Steven Johnson

Author of 9 books & TV host of How We Got To Now on PBS/BBC

THIS CHAT HAPPENED ON October 12, 2015

Discussion

Steven Johnson@stevenbjohnson · Author
I'm the author of nine books about science, technology, and history -- including The Ghost Map and Where Good Ideas Come From. I've started a few tech companies over the years, including FEED and outside.in. But my latest project is being the co-creator and host of the Emmy-award winning PBS series, How We Got To Now (also a book.)
Jonny Miller@jonnym1ller · Cofounder @Maptia
Hi Steven, I'm a big fan of your books! Would love to know what you think is the most interesting idea currently sitting in your spark file? Are there any slow hunches that you think might turn into something more one day?
Steven Johnson@stevenbjohnson · Author
@jonnym1ller Thanks, Jonny! I've got a lot of slow hunches simmering away, but one main focus right now is that I am researching a new project that is more in the vein of The Ghost Map -- ie. a single historical story (with many threads.) I've been describing it as The Ghost Map meets The Pirates Of The Caribbean :)
Emily Hodgins@ems_hodge · Community and Marketing, Product Hunt
Hi Steven! What has been the most exciting part about hosting How We Got To Now?
Steven Johnson@stevenbjohnson · Author
@ems_hodge I think my favorite part about it was how intensely collaborative the whole process was. Writing books is a strangely isolated experience, particularly for someone like me who writes about the importance of collaboration. But with the show, we had an entire team of super-smart and fun people all contributing great ideas to the project. So that was incredibly rewarding.
Ben Tossell@bentossell · newCo
@stevenbjohnson Hey :) What are the 3 resources that have most improved your life? (blogs, books, movies, advisors, etc)
Steven Johnson@stevenbjohnson · Author
@bentossell Oh man, it's hard to pick three. In terms of books, maybe my favorite book of all time is Raymond Williams' The Country and the City, which taught me a great deal about how to write about the connections between technology, social change, and culture. E.O. Wilson's Consilience is also one of my favorites. And while many people may find this crazy, I get a tremendous amount of intellectual stimulation out of Twitter -- mostly from links that people share to interesting articles, books, albums, talks, etc. Not unlike Product Hunt!
Marcus Vorwaller@zzzmarcus · Software Developer, Seattle, WA
@stevenbjohnson What role, if any, do you see artificial intelligence playing in innovation now or in the near future? Are there any companies or groups actively using AI to generate new ideas or is that something that hasn't yet come around?
Steven Johnson@stevenbjohnson · Author
@zzzmarcus I'm not an expert in this realm, though I am actually reading Superintelligence right now, but I would think one of the first applications would be on the engineering side of innovation: in other words, we have this idea for this product, let's have the AI "evolve" the most efficient possible design for it, given these constraints. But there are also lighter forms of AI that can be useful for brainstorming -- if you look at my posts about using Devonthink as a kind of research collaborator there's a hint of that kind of soft AI there.
Nathan Bashaw@nbashaw · Head of Product at Gimlet Media
On twitter recently you said you think the ebook experience has stagnated — I agree! I'm curious, what do you think the biggest problems / missed opportunities are?
Steven Johnson@stevenbjohnson · Author
@nbashaw Well, first off, it has taken the Kindle team a ridiculously long time to get some basic typographic stuff right, which is very frustrating. But more to the point, it's still incredibly awkward to use e-books for research. Just trying to get your highlights out of the Kindle, with bibliographic data, is crazy difficult. My current workflow with research relies of 3-4 different applications, including the Kindle site where the highlights are stored. It should be much easier. In addition, Google Books has taken a big step backwards with many of its scanned books no longer accessible even if they are in the public domain. Now, many of these issues are partially because orgs like the Author's Guild and the publishing houses have been very protective about digital content because of what happened to the music world, so it's not all Amazon or Google's fault.
Nicki Friis@nickifriisw · Entrepreneur. Former Partner @ Ideanote.
Hey Steven, why is focusing on customer experience a good idea?
Steven Johnson@stevenbjohnson · Author
@nickifriisw Not really an expert in this, but I would think it's pretty obvious, right: the line between "experience" and "product" gets blurrier and blurrier over time.
Erik Torenberg@eriktorenberg · Former Product Hunt
Hi Steven! What's something you used to fervently believe but now see as misguided?
Steven Johnson@stevenbjohnson · Author
