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How Cafe Culture Helped Make Good Ideas Happen

Paris' Cafe de Flore is known for its history of serving intellectual clientele, including existentialist philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre, journalist and writer Albert Camus and Cubism co-founder Pablo Picasso.
Paris' Cafe de Flore is known for its history of serving intellectual clientele, including existentialist philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre, journalist and writer Albert Camus and Cubism co-founder Pablo Picasso.

It is easy to talk about great ideas as if they were light-bulb moments, sudden epiphanies where everything comes together at once.  But Steven Johnson, author of Where Good Ideas Come From, says that's rarely how it works.

"When you go back and look at the historical record … it turns out that those eureka moments are really infrequent," Johnson tells NPR's Guy Raz.

The 'Slow Hunch'

Take the story of how Darwin developed his theory of evolution. In his own autobiography, Darwin writes about having a great epiphany one night in 1838 while reading Thomas Malthus' "Essay on the Principle of Population." He claims he suddenly understood the principles of natural selection, a theory he went on to base much of his work off of.

But when, 20 years ago, a scholar named Howard Gruber went back and re-read Darwin's notebooks, he found that Darwin's discovery was anything but an epiphany.

"Six months before this alleged epiphany that Darwin had, he was writing out the full theory of natural selection in his notes." Johnson says. "But then it isn't for another three months that he actually writes out the theory in a complete fashion."

This is what Johnson calls the "slow hunch" -- quiet ideas that linger in the background and take time to, pardon the pun, evolve.

Coffeehouse Culture

Johnson also suggests that good ideas don't come from a lone genius working in a lab as often as they come from interactions between geniuses.  Just think of what the coffeehouse did for the Age of Enlightenment.

"People would hang out in this intellectual hub and have these free-floating conversations about all these different interests and passions," Johnson says.

In the 18th century, Benjamin Franklin's own Club of Honest Whigs would meet at the London Coffeehouse in London to shoot around their ideas.

"There should be a plaque to commemorate [that coffeehouse]," Johnson says. "It was really a tremendously generative space. In the book I describe these as 'liquid networks,' where there is … fluidity in the conversation, but it is also a network of different people with different perspectives coming together."

The 'Stacked Platform'

The bottom line, according to Johnson, is that good ideas and innovation are rarely attributable to just one person -- more often, they happen thanks to something Johnson refers to as a "stacked platform."

"Somebody invents the Internet, and somebody builds the Web on top of the Internet, and somebody then can build Twitter on top of the Web," Johnson explains. "What makes it so powerful is that these platforms are beneath us and support what we do so that when we want to sit down and create a new website, we don't have to invent the entire Internet to do it."

Stacked platforms have played a role in everything from the printing press -- Guttenberg borrowed grape-pressing technology from vintners -- to trumpeter Miles Davis' revolutionary album Kind of Blue, which employs a musical scale that dates back to the ancient Greeks.

Johnson says that's what makes coffeehouse innovations so much more impactful than market-driven inventions.

"If you look at the long view, the good ideas that underlie most of the great changes in our society -- that have driven progress -- more often than not actually have roots in the open kind of information commons of the university or the British coffeehouse. … In those environments, ideas are free to connect with each other and build on top of each other," he says. "That remixing is really where great ideas happen."

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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