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Obama’s Framework for “Consumer Data Privacy” And My “Data Bill of Rights”

By - February 26, 2012

It sort of feels like “wayback week” for me here at Searchblog, as I get caught up on the week’s news after my vacation. Late last week the Obama administration announced “Consumer Data Privacy In A Networked World: A Framework for Protecting Privacy and Promoting Innovation in the Global Digital Economy.”

The document runs nearly 50 pages, but turns on a “Privacy Bill of Rights” – and when I read that phrase, it reminded me of a post I did four years ago: The Data Bill of Rights.

I thought I’d compare what I wrote with what the Obama administration is proposing.

First, the Administrations’ key points:

Individual Control: Consumers have a right to exercise control over what personal data companies collect from them and how they use it.

Transparency: Consumers have a right to easily understandable and accessible information about privacy and security practices.

Respect for Context: Consumers have a right to expect that companies will collect, use, and disclose personal data in ways that are consistent with the context in which consumers provide the data.

Security: Consumers have a right to secure and responsible handling of personal data.

Access and Accuracy: Consumers have a right to access and correct personal data in usable formats, in a manner that is appropriate to the sensitivity of the data and the risk of adverse consequences to consumers if the data is inaccurate.

Focused Collection: Consumers have a right to reasonable limits on the personal data that companies collect and retain.

Accountability: Consumers have a right to have personal data handled by companies with appropriate measures in place to assure they adhere to the Consumer Privacy Bill of Rights.

And now my “Data Bill of Rights” from 2007:

Data Portability. We can take copies of that data out of the company’s coffers and offer it to others or just keep copies for ourselves.

Data Editing. We can request deletions, editing, clarifications of our data for accuracy and privacy.

Data Anonymity. We can request that our data not be used, cognizant of the fact that that may mean services are unavailable to us.

Data Use. We have rights to know how our data is being used inside a company.

Data Value. The right to sell our data to the highest bidder.

Data Permissions. The right to set permissions as to who might use/benefit from/have access to our data.

Comparing the two, it seems the Administration has not addressed the issue of what I call portability, at all, which I think is a bummer. Nor does it consider the idea of Value, which I think the market is going to address over time. It does address what I call editing, anonymity (what I should have called “opt out”), use, and permissions.

What the administration added that I did not have is “security” – the right to know your data is secure (I think I took that for granted), and “Focused Collection” and “Respect For Context,” which I agree with – don’t collect data for data’s sake, and we should have the right that data collected about us is being used in proper context.

Given how much this issue is in the news lately, as well as the overwhelming response to my post last Friday about Google and Apple, I’m getting as smart as I can on these issues.

Further coverage of the Administration’s move at RWW: Obama Administration Sides with Consumers in Online Privacy Debate and Paid Content Big Tech, Obama And The Politics Of Privacy as well as Ad Age, which is skeptical: Did The White House Just Thread The Needle On Privacy?

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The Ecstasy of Telegraphy

By - February 14, 2012

My research manager turned up this gem in the course of answering a question I had about the popular response to the introduction of the telegraph in the US (a moment that informs the working title of my next book). What I find fascinating is how the invention incited an innate religious response (this editorial from a local Albany, NY newspaper is in no way unique). The logic goes something like this: Mankind has invented something that pushes the boundaries of our comprehension – we are now doing something that once was understood to be the provenance only of God. Therefore, we must remind ourselves that this invention, while seeming to contradict the supreme powers of God, in fact only reinforces His position in our world. 

