Book Report: How We Got to Now

How We Got to Now“This is a history worth telling, in part, because it allows us to see a world we generally take for granted with fresh eyes. Our lives are surrounded and supported by a whole class of objects that are enchanted with the ideas and creativity of thousands of people who came before us: inventors and hobbyists and reformers who steadily hacked away at the problem of making artificial light or clean drinking water so that we can enjoy those luxuries today without a second thought, without even thinking of them as luxuries in the first place.” (How We Got to Now – p2-3)

Title: How We Got to Now – Six innovations that made the modern world

Author: Steven Johnson

Publisher: Riverhead Books

Publication Date: 2014

Origin: Like many of my more esoteric reads, I became aware of How We Got to Now by seeing the author appear on The Daily Show. Watch. Click (to buy). Wait (for delivery). Read.

Summary: In How We Got to Now, Steven Johnson tells the history (and, most interestingly the story) of six innovations that we take for granted today: glass, cold, sound, clean, time, and light.

To all those who say, “Well, that sounds boring”, I reply with a heartfelt and profane rebuttal.

I’m probably more of a student of history, and an appreciator of science, than most folks, but I came away with a tenfold increase in my appreciation and a hundred-fold increase in perspective from How We Got to Now.

With illustrative examples, attention to detail, and clear timelines, Johnson shows how each of these innovations came to be and explains many consequences that we either take for granted or for which we are completely unaware. Consider some of the topics that made their way into each section:

  • Glass: King Tut’s tomb, the social significance of mirrors, the impact of telescopes to see far and of microscopes to see small (and the role Gutenberg’s printing press played in bringing about both), fiber optics and the Internet…
  • Cold: Chicago owes a large part of its success and prominence to artificial cold, humanity is now undergoing massive migrations as the result of a household appliance, the impact of air conditioning on the U.S. presidential history…
  • Sound: Bell and Edison had it backwards, the advent of radio, hearing the world’s first recorded sounds only a few years ago, how amplification changed political activism…
  • Clean: from cutting death rates to manufacturing microchips
  • Time: how we all became slaves to clocks, how time-keeping enabled global exploration…
  • Light: artificial light is changing our biological rhythms, the information age, flash photography and human rights…

All of these tales show how the “Eureka!” moment is largely apocryphal, and at best is an exception: the majority of innovations are the result of incremental tinkering and advances achieved independently over years, decades, or even centuries.

To those of you who prefer a more visual medium, there is an accompanying PBS Video series.

My Take: I thoroughly enjoyed How We Got to Now, and have told several friends about it already. I appreciate the perspective it provides on the path to the modern world, and the things we just take for granted because they’ve seemingly always been a part of our lives.

I also believe it’s valuable that we recognize just how many minds it takes to invent and develop solution to real-world problems, as it flies in the face of the largely apocryphal “eureka!” moments that garner much more attention and fanfare. If we (as a collective) truly understood just how much research, built upon prior research, it took, then maybe we’d abandon our restrictive and counter-effective patent system.

Finally, I enjoyed learning about the unforeseen, unpredictable, and largely unknown connections between things.

Read This Book If: You want to appreciate the everyday luxuries of the modern world, or enjoy learning about all sorts of crazy connections.

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Notes and Quotes:

  • p2-3: “This is a history worth telling, in part, because it allows us to see a world we generally take for granted with fresh eyes. Most of us in the developed world don’t pause to think how amazing it is that we drink water from a tap and never once worry about dying forty-eight hours later from cholera. Thanks to air-conditioning, many of us live comfortably in climates that would have been intolerable just fifty years ago. Our lives are surrounded and supported by a whole class of objects that are enchanted with the ideas and creativity of thousands of people who came before us: inventors and hobbyists and reformers who steadily hacked away at the problem of making artificial light or clean drinking water so that we can enjoy those luxuries today without a second thought, without even thinking of them as luxuries in the first place.”
  • p3: “Innovations usually begin life with an attempt to solve a specific problem, but once they get into circulation, they end up triggering other changes that would have been extremely difficult to predict.”

“Innovations usually begin life with an attempt to solve a specific problem, but once they get into circulation, they end up triggering other changes that would have been extremely difficult to predict.”

