Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘Steven Johnson’

15 DECEMBER, 2010

The Best Books of 2010: Business, Life & Mind


Time thieves, irrational pragmatists, and what bike-sharing has to do with coming out in science.

We reviewed a lot of books this year and here are our 10 nonfiction favorites in Business, Life and Mind, a continuation of our end-of-year best-of series. (Earlier this week, we covered the best albums and the most compelling long reads published online this year.) Tomorrow, we’ll be complementing with the best books in Art, Design and Photography, so be sure to check back.


Steven Johnson is one of our favorite cultural synthesizers, the prolific author of some of the best nonfiction of the past decade. Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation is practically a manifesto for the founding belief of Brain Pickings — that creativity is a combinatorial force — and traces the building blocks of innovation throughout all of human history. Where Good Ideas Come From was one of our 7 must-read books by TED speakers and you can sample it visually here.


Clay Shirky may just be the Marshall McLuhan of our day, only with saner vocabulary and less of a penchant for LSD. (At least as far as we know.)

Cognitive Surplus: Creativity and Generosity in a Connected Age, one of our 5 curated summer readings, takes a fascinating look at how new media and technology are transforming us from consumers to collaborators, harnessing the vast amounts of free-floating human potential.


Futurist Kevin Kelly may be best-known as the founder of Wired, but he’s also one of the most compelling big-picture thinkers of our time. What Technology Wants begins with a brilliantly broad definition of “technology” — encompassing everything from language itself to augmented reality — and unfolds into ten insightful universal tendencies that give technology direction.

Kelly and Johnson (see above) discussed the role of technology in innovation and the origin of good ideas in this excellent Wired article — we highly recommend it.


We’re big proponents of de-ownership. Or, as we called it in one of this year’s most-read articles, having more by owning less. The lovely and brilliant Rachel Botsman went ahead and wrote a book about it: What’s Mine Is Yours: The Rise of Collaborative Consumption — a compelling investigation of the emergent cultural shift from consumerism to community. From bike-sharing to house-swapping to book exchanges, the book concocts a potent antidote to the modern maladies of wastefulness and access, a bold and hopeful constitution for a new era of relating to the world and one another.


From New York Times columnist Nick Bilton comes an ambitious exploration of where the media landscape is going and how our brains are adapting to it. I Live in the Future & Here’s How It Works: Why Your World, Work, and Brain Are Being Creatively Disrupted dissects our analog past to find the roots of our digital future and our ambivalent present, illustrating with meticulously curated historical anecdotes that new technology has always been met with resistance but has inevitably effected progress that betters human life. People didn’t resort to never leaving their homes again when the telephone came out, as the front page of The New York Times declared that year, nor did the invention of the phonograph lead to mass illiteracy at the abandonment of books. These fears, Bilton argues, were natural but unfounded, as are their contemporary counterparts.

It’s the necessary antidote to Nicholas Carr’s decidedly techno-dystopian (and, we dare add after years of neuroscience studies, largely misinformed) The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains


After the Predictably Irrational slam-dunk, behavioral economist Dan Ariely outdid himself in The Upside of Irrationality: The Unexpected Benefits of Defying Logic at Work and at Home — not only a powerful research-driven look at the practical applications of irrationality, but also a personal story of the youthful accident that left Ariely scarred and sent him into years of painful physical therapy. We featured the book as one of our favorite 5 perspectives on the psychology of choice.


Since its inception in 1970, NPR has “always put the listener first” — a mission not always friction-free at times of political turmoil, government overregulation and divided public opinion. This year, the iconic public broadcaster celebrates its 40th anniversary with This Is NPR: The First Forty Years, a beautifully designed anthology of behind-the-scenes photos, essays and original reporting, and NPR: The First Forty Years, a companion 4-CD compilation featuring some of the most memorable moments from 40 years of news, culture, conversation and commentary. We reviewed it in full, complete with a video trailer, here.


Dr. Neena Schwartz is one of the world’s most influential reproductive biologists, whose seminal work in endocrinology has changed the way science thinks about the relationship between the brain and the reproductive system. A Lab of My Own, is cultural landmark not only as a fascinating look at the feminist plight in science, but also as Schwartz’s deeply personal, powerful and graceful coming out story, with six decades of secrecy revealed for the first time on the pages of the book. We reviewed it in full here.


The Thief of Time: Philosophical Essays on Procrastination is an absorbing anthology featuring essays by a wide range of scholars and writers spanning from the entire spectrum between theoretical and empirical. From the morality of it (is procrastination a vice?) to its possible antidotes (what are the best coping strategies?), the book is an essential piece of psychosocial insight. We first featured in one of this year’s most popular Brain Pickings posts, spotlighting 5 perspectives on procrastination, where you can find it reviewed in full.


A remarkable intersection of art and science, Portraits of the Mind: Visualizing the Brain from Antiquity to the 21st Century takes us on a gripping visual journey through humanity’s understanding of the brain, from Medieval sketches to Victorian medical engravings to today’s most elaborate 3D brain mapping. Author Carl Schoonover delivers a book that sources its material in solid science, roots its aesthetic in art, and reads like an ambitious literary anthology. Our full review, complete with stunning images from the book, can be found here.

Brain Pickings has a free weekly newsletter and people say it’s cool. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s best articles. Here’s an example. Like? Sign up.

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.

Donating = Loving

Bringing you (ad-free) Brain Pickings takes hundreds of hours each month. If you find any joy and stimulation here, please consider becoming a Supporting Member with a recurring monthly donation of your choosing, between a cup of tea and a good dinner:

You can also become a one-time patron with a single donation in any amount:

Brain Pickings has a free weekly newsletter. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s best articles. Here’s what to expect. Like? Sign up.

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.

Brain Pickings has a free weekly newsletter and people say it’s cool. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s best articles. Here’s an example. Like? Sign up.