The logic may feel a bit tortured, but it’s consistent with a point I make every time I explain one of the core ideas of the book – that in the 200 years between the introduction of the telegraph (early 1840s) and when my children have kids of their own (roughly 30 years from now, or  early 2040s), mankind will have completed something of a pivot when it comes to our shared understanding of the relationship between technology and God. When Morse couldn’t decide what the first telegraph message should be, he settled on a Biblical quote quite consistent with the Albany Atlas and Argus’ editorial: What Hath God Wrought? The telegraph was such a massive shift in the possible, it was best to ascribe its power to God. Humans can’t handle this power.*

But in the intervening centuries, we’ve come to realize that God isn’t going to provide an operating manual for the power we’ve unlocked, and if we’re going to get our arms around it, it’s on us to do so. We can’t throw up our hands and hope for the best. We have to shoulder the responsibility of entering these new realms of power. That’s why I change Morse’s famous quote for my working title: What We Hath Wrought. Two centuries after that first electronic message pierced time and space, what will we have built?

That’s the question my book will explore, using the tools of anthropology and journalism, and a bit of luck along the way.

*Indeed, the story of Morse’s precursor Claude Chappe, the inventor of the “optical telegraph,” offers additional pathos to the narrative. Raised “in church service,” Chappe chose an entrepreneurial path, developing a series of signal towers across France in the late 1790s. His first test message declared a far more earthly intention: “If you succeed, you will bask in glory.” But Chappe died ingloriously: He threw himself down a well in despair at accusations his invention was stolen from the military. 

China Hacking: Here We Go

By - February 13, 2012

(image) Waaaay back in January of this year, in my annual predictions, I offered a conjecture that seemed pretty orthogonal to my usual focus:

“China will be caught spying on US corporations, especially tech and commodity companies. Somewhat oddly, no one will (seem to) care.”

Well, I just got this WSJ news alert, which reports:

Using seven passwords stolen from top Nortel executives, including the chief executive, the hackers—who appeared to be working in China—penetrated Nortel’s computers at least as far back as 2000 and over the years downloaded technical papers, research-and-development reports, business plans, employee emails and other documents.

The hackers also hid spying software so deeply within some employees’ computers that it took investigators years to realize the pervasiveness of the problem.

Now, before I trumpet my prognosticative abilities too loudly, let’s see if … anybody cares. At all. And if you’re wondering why I even bothered to make such a prediction, well, it’s because I think it’s going to prove important….eventually.

Nearly 90% of the World Uses Mobile Phones

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In the normal course of research for the book, I wondered how quickly mobile phone use got to the 1 billion mark. I figured we’re well past that number now, but I had no idea how far past it we’ve blown.Like, six times past it. We hit 1 billion in the year 2000, and never looked back.

According to the ITU, nearly 90% of people in the world use mobile phones. Holy. Cow. By comparison, just 35% of us are using the Internet. That is going to change, and fast. Everyone needs a new phone after some period of time. And the next one they get is going to be connected. Just some Monday afternoon Powerpoint fodder for you all. Now back to work.

 

Is Our Republic Lost?

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Over the weekend I finished Larry Lessig’s most recent (and ambitious) book, Republic, Lost: How Money Corrupts Congress–and a Plan to Stop It. Amongst those of us who considered Lessig our foremost voice on issues of Internet policy, his abrupt pivot to focus on government corruption was both disorienting and disheartening: here was our best Internet thinker, now tilting at government windmills. I mean, fix government? Take the money out of politics? Better to treat all that as damage, and route around it, right? Isn’t that what the Internet is supposed to be all about?

Well, maybe. But after the wake up call that was PIPA/SOPA, it’s become clear why Lessig decided to stop focusing on battles he felt he couldn’t win (reforming copyright law, for example), and instead aim his intellect at the root causes of why those battles were fruitless. As he writes in his preface:

I was driven to this shift when I became convinced that the questions I was addressing in the fields of copyright and Internet policy depended upon resolving the policy questions – the corruption – that I address (in Republic Lost).

Lessig, ever the lawyer at heart, presents his book as an argument, as well as a call to arms (more on that at the end). Early on he declares our country ruined, “poisoned” by an ineffective government, self-serving corporations, and an indifferent public. To be honest, it was hard to get through the first couple of chapters of Republic Lost without feeling like I was being lectured to on a subject I already acknowledged: Yes, we have a corrupt system, yes, lobbyists are in league with politicians to bend the law toward their client’s bottom lines, and yes, we should really do something about it.

