With over 500 new business books published every month, an author must be grateful for even a brief mention in the mainstream press. John Carey’s review of Smart World in the July 9th issue of Business Week is therefore more than welcome. I appreciate the several positive things the review has to say, including that the book is provocative, insightful, and covers a wide range of cases. However, I’d like to correct some possible misperceptions arising from Carey’s critique in order to give prospective readers a better understanding of what the book is fundamentally about.
My main concern is that the review largely ignores the theoretical framework that is central to understanding the book’s approach to breakthrough creativity. This omission keeps the reader in the dark about the book’s core ideas, thereby granting some of the review’s criticisms more force than they deserve. For example, the review faults Smart World for going over “well-plowed ground” while failing to justify its claim to be making “a radical break with the past” regarding beliefs about the mind’s creative powers. But of course, to convince the reader of the validity of that judgment, you would have to make at least some reference to the theoretical foundation on which the book rests, something the review doesn’t do. If you don’t even mention the theoretical concepts involved, then you can't credibly claim that they’re old hat.
The underlying concepts and principles that form the basis of the framework presented in the book are indeed built on well-established ideas, drawn from philosophy, anthropology, cognitive science, sociology, AI, and neuroscience. The radical leap Smart World makes is the integration of these ideas into a unified theory of breakthrough creativity based on laws and principles drawn from the new science of networks—widely acknowledged to be one of the most exciting disciplines to emerge in recent years. Unfortunately, none of this is even briefly explored in the review. For example, nowhere is the all-important concept of idea-spaces discussed, nor is reference made to any of the nine laws that account for their self-organizing dynamics. Instead the review implies that it’s all “mumbo jumbo” (I’m citing the online version here). The reader of Carey’s review is left sufficiently unenlightened that even the title of the book remains a puzzle, and could be forgiven for asking, “What exactly is a smart world anyway, and what is this new science of ideas?”
I plead guilty to presenting the reader with something of a challenge: understanding the framework elaborated in Smart World does require some initial effort. As the review itself suggests, cracking the code of creativity isn’t easy, and new thinking is bound to introduce some unfamiliar ideas. But using scientific terminology that may be new to some people isn’t the same thing as burying explanations in mumbo jumbo (defined in my dictionary as “unintelligible language, gibberish”).
This failure to refer to the core framework perhaps explains another quirk: the selection of examples. Although by no means exclusively a business book, Smart World aims (among other things) at addressing the strategic concerns of business leaders worried about the future as the knowledge economy morphs into the creative economy. Yet the review discusses only a single modern business example relating to breakthrough creativity, that of the Xerox Alto. In reality the book alludes to the Alto only peripherally, as part of a two-chapter discussion of the rise of the personal computer, from the Altair through the Apple II to the IBM PC, that is used to showcase a variety of underlying principles. Other business examples discussed in the book include the invention of the spreadsheet, the Apple iPod, supersizing, the economics of driving a cab in New York, the demise of the print version of Encyclopedia Britannica, Napster, IBM’s turnaround under Lou Gerstner, and the rise and fall of the new economy. Getting the point of these examples across to the reader would have required making at least some reference to the core framework of idea-spaces and laws, which may account for why the review never even mentions these cases.
Having said all this, I’m still grateful for Carey’s review. It was a challenge for me to explain the laws governing our smart world in 300 pages. It must have been a daunting task to attempt to get even the general picture across in a single-page review. For a fuller explanation, the reader can turn to some of the reviews on Amazon.com or to the notes to be found in the Reading Guide section of this website.