation of one of the most important questions in creative culture: Where do good ideas come from? Steven Johnson tackles the grand question with insights from his latest book, Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation, and a historical perspective on innovation throughout human civilization.

Johnson’s answer strongly echoes the Brain Pickings mission — to build a rich and wide-spanning pool of mental resources that serve as the building blocks of creativity.

That’s the real lesson: Chance favors the connected mind.” ~ Steven Johnson

Also worth watching: Johnson’s recent TED talk, one of our favorites this year:

Where Good Ideas Come From comes as a fine addition to these must-read books by TEDGlobal speakers.

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19 JULY, 2010

7 Must-Read Books by TED Global Speakers


Design imperialism, what gender equality has to do with military spending, and where 185 pig parts go.

Last week, reported from this year’s TEDGlobalfour grueling days of cerebral stimulation and idea orgy spectatorship. Today, we spotlight 7 must-read books by some of this year’s speakers, litmus-tested for brilliance in the world’s most reliable quality-control lab: the TED stage.

PIG O5049

Dutch designer Christien Meindertsma set out to explore the increasing difficulty with which we can trace the origin of the products we consume in this age of globalization, labor specialization and outsourcing.

In PIG O5049, she hunts down the astounding number of different products — 185, to be exact — made from parts of a specific pig, owned by a farmer friend and tagged with the identification number 05049.

The book is a photographic anthology of these items — ranging from — complete with infographic charts and diagrams outlining the production destiny of the various pig parts.

Beautifully bound and visually stunning, the book takes an unusual, non-preachy approach to an issue of ever-growing importance, leaving you the reader to draw your own conclusions — a task more challenging than it sounds in an age of information overload and prescriptive ideology.


We’ve had a longtime brain crush on cultural theorist and author Steven Johnson, one of the sharpest thinkers and most compelling writers in the broader world of creative culture and intellectual property. His latest book, Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation, explores exactly what the title promises — and, based on his instant-hit TED talk, it does so in a brilliant way that treks across anthropology, sociology, philosophy, behavioral psychology, cognitive science and copyright law, breezing through the cross-pollination of these diverse disciplines with an ease and humor that promise a read not fit for putting down.

The book comes out in October and is now available for pre-order.


The Visual Miscellaneum, which we reviewed in full last October, is one of our all-time favorite books, so we were delighted to see its author, David McCandless take the TED stage. (And even more delighted to chat with him about infoviz and Britishness over wine.)

If you haven’t already, do yourself a favor and grab a copy of this visualization gem, a brilliantly curated anthology of infographic whimsy on anything from military spending to the most pleasurable guilty pleasures.


Chef and entrepreneur Arthur Potts Dawson has set out to revolutionize the restaurant industry, the world’s most wasteful, second only to war. His Waterhouse restaurant, for instance, is the world’s first fully non-carbon eatery, running entirely on hydroelectricity from kitchen to table — a true walk-the-walk manifestation of his principles.

In The Acorn House Cookbook: Good Food from Field to Fork, with a foreword by TEDPrize winner and food activism celebrity Jamie Oliver, Dawson intersects great food with environmental sensibility in a recipe arsenal that makes for the most refined kind of moral and gustatory palate.


At TED, women’s rights crusader Sheryl WuDunn made a convincing case for the idea that gender inequality is the greatest moral challenge of the 21st century.

Her bestselling book, Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide, is as much a necessary course in cultural anthropology and gender politics as it is a manifesto for intercepting a vicious cycle of raging abuse and quiet oppression. She points to local women as the most powerful change agents without which it is impossible for a country to raise itself from poverty.


In The Forty Rules of Love: A Novel of Rumi, Turkish novelist Elif Shafak weaves a fascinating story-within-a-story involving a Bostonian suburban housewife, literary infatuation, and 13th-century mysticism.

The novel exudes Shafak’s characteristic East-West narrative, a cross-cultural bridge of eloquence and captivating storytelling, and links nicely to her excellent TED talk about how fiction can overcome identity politics.

Stories help us get a glimpse of each other and, sometimes, maybe even like what we see.”


Last year, we reviewed Emily Pilloton‘s fantastic humanitarian design anthology, Design Revolution: 100 Products That Empower People. Since then, Pilloton and her partner have moved the Project H Design headquarters to Bernie County, North Carolina — one of rural America’s poorest areas, where 13% of children live below the poverty line. There, Pilloton has set out to revolutionize a broken education system from the ground up, founding the country’s first high school design/building program. She lives and breathes the Project H Design manifesto: There is no design without action; design WITH, not FOR; document, share and measure; start locally and scale globally; design systems, not stuff.

Design Revolution remains a powerful reminder of why humanitarian design matters — not to egos but to communities, not to award committees but to human ecosystems. It’s a particularly interesting read in the context of the recent epic kerfuffle in the design community, initiated by Bruce Nussbaum as he called designers the new imperialists, unleashing a deluge of responses by some of today’s most arduous in-the-field humanitarian designers, including Architecture for Humanity’s Cameron Sinclair, FrogDesign’s Robert Fabricant, and Pilloton herself.