But Lessig does make a promise, and in the book he keeps it: To identify and detail the “root” of the problem, and offer a prescription (or four) to address it. And yes, that root is corruption, in particular the corruption of money, but Lessig takes pains to define a particular kind of corruption. Contrary to popular sentiment, Lessig argues, special interest money is not directly buying votes (after all, that is illegal). Instead, an intricate “gift economy” has developed in Washington, one that is carefully cultivated by all involved, and driven by the incessant need of politicians to raise money so as to insure re-election.

Lessig calls this “dependency corruption” – politicians are dependent on major donors not only to be elected, but to live a lifestyle attendant with being a US Congressperson.  Lessig also points out how more than half of our representatives end up as lobbyists after serving – at salaries two to ten times those of a typical Congressperson (he also points out that we grossly underpay our representatives, compared to how they’d be remunerated for their talents in the private sector).

Lessig likens this dependency corruption to alcoholism – it “develops over time; it sets a patter of interaction that builds upon itself; it develops a resistance to breaking that pattern; it feeds a need that some find easier to resist than others; satisfying that need creates its own reward; that reward makes giving up the dependency difficult; for some, it makes it impossible.”

In short, Lessig says Washington DC is full of addicts, and if we’re to fix anything – health care, energy policy, education, social security, financial markets – we first have to address our politicians’ addiction to money, and our economic system’s enablement of that addiction. Because, as Lessig demonstrates in several chapters devoted to broken food and energy markets, broken schools, and broken financial systems, the problem isn’t that we can’t fix the problem. The problem, Lessig argues, is that we’re paying attention to the wrong problem.

Lessig’s argument essentially concludes that we’ve created a system of government that rewards policy failure – the bigger the issue, the stronger the lobbyists on one or even both sides, forcing Congress into a position of moral hazard – it can insure the most donations if it threatens regulation one way or the other, this way collecting from both sides. Lessig salts his argument with example after example of how the system fails at real reform due to the “money dance” each congressperson must perform.

It’s pretty depressing stuff. And yet – there are no truly evil characters here. In fact, Lessig makes quite the point of this: we face a corruption of “decent souls,” of “good people working in a corrupted system.”

Despite Lessig’s avowed liberal views (combined with his conservative, Reagan-era past), I could imagine that  Republic Lost could as easily be embraced by Tea Party fanatics as by Occupy Wall Street organizers. He focuses chapters on how “so damn much money” defeats the ends of both the left and the right, for example. And at times the book reads like an indictment of the Obama administration – Lessig, like many of us, believed that Obama was truly going to change Washington, then watched aghast as the new administration executed the same political playbook as every other career politician.

In the final section of his book, Lessig offers several plans to force fundamental campaign finance reform – the kind of reform that the majority of us seem to want, but that never seems to actually happen. Lessig acknowledges how unlikely it is that Congress would vote itself out of a system to which it is addicted, and offers some political gymnastics that have almost no chance of working (running a candidate for President who vetoes everything until campaign finance reform is passed, then promises to quit, for example).

The plan that has gotten the most attention is the “Grant and Franklin Project” – a plan to finance all candidacies for Congressional office through public funds. He suggests that the first fifty dollars of any Federal tax revenue (per person per year) be retained to fund political campaigns, then allocated by each of us as a voucher of sorts. In addition, we’d all be able to commit another $100 of our own money to any candidate we choose. Uncommitted funds go to our parties (if we do not actively wish to use our voucher). Any candidate can tap these resources, but only if that candidate agrees to take only vouchers and $100 contributions (bye bye, corporate and PAC money).  Lessig calculates the revenues of this plan would be well above the billions spent to elect politicians in our current system, and argues that the savings in terms of government pork would pay forward the investment many times over.