  • p9: “New innovations are shaped by geopolitical history; they cluster in cities and trading hubs. But in the long run, they don’t have a lot of patience for borders and national identities, never more so than now in our connected world.”
  • p30: “It seems impossible, but the fact is that you can hold the entire collection of all the voice and data traffic traveling between North America and Europe in the palm of one hand. A thousand innovations came together to make that miracle possible: we had to invent the idea of digital data itself, and laser beams, and computers at both ends that could transmit and receive those beams of information – not to mention the ships that lay and repair the cables. But those strange bonds of silicon dioxide, once again, turn out to be central to the story. The World Wide Web is woven together out of threads of glass.”
  • I’d never considered this before, but it really does seem profound. p32: “For the first time, mirrors became part of the fabric of everyday life. This was a revelation on the most intimate of levels: before mirrors came along, the average person went through life without ever seeing a truly accurate representation of his or her face, just fragmentary, distorted glances in pools of water or polished metals.”

“Before mirrors came along, the average person went through life without ever seeing a truly accurate representation of his or her face.

  • A successful business model, from Frederic Tudor, p52: “This was Tudor’s frugal genius: he took three things that the market had effectively priced at zero – ice, sawdust, and and empty vessel – and turned them into a flourishing business.”
  • p61, putting into some perspective how ice played a role in Chicago’s growth: “We think of Chicago as a city of broad shoulders, of railroad empires and slaughterhouses. But it is just as true to say that it was built on the tetrahedral bonds of hydrogen.”
  • p64 introduces a phrase I’ve come to love, from complexity theorist Stuart Kauffman: “the adjacent possible”
  • p64: “Ideas are fundamentally networks of other ideas. We take the tools and metaphors and concepts and scientific understanding of our time, and we remix them into something new. But if you don’t have the right building blocks, you can’t make the breakthrough, however brilliant you might be. The smartest mind in the world couldn’t invent a refrigerator in the middle of the seventeenth century. It simply wasn’t part of the adjacent possible at that moment. But by 1850, the pieces had come together.”

“Ideas are fundamentally networks of other ideas. We take the tools and metaphors and concepts and scientific understanding of our time, and we remix them into something new. But if you don’t have the right building blocks, you can’t make the breakthrough, however brilliant you might be.”

  • p66, what scholars now call “multiple invention“: “Inventions and scientific discoveries tend to come in clusters, where a handful of geographically dispersed investigators stumble independently onto the very same discovery. The isolated genius coming up with an idea that no one else could even dream of is actually the exception, not the rule. Most discoveries become imaginable at a very specific moment in history, after which point multiple people start to imagine them. The electric battery, the telegraph, the steam engine, and the digital music library were all independently invented by multiple individuals in the space of a few years.”
  • p69 has a brilliant ad from the 50s for a General Electric refrigerator
  • p74, in a section on Clarence Birdseye, reminds me of Elon Musk: “Like every big idea, Birdseye’s breakthrough was not a single insight, but a network of other ideas, packaged together in a new configuration. What made Birdseye’s idea so powerful was not simply his individual genius, but the diversity of places and forms of expertise that he brought together.”

“Like every big idea, Birdseye’s breakthrough was not a single insight, but a network of other ideas, packaged together in a new configuration.”

  • p83, to those who doubt the importance of air conditioning! “It’s no accident that the world’s largest cities – London, Paris, New York, Tokyo – were almost exclusively in temperate climates until the second half of the twentieth century. What we are seeing now [with the growth of megacities Chennai, Bangkok, Manila, Jakarta, Karachi, Lagos, Dubai, and Rio de Janeiro] is arguably the largest mass migration in human history, and the first to be triggered by a home appliance.”

“New ways of measuring create new ways of making.”

  • p142 has one of many, many vivid examples: “New ways of measuring create new ways of making. The ability to measure bacterial content allowed a completely new set of approaches to the challenges of public health. Before the adoption of these units of measurement, you had to test improvements to the water system the old-fashioned way: you built a new sewer or reservoir or pipe, and you sat around and waited to see if fewer people would die. But being able to take a sample of water and determine empirically whether it was free of contamination meant that cycles of experimentation could be tremendously accelerated.”

“Before the adoption of these units of measurement, you had to test improvements to the water system the old-fashioned way: you built a new sewer or reservoir or pipe, and you sat around and waited to see if fewer people would die.”