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26 MARCH, 2009

The Library Rethought


How to one-up the Greeks and what Shepard Fairey has to do with Copenhagen circa 1891.

Libraries have a special place in history as a hearth of culture that kindled the greatest feats of science and the grandest works of art. Yet today, they’re in danger of being left precisely there — in history. As our collective use of libraries dwindles in the digital age, five brave efforts are innovating the concept of “the library” in ways that make it as culturally relevant today as it ever was.


Almost nine years ago, NYC design studio Pentagram got involved with the Robin Hood Foundation in an inspired effort to build new elementary school libraries throughout NYC’s five boroughs — the best architects were to build them, private companies were to fill them with books, Pentagram were to design the inspirational atmosphere and craft the entire identity for what became The Library Initiative.

But they found something interesting — even though the libraries were mostly located in high-ceiling old buildings, shelves could only be as high as the kids could reach, leaving a lot of space between the top of the shelves and the ceiling. Pentagram saw this space as a canvas to fill with something wonderful, so they partnered with a handful of top-notch designers to create murals that are just that — absolutely wonderful.

Today, these inspired murals can be found in more than 60 libraries across the five boroughs, featuring the work of designers and illustrators cherry-picked by the Pentagram team — from a series of photographic portraits by Dorothy Kresz, to a visual interpretation of words through silhouettes by Rafael Esquer, to books hidden in images in the iconic illustration style of Christoph Niemann.

Needless to say, we love the idea. Design is only as valuable as the change it ignites — in our understanding of beauty and truth, our conceptual and aesthetic literacy, yes, but also in our greater social sensibility. And harnessing the power of design to enhance “literal literacy” by turning libraries into cooler, more inviting hangouts for kids, well, that’s just pure beauty and truth.


We’ve featured philanthropic geek Jay Walker‘s Library of Human Imagination extensively before.

So for today’s refresher purposes, his fantastic TED talk should get the job done.

We’d love to see Jay open up his library to those with the greatest urgency of fostering the spirit of human imagination — children. Because whatever is behind the doors of our cultural library, a school bus should be in front of them.


It’s always a delight to see the stiffest and most traditional of institutions embrace fundamental elements of today’s social spirit.

Which is why we love seeing The Library of Congress on Flickr. Their collection features nearly 6,000 images of historic hallmarks — from the evolution of the women’s rights movement to incredible World War I panoramas to a breathtaking century-old grand tour of Europe and the Middle East.

Go ahead, get nostalgic over ages you didn’t really live in to remember. It’s okay, we did too.


Turns out, you can actually talk in libraries. Some even hand you a mic — at least if you’re on one of the NYPL Live panels, a fantastic talk series by and at The New York Public Library. The events are available as free audio podcasts on iTunes, with short video highlights viewable online.

We were recently taken with NYPL’s REMIX event, an excellent discussion titled Making Art and Commerce Thrive in the Hybrid Economy. Moderated by cultural historian Steven Johnson and sponsored by Wired, the conversation between Creative Commons founder Lawrence Lessig and now-legendary street artist Shepard Fairey, whose Obama “HOPE” poster became the most iconic political design of all time, offered a fantastic discourse on the intersection of creativity and “fair use” — a particuarly timely discourse amidst the AP’s preposterous lawsuit against Fairey.

Watch the full program online for brilliant insight into the absurdities of today’s copyright legislature and the unnecessary ways in which it hinders the inevitable mergence of  today’s mashup culture.


Web entrepreneur, activist and digital librarian Brewster Kahle, possibly the most influential figure in today’s digitization movement, is out to gift the world with universal access to knowledge.

Since 1996, his Internet Archive has amassed an enormous collection of cultural artifacts — text, audio, moving images, software, even archived web pages — offering permanent access for researchers, historians, scholars and anyone else interested in the cultural anthropology of our civilization.

We really need to put the best we have to offer within reach of our children. If we don’t do that, we’re going to get the generation we deserve — they’re going to learn from whatever it is they have around them.

Inspired by an inscription above the door of the Boston Public Library — Free To All — Kahle set out to, essentially, “one-up the Greeks” by building a hub of culture that puts Egypt’s Library of Alexandria to shame, using technology to bring all of the world’s knowledge to as many people as want to make use of it — everything that was ever published and meant for distribution available to anyone who ever wanted access to it.

Kahle’s TED talk is an excellent introduction to the many facets of this monumental movement, which will no doubt reshape today’s relationship with history and tomorrow’s conversation with today.

Explore the Internet Archive and, while you’re at it, consider that the very act and opportunity of doing so makes you the envy of the Platos and the Gutenbergs of history. And, really, how incredible is that?

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