Lessig ends his book with a call to action – asking us to become “rootstrikers,” to get involved in bringing about the Grant and Franklin Project, or something like it (he goes into detail on a Constitutional convention as a means to the end, for example). And it’s here where I begin to lose the thread. On the one hand, I’m deeply frustrated by the problem Lessig outlines (I wrote about it here On The Problem of Money, Politics, and SOPA), but I’m also suspicious of any new “group” that I need to join – I find “activist” organizations tend to tilt toward unsustainable rhetoric. I’m not an activist by nature, but then again, perhaps it’s not activism Lessig is asking for. Perhaps it’s simply active citizenship.

I could see myself getting behind that. How about you?

####

Other works I’ve reviewed:

Where Good Ideas Come From: A Natural History of Innovation by Steven Johnson (my review)

The Singularity Is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology by Ray Kurzweil (my review)

The Corporation (film – my review).

What Technology Wants by Kevin Kelly (my review)

Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other by Sherry Turkle (my review)

The Information: A History, a Theory, a Flood by James Gleick (my review)

In The Plex: How Google Thinks, Works, and Shapes Our Lives by Steven Levy (my review)

The Future of the Internet–And How to Stop It by Jonathan Zittrain (my review)

The Next 100 Years: A Forecast for the 21st Century by George Friedman (my review)

Physics of the Future: How Science Will Shape Human Destiny and Our Daily Lives by the Year 2100 by Michio Kaku (my review)

Larry Page’s “Tidal Wave Moment”?

By - February 07, 2012

Who remembers the moment, back in 1995, when Bill Gates wrote his famous Internet Tidal Wave Memo? In it he rallied his entire organization to the cause of the Internet, calling the new platform an existential threat/opportunity for Microsoft’s entire business. In the memo Gates wrote:

“I assign the Internet the highest level of importance. In this memo I want to make clear that our focus on the Internet is crucial to every part of our business. The Internet is the most important single development to come along since the IBM PC was introduced in 1981.”

The memo runs more than 5300 words and includes highly detailed product plans across all of Microsoft. In retrospect, it probably wasn’t a genius move to be so transparent – the memo became public during the US Dept. of Justice action against Microsoft in the late 1990s.

It strikes me that Larry Page at Google could have written such a memo to all Googlers last year. Of course, Page and his advisors must have learned from Microsoft’s mistakes, and certainly don’t want a declarative memo floating around the vast clouds of Internet eternity. Bad things can happen from direct mandates such as those made by Gates – in the memo he mentions that Microsoft must “match and beat” Netscape, for example, words that came back to haunt him during the DOJ action.

Here’s what Page might have written to his staff in 2011, with just a few words shifted:

” I assign social networking the highest level of importance. In this memo I want to make clear that our focus on social networking is crucial to every part of our business. Social networking is the most important single development to come along since Google was introduced in 1998.”

I very much doubt Page wrote anywhere that Google must “match and beat” Facebook. And unlike Gates, he probably did not pen detailed memos about integrating Google+ into all of Google’s products (as Gates did – for pages – declaring that Microsoft must integrate the Internet into all of its core products.)

But it’s certainly not lost on any Googler how important “social” is to the company: all of their bonuses were tied to social last year.

So why am I bringing this up now? Well, I’ve got no news hook. I’m just doing research for the book, and came across the memo, and its tone and urgency struck a familiar note. The furor around Search Plus Your World has died down, but it left a bad taste in a lot of folks’ mouths. But put in the context of “existential threat,” it’s easier to understand why Google did what it did.

Unlike the Internet, which was a freely accessible resource that any company could incorporate into its products and services, to date “social” has been dominated by one company, a company that Google has been unable to work with. Imagine if, when Gates wrote his Tidal Wave memo, the “Internet” he spoke of was controlled entirely by, say, MCI, and that Microsoft was unable to secure a deal to get all that Internet goodness into its future products.