  • p194 gets philosophical: “This is the strange paradox of time in the atomic age: we live in ever shorter increments, guided by clocks that tick invisibly with immaculate precision; we have short attention spans and have surrendered our natural rhythms to the abstract grid of clock time. And yet simultaneously, we have the capacity to imagine and record histories that are thousands or millions of years old, to trace chains of cause and effect that span dozens of generations. We can wonder what time it is and glance down at our phone and get an answer that is accurate to the split-second, but we can also appreciate that the answer was, in a sense, five hundred years in the making: from Galileo’s altar lamp to Niels Bohr’s cesium, from the chronometer to Sputnik. Compared to an ordinary human being from Galileo’s age, our time horizons have expanded in both directions: from the microsecond to the millennium. Which measure of time will win out in the end: our narrow focus on the short term, or our gift for the long now? Will we be high-frequency traders or good ancestors? For that question, only time will tell.”

“Compared to an ordinary human being from Galileo’s age, our time horizons have expanded in both directions: from the microsecond to the millennium. Which measure of time will win out in the end: our narrow focus on the short term, or our gift for the long now? Will we be high-frequency traders or good ancestors?”

  • p209 led me to write Thomas Edison’s guide to high-tech product demos
  • Spoiler alert: Thomas Edison didn’t invent the light bulb (he got into the game about 40 years after the first folks), and he was kind’ve a dick, but he was notable for other important reasons. From p212: “By any measure, Edison was a true genius, a towering figure in nineteenth century innovation. But as the story of the lightbulb makes clear, we have historically misunderstood that genius. His greatest achievement may have been the way he figured out how to make teams creative: assembling diverse skills in a work environment that valued experimentation and accepted failure, incentivizing the group with financial rewards that were aligned with the overall success of the organization, and building on ideas that originated elsewhere.”
  • p226, after showing how flash photography was a key technology in addressing human rights: “The march of technology expands the space of possibility around us, but how we explore that space is up to us.”

“The march of technology expands the space of possibility around us, but how we explore that space is up to us.”

  • Some more perspective, from p236: “Just two hundred years ago, the most advanced form of artificial light involved cutting up a whale on teh deck of a boat in the middle of the ocean. Today we can use light to create an artificial sun on Earth.”
  • p250: “The predominance of simultaneous, multiple invention in the historical record has interesting implications for the philosophy of history and science: To what extent is the sequence of invention set in stone by the basic laws of physics or information or the biological and chemical constraints of the earth’s environment? The fact that these simultaneous-invention clusters are so pronounced in the fossil record of technology tells us, at the very least, that some confluence of historical events has made a new technology imaginable in a way that it wasn’t before.”
  • p252, speaking of folks like Leonardo Da Vinci, Charles Babbage, and Ada Lovelace: “But every now and then, some individual or group makes a leap that seems almost like time traveling. How do they do it? What allows them to see past the boundaries of the adjacent possible when their contemporaries fail to do so? That may be the greatest mystery of all.”

“Every now and then, some individual or group makes a leap that seems almost like time traveling. How do they do it? What allows them to see past the boundaries of the adjacent possible when their contemporaries fail to do so? That may be the greatest mystery of all.”

Have you read How We Got to Now? What did you think?

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Posted in Books, Math and Science
8 comments on “Book Report: How We Got to Now
  1. […] reading Johnson’s How We Got to Now, I decided to read all of Johnson’s books…and I’ve now worked my way to this […]

  2. […] readers of this blog know, ever since reading How We Got to Now, I’ve been working my way through Steven Johnson’s entire […]

  3. […] How We Got to Now – Six innovations that made the modern world (Steven Johnson) […]

  4. […] After reading How We Got To Now, I bought Steven Johnson’s entire […]

  5. […] After reading How We Got To Now, I bought Steven Johnson’s entire […]

  6. […] recently read and thoroughly enjoyed another Steven Johnson book, How We Got to Now. I was chatting about it with a colleague, and remarked how I was interested in more from the same […]

  7. […] first encountered the term “the adjacent possible” in Steven Johnson’s book How We Got to Now, but I believe he first referred to it in Where Good Ideas Come From (I’m going backwards […]

  8. […] author Steven Johnson describes it in his excellent book How We Got to Now, Edison’s “greatest achievement may have been the way he figured out how to make teams […]

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