@eriktorenberg Well, not so much "misguided" but I was a fervent believer that there were going to be many successful and profitable businesses in the "hyperlocal" community and news space -- that's why I co-founded outside.in about ten years ago. But it turned out to be much harder than we thought, and to date, no one has quite cracked it.
Melissa Joy Kong@melissajoykong · Content, Product Hunt
You've posed the question, "What unlikely sequence of events has led me to this point?" So... 1. What do you consider to be your defining accomplishment thus far? 2. What unlikely sequence of events helped you accomplish that thing?
Steven Johnson@stevenbjohnson · Author
@melissajoykong I suppose I'm most proud of the fact that both the show *and* the book for How We Got To Now were so well received. I really wanted them to stand on their own, and not have one feel derivative of the other. And the long chain of events that led to HWGTN -- it's too long a story, but like anything it involved some crazy social network connections. When we were raising money for outside.in, I took a meeting with a guy who also happened to be on the board of a documentary TV production company. He ended up passing on investing, but read a few of my books, and recommended that I meet with the TV folks to talk about a series -- and then four years later, after many more chance conversations, we finally got to do it!
Melissa Joy Kong@melissajoykong · Content, Product Hunt
If "How We Got to Now" was produced in 100 years instead of today, what invention(s) do you think would make the cut that are now/will soon achieve scale in the world?
Steven Johnson@stevenbjohnson · Author
@melissajoykong Solar panels! We are right on the cusp of a dramatic change towards renewable energy sources, lead by solar. In a hundred years, kids will be totally baffled by the idea that we used to power our machines and lights by burning 20-million-year-old plants when the sun is showering us with so much energy for free every day.
Emily Hodgins@ems_hodge · Community and Marketing, Product Hunt
What have been some of the biggest challenges you've had to overcome in your career so far, and how did you overcome them?
Steven Johnson@stevenbjohnson · Author
@ems_hodge I suspect the biggest challenge was that I really don't have a science background (I did basically lit, media, and history as an undergrad and grad student) and yet for some odd reason I decided that I wanted to write about science (or at least science history) in my mid-twenties. So I had to do a lot of catch-up, and was fortunate enough to be able to interview and in some cases befriend some scientists who were doing important work. But also I think I overcame that challenge by recognizing my limits. I have a solid layperson's grasp of evolutionary theory, some cognitive neuroscience, complexity theory, etc. But I am hopeless at things like theoretical physics. So I've kept my science-related topics close to the fields that I can grasp, and haven't ventured into areas where I am really out of my depth.
Erik van Mechelen@decision_ · Essayist and fiction writer
@stevenbjohnson @ems_hodge Great anecdote about mid-twenties shift, currently reading and thinking to catch up in fields where my curiosity's now lie. Cheers for the ama!
Massimo Sgrelli@massimosgrelli
How much do you think that "spending time with yourself just to think" is important in the process of creating something new?
Steven Johnson@stevenbjohnson · Author
@massimosgrelli Great question. It's hugely important, and I probably should write more about this, because I have generally focused on the collaborative, "liquid network" model of creativity. For instance, one of my little habits is that I try to spend 20-30 minutes most nights just sitting and listening to music with no other distractions -- not as a background soundtrack, but as my primary focus. It's often an intensely creative part of my day; I often end up connecting a bunch of threads that had been floating around in my mind. And when I'm in NYC, which is most of the year, I try to do a ton of walking, particularly when the weather is as sublime as it is now -- I walk on average 7-8 miles a day, just doing errands, picking the kids up from school, taking the dog out, etc. That walking time is 1) great exercise but 2) it's great thinking time.
Massimo Sgrelli@massimosgrelli
@stevenbjohnson I completely agree with you. My feeling is that the act of thinking is completely misunderstood and often undervalued in today's quick-win style innovation process. I'm thinking about what's happening in the startup world in Silicon Valley. Thousands of bring engineers too often limiting their horizon because of they are too busy in "doing something that people want". We all could get more important achievements if only we better understand the value of taking the time to think as long as necessary before making. How much bigger could be the result? How much important could be the value of our creation?