That seems to be where Google finds itself, at least by its own reckoning. To continue being a great search engine, it needs the identity and relationship data found, for the most part, behind Facebook’s walls.

I’ve written elsewhere about the breakdown of the open web, the move toward more “walled gardens of data,” and what that does to Google’s ability to execute its core business of search. And it’s not just social – readers have sent me tons of information that predict how mobile, in particular, will escape the traditional reaches of Google’s spidering business model. I hope to pore through that information and post more here, but for now, it’s worth reading a bit of history to put Google’s moves into broader context.

Now All That’s Left Is To Write It

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For posterity, if nothing else, here’s what my desk looks like at the moment. After a particularly enlightening whiteboard session with Steven Johnson late last week, then further musings on the back of bar menus and borrowed receipt-tape with my wife, and finally after waking up and scribbling notes in the middle of the night, I finally have a working outline of The Next Book. No, it’s not supposed to make much sense. Yet.

Now all I have to do is write it.

Do You Think The US Government Is Monitoring Social Media?

By - February 03, 2012

I had the news on in the background while performing morning ablutions. It was tuned to CBS This Morning – Charlie Rose has recently joined the lineup and my wife, a former news producer, favors both Rose and the Tiffany Network. But the piece that was running as I washed the sleep from my eyes was simply unbelievable.

It was about the two unfortunate british tourists detained by Homeland Security over jokes on Twitter about “destroying America” (a colloquialism for partying – think “tear up the town”) and “digging up Marilyn Monroe” whilst in Hollywood. DHS cuffed the poor kids and tossed them in a detention center with “inner city criminals,” according to reports, then sent them back home. Access denied.(I tweeted the story when it happened, then forgot about it.)

Silly stuff, but also serious – I mean, if DHS can’t tell a 140-character colloquialism from a real threat….(Slap Forehead Now). CBS had managed to get an interview with the unfortunate couple, who were back in the UK and most likely never able to travel here again.

The interview wasn’t what woke me up this morning, it was what CBS’s “Terrorism Expert” had to say afterwards. Apparently Homeland Security claims it is NOT monitoring Twitter and other social media, instead, it got a “tip” about the tweets, and that’s why the couple was detained. The on-air “expert,” who used to run counter-terror for the LAPD and was an official at DHS as well, was asked point blank if the US Government was “monitoring social media.” He flatly denied it. (His comments, oddly, were cut out of the piece that’s now on the web and embedded above).

I do not believe him. Do you? And if they really are not – why not? Shouldn’t they be? I was curious to your thoughts, so here’s a poll:


And then, here’s the next one. Regardless of whether you think it actually IS monitoring….


It’s Not Whether Google’s Threatened. It’s Asking Ourselves: What Commons Do We Wish For?

By - February 02, 2012

If Facebook’s IPO filing does anything besides mint a lot of millionaires, it will be to shine a rather unsettling light on a fact most of us would rather not acknowledge: The web as we know it is rather like our polar ice caps: under severe, long-term attack by forces of our own creation.

And if we lose the web, well, we lose more than funny cat videos and occasionally brilliant blog posts. We lose a commons, an ecosystem, a “tangled bank” where serendipity, dirt, and iterative trial and error drive open innovation. Google’s been the focus of most of this analysis (hell, I called Facebook an “existential threat” to Google on Bloomberg yesterday), but I’d like to pull back for a second.

This post has been brewing in me for a while, but I was moved to start writing after reading this piece in Time:

Is Google In Danger of Being Shut Out of the Changing Internet?

The short answer is Hell Yes. But while I’m a fan of Google (for the most part), to me the piece is focused too narrowly on what might happen to one company, rather than to the ecosystem which allowed that company to thrive. It does a good job of outlining the challenges Google faces, which are worth recounting (and expanding upon) as a proxy for the larger question I’m attempting to elucidate:

1. The “old” Internet is shrinking, and being replaced by walled gardens over which Google’s crawlers can’t climb. Sure, Google can crawl Facebook’s “public pages,” but those represent a tiny fraction of the “pages” on Facebook, and are not informed by the crucial signals of identity and relationship which give those pages meaning. Similarly, Google can crawl the “public pages” of Apple’s iTunes store on the web, but all the value creation in the mobile iOS appworld is behind the walls of Fortress Apple. Google can’t see that information, can’t crawl it, and can’t “make it universally available.” Same for Amazon with its Kindle universe, Microsoft’s Xbox and mobile worlds, and many others.

2. Google’s business model depends on the web remaining open, and given #1 above, that model is imperiled. It’s damn hard to change business models, but with Google+ and Android, the company is trying. The author of the Time piece is skeptical of Google’s chances of recreating the Open Web with these new tools, however.

He makes a good point. But to me, the real issue isn’t whether Google’s business model is under attack by forces outside its control. Rather, the question is far more existential in nature: What kind of a world do we want to live in?

I’m going to say that again, because it bears us really considering: What kind of a world do we want to live in? As we increasingly leverage our lives through the world of digital platforms, what are the values we wish to hold in common? I wrote about this issue a month or so ago:  On This Whole “Web Is Dead” Meme. In that piece I outlined a number of core values that I believe are held in common when it comes to what I call the “open” or “independent” web. They also bear repeating (I go into more detail in the post, should you care to read it):

No gatekeepers. The web is decentralized. Anyone can start a web site. No one has the authority (in a democracy, anyway) to stop you from putting up a shingle.

– An ethos of the commons. The web developed over time under an ethos of community development, and most of its core software and protocols are royalty free or open source (or both). There wasn’t early lockdown on what was and wasn’t allowed. This created chaos, shady operators, and plenty of dirt and dark alleys. But it also allowed extraordinary value to blossom in that roiling ecosystem.

– No preset rules about how data is used. If one site collects information from or about a user of its site, that site has the right to do other things with that data, assuming, again, that it’s doing things that benefit all parties concerned.

– Neutrality. No one site on the web is any more or less accessible than any other site. If it’s on the web, you can find it and visit it.

– Interoperability. Sites on the web share common protocols and principles, and determine independently how to work with each other. There is no centralized authority which decides who can work with who, in what way.

I find it hard to argue with any of the points above as core values of how the Internet should work. And it is these values that created Google and allowed the company to become the world beater is has been these past ten or so years. But if you look at this list of values, and ask if Apple, Facebook, Amazon, and the thousands of app makers align with them, I am afraid the answer is mostly no. And that’s the bigger issue I’m pointing to: We’re slowly but surely creating an Internet that is abandoning its original values for…well, for something else that as yet is not well defined.

This is why I wrote Put Your Taproot Into the Independent Web. I’m not out to “save Google,” I’m focused on trying to understand what the Internet would look like if we don’t pay attention to our core shared values.

And it’s not fair to blame Apple, Facebook, Amazon, or app makers here. In conversations with various industry folks over the past few months, it’s become clear that there are more than business model issues stifling the growth of the open web. In no particular order, they are:

1. Engineering. It’s simply too hard to create super-great experiences on the open web. For many high value products and services, HTML and its associated scripting languages, including HTML5, are messy, incomplete, and are not as fast, clean, and elegant as coding for iOS or the Facebook ecosystem. I’ve heard this over and over again. This means developers are drawn to the Apple universe first, web second. Value accrues where engineering efforts pay off in a more compelling user experience.

2. Mobility. The PC-based HTML web is hopelessly behind mobile in any number of ways. It has no eyes (camera), no ears (audio input), no sense of place (GPS/location data). Why would anyone want to invest in a web that’s deaf, dumb, blind, and stuck in one place?

3. Experience. The open web is full of spam, shady operators, and blatant falsehoods. Outside of a relatively small percentage of high quality sites, most of the web is chock full of popup ads and other interruptive come-ons. It’s nearly impossible to find signal in that noise, and the web is in danger of being overrun by all that crap. In the curated gardens of places like Apple and Facebook, the weeds are kept to a minimum, and the user experience is just…better.

So, does that mean the Internet is going to become a series of walled gardens, each subject to the whims of that garden’s liege?

I don’t think so. Scroll up and look at that set of values again. I see absolutely no reason why they can not and should not be applied to how we live our lives inside the worlds of Apple, Facebook, Amazon, and the countless apps we have come to depend upon. But it requires a shift in our relationship to the Internet. It requires that we, as the co-creators of value through interactions, data, and sharing, take responsibility for ensuring that the Internet continues to be a commons.

I expect this will be less difficult that it sounds. It won’t take a political movement or a wholesale migration from Facebook to more open services. Instead, I believe in the open market of ideas, of companies and products and services which identify  the problems I’ve outlined above, and begin to address them through innovative new approaches that solve for them. I believe in the Internet. Always have, and always will.

Related:

Predictions 2012 #4: Google’s Challenging Year

We Need An Identity Re-Aggregator (That We Control)

Set The Data Free, And Value Will Follow

A Report Card on Web 2 and the App Economy

The InterDependent Web

On This Whole “Web Is Dead” Meme

Where Good Ideas Come From: A Tangled Bank

By - January 31, 2012

After pushing my way through a number of difficult but important reads, it was a pleasure to rip through Steven Johnson’s Where Good Ideas Come From: A Natural History of Innovation. I consider Steven a friend and colleague, and that will color my review of his most recent work (it came out in paperback last Fall). In short, I really liked the book. There, now Steven will continue to accept my invitations to lunch…

Steven is author of seven books, and I admire his approach to writing. He mixes story with essay, and has an elegant, spare style that I hope to emulate in my next book. If What We Hath Wrought is compared to his work, I’ll consider that a win.

Where Good Ideas Come From is an interesting, fast paced read that outlines the kinds of environments which spawn world-changing ideas. In a sense, this book is the summary of “lessons learned” from several of Johnson’s previous books, which go deep into one really big idea – The Invention of Air, for example, or  the discovery of a cure for cholera. It’s also a testament to another of Johnson’s obsessions – the modern city, which he points out is a far more likely seedbed of great ideas than the isolated suburb or cabin-on-a-lake-somewhere.

Johnson draws a parallel between great cities and the open web – both allow for many ideas to bump up against each other, breed, and create new forms. 

Some environments squelch new ideas; some environments seem to breed them effortlessly. The city and the Web have been such engines of innovation because, for complicated historical reasons, they are both environments that are powerfully suited for the creation, diffusion, and adoption of good ideas.

While more than a year old, Where Good Ideas Come From is an important and timely book, because the conclusions Johnson draw are instructive to the digital world we are building right now – will it be one that fosters what Zittrain calls generativity, or are we feeding ecosystems that are closed in nature? Johnson writes:

…openness and connectivity may, in the end, be more valuable to innovation than purely competitive mechanisms. Those patterns of innovation deserve recognition—in part because it’s intrinsically important to understand why good ideas emerge historically, and in part because by embracing these patterns we can build environments that do a better job of nurturing good ideas…

…If there is a single maxim that runs through this book’s arguments, it is that we are often better served by connecting ideas than we are by protecting them. ….when one looks at innovation in nature and in culture, environments that build walls around good ideas tend to be less innovative in the long run than more open-ended environments. Good ideas may not want to be free, but they do want to connect, fuse, recombine. They want to reinvent themselves by crossing conceptual borders. They want to complete each other as much as they want to compete.

I couldn’t help but think of the data and commercial restrictions imposed by Facebook and Apple as I read those words. As I’ve written over and over on this site, I’m dismayed by the world we’re building inside Apple’s “appworld,” on the one hand, and the trend toward planting our personal and corporate taproots too deeply in the soils of Facebook, on the other. Johnson surveys centuries of important, world changing ideas, often relating compelling personal narratives on the way to explaining how those ideas came to be not through closed, corporate R&D labs, but through unexpected collisions between passions, hobbies, coffee house conversations, and seeming coincidence. If you’re ever stuck, Johnson advises, go outside and bump into things for a while. I couldn’t agree more.

One concept Johnson elucidates is the “adjacent possible,” a theory attributed to biologist Stuart Kauffman. In short, the adjacent possible is the space inhabited by “what could be” based on what currently is. In biology and chemistry, for example, it’s the potential for various combinations of molecules to build self-replicating proteins. When that occurs, new adjacent possibilities open up, to the point of an explosion in life and order.

Johnson applies this theory to ideas, deftly demonstrating how Darwin’s fascination with the creation of coral reefs led – over years – to what is perhaps the most powerful idea of modernity – evolution. He concludes that while most of us understand Darwin’s great insight as mostly about “survival of the fittest,” perhaps its greatest insight is how it has “revealed the collaborative and connective forces at work in the natural world.” Darwin’s famous metaphor for this insight is the tangled bank:

It is interesting to contemplate a tangled bank, clothed with many plants of many kinds, with birds singing on the bushes, with various insects flitting about, and with worms crawling through the damp earth, and to reflect that these elaborately constructed forms, so different from each other, and dependent upon each other in so complex a manner, have all been produced by laws acting around us. . .

Johnson also extolls the concept of “liquid networks” – where information freely flows between many minds, of “slow hunches,” where ideas develop over long periods of time, as well as the importance of noise, serendipity, and error in the development of good ideas. He explores “exaptation” – the repurposing of one idea for another use, and the concept of “platforms” that allow each of these concepts – from liquid networks to serendipity and exaptation – to blossom (Twitter is cited as such a platform).

Johnson concludes:

Ideas rise in crowds, as Poincaré said. They rise in liquid networks where connection is valued more than protection. So if we want to build environments that generate good ideas—whether those environments are in schools or corporations or governments or our own personal lives—we need to keep that history in mind, and not fall back on the easy assumptions that competitive markets are the only reliable source of good ideas. Yes, the market has been a great engine of innovation. But so has the reef.

Amen, I say. I look forward to our great tech companies – Apple and Facebook amongst them – becoming more tangled bank than carefully pruned garden.

A nice endcap to the book is a survey Johnson took of great ideas across history. He places each idea on an XY grid where an idea is either generated by an individual or a network of individuals (the X axis) and/or a commercial or non-commercial environment (the Y Axis). The results are pretty clear: ideas thrive in “non-market/networked” environments.

Johnson's chart of major ideas emerging during the 19th and 20th centuries

This doesn’t mean those ideas don’t become the basis for commerce – quite the opposite in fact. But this is a book about how good ideas are created, not how they might be exploited. And we’d be well advised to pay attention to that as we consider how we organize our corporations, our governments, and ourselves – we have some stubborn problems to solve, and we’ll need a lot of good ideas if we’re going to solve them.

Highly recommended.

Next up on the reading list: Inside Apple: How America’s Most Admired–and Secretive–Company Really Works by Adam Lashinsky, and Republic, Lost: How Money Corrupts Congress–and a Plan to Stop It, by Larry Lessig.

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Other works I’ve reviewed:

The Singularity Is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology by Ray Kurzweil (my review)

The Corporation (film – my review).

What Technology Wants by Kevin Kelly (my review)

Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other by Sherry Turkle (my review)

The Information: A History, a Theory, a Flood by James Gleick (my review)

In The Plex: How Google Thinks, Works, and Shapes Our Lives by Steven Levy (my review)

The Future of the Internet–And How to Stop It by Jonathan Zittrain (my review)

The Next 100 Years: A Forecast for the 21st Century by George Friedman (my review)

Physics of the Future: How Science Will Shape Human Destiny and Our Daily Lives by the Year 2100 by Michio Kaku (my review)