- Paperback: 320 pages
- Publisher: Riverhead Books; Reprint edition (September 22, 2015)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 1594633932
- ISBN-13: 978-1594633935
- Product Dimensions: 6 x 0.9 x 9 inches
- Shipping Weight: 1.3 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
- Average Customer Review: 4.6 out of 5 stars See all reviews (522 customer reviews)
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #13,926 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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How We Got to Now: Six Innovations That Made the Modern World Reprint Edition
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Praise for Steven Johnson
“A great science writer.” — Bill Clinton, speaking at the Health Matters conference
“Mr. Johnson, who knows a thing or two about the history of science, is a first-rate storyteller.” — The New York Times
“You’re apt to find yourself exhilarated…Johnson is not composing an etiology of particular inventions, but doing something broader and more imaginative…I particularly like the cultural observations Johnson draws along the way…[he] has a deft and persuasive touch…[a] graceful and compelling book.” — The New York Times Book Review
“Johnson is a polymath. . . . [It’s] exhilarating to follow his unpredictable trains of thought. To explain why some ideas upend the world, he draws upon many disciplines: chemistry, social history, geography, even ecosystem science.” — Los Angeles Times
“Steven Johnson is a maven of the history of ideas... How We Got to Now is readable, entertaining, and a challenge to any jaded sensibility that has become inured to the everyday miracles all around us.” — The Guardian
“[Johnson's] point is simple, important and well-timed: During periods of rapid innovation, there is always tumult as citizens try to make sense of it....Johnson is an engaging writer, and he takes very complicated and disparate subjects and makes their evolution understandable.” — The Washington Post
“Through a series of elegant books about the history of technological innovation, Steven Johnson has become one of the most persuasive advocates for the role of collaboration in innovation….Mr. Johnson's erudition can be quite gobsmacking.” – The Wall Street Journal
“An unbelievable book…it’s an innovative way to talk about history.” — Jon Stewart
"What makes this book such a mind-expanding read is Johnson’s ability to appreciate human advancement as a vast network of influence, rather than a simple chain of one invention leading to another, and result is nothing less than a celebration of the human mind." — The Daily Beast
“Fascinating…it’s an amazing book!” — CBS This Morning
“A full three cheers for Steven Johnson. He is, by no means, the only writer we currently have in our era of technological revolution who devotes himself to innovation, invention and creativity but he is, far and away, the most readable.” — The Buffalo News
"The reader of How We Got to Now cannot fail to be impressed by human ingenuity, including Johnson’s, in determining these often labyrinthine but staggeringly powerful developments of one thing to the next." — San Francisco Chronicle
"A rapid but interesting tour of the history behind many of the comforts and technologies that comprise our world." — Christian Science Monitor
"How We Got to Now... offers a fascinating glimpse at how a handful of basic inventions--such as the measurement of time, reliable methods of sanitation, the benefits of competent refrigeration, glassmaking and the faithful reproduction of sound--have evolved, often in surprising ways." — Shelf Awareness
"[Johnson] writes about science and technology elegantly and accessibly, he evinces an infectious delight in his subject matter...Each chapter is full of strange and fascinating connections." — Barnes and Noble Review
"From the sanitation engineering that literally raised nineteenth-century Chicago to the 23 men who partially invented the light bulb before Thomas Edison, [How We Got to Now] is a many-layered delight."— Nature Review
“A highly readable and fascinating account of science, invention, accident and genius that gave us the world we live in today.” —Minneapolis Star Tribune
About the Author
Steven Johnson is the author of the bestsellers Where Good Ideas Come From, The Invention of Air, The Ghost Map, Everything Bad Is Good for You, Mind Wide Open, Emergence, and Interface Culture, and is the editor of the anthology The Innovator’s Cookbook. He is the founder of a variety of influential websites and writes for Time, Wired, The New York Times, and The Wall Street Journal. Johnson lives in Marin County, California, with his wife and three sons.
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Top customer reviews
I recommend this book to anyone interested in history, science and technology and to anyone interested in the strange interconnected tales of how the things that we take for granted were developed. My only minor quibble is that the book is a bit light on technical details. For instance, it discusses pendulum clocks and then pocket watches, but does not describe the difference in their operation, or anything about the development of naval chronometers. I would have liked a bit more technical detail, but this was not a big enough problem to reduce my rating from 5-stars.
What is in the book -
The book describes six innovations that follow the author's contention that - "An innovation, or cluster of innovations, in one field end up triggering changes that seem to belong to a different domain altogether." This idea can best be understood by examining the six innovation chapters and the short conclusion chapter that make up the book. These chapters are as follows:
1. Glass - The first innovation, the development of glass and how it impacted society, starts with the natural pieces of glass found in the Libyan Desert, and goes on to how men eventually learned to make glass. This required the concurrent technology of furnace building and the segregation of the Venetian glassblowers to the island of Murano because of the fires that these furnaces tended to cause. These glassblowers arrived from Constantinople when it fell to the Turks and their segregation led to the cross fertilization of ideas and techniques. The concept of one innovation leading to another in a different field is discussed in terms of the development of the printing press, which made books readily available, which in turn resulted in many people realizing that they were farsighted and could therefore not read them. Previously, Johnson contends that this deficiency was not readily apparent because people did not require the ability to see small things close-up, although I personally find this a bit of a stretch since tasks like sewing would have also required this skill. Books resulted in the development of spectacles and spectacle makers who experimented with the lenses resulted in the invention of the microscope and telescope, which in turn altered our concept of the microscopic world and the cosmos. Glass also led to better mirrors, which in turn altered one's view of self.
2. Cold (as in refrigeration) - Here the story begins with Fredric Tudor's idea (obsession) to bring ice from the frozen lakes and ponds of New England to the tropics, and how this ultimately led to a very highly profitable business, but not before he first went broke trying to perfect this scheme. Ice eventually led to refrigeration and to changes in the living patterns in the US and now in much of the rest of the world because tropical climates were now made more habitable. Cold is also the story of frozen food and how this has changed eating habits.
3. Sound - This chapter discusses the importance of sound and how it led to the concepts of recording it. The different field discussed was how recordings led to the acceptance of Jazz music, and to ultrasound and how this has changed the ratio of male to female children in China.
4. Clean - This chapter deals with sanitation, chlorination of water, and how this has led the development of mega cities. It has also led to the development of advertising through the need to sell soap and to advertising of soap through soap operas on the radio.
5. Time - This chapter discusses how Galileo's observation of the swinging of a pendulum in a church led to clocks, and how accurate clocks transformed navigation and promoted trade. It also goes on to discuss how the development of railroads led to the need for better time keeping and eventually to time zones, atomic clocks and to the GPS system.
6. Light - This is about lighting, from candles to light bulbs to neon signs. One of the concurrent technologies that are discussed is the ability to remove Neon gas from the atmosphere and the need for signage in Las Vegas.
7. Conclusion - This is a short chapter devoted to what Johnson calls "time travelers", people who anticipate a need that so far has not developed. Contrary to the discussions in the rest of the book, these "time travelers" are not influenced by concurrent technologies, but anticipate them.
Though we may deem some knowledge as random, no knowledge is truly random when you pull back far enough. Everything is interconnected in some way and many times they are connected in very unexpected ways.
In How We Got to Now by Steven Johnson you get a fascinating image of our world. The butterfly effect is a popular notion used to describe how one seemingly arbitrary event can have a significant impact across the planet. Johnson, however, uses a more accurate and more powerful notion: the hummingbird effect. As he puts it, we can understand a world with flowers but no hummingbirds, but we cannot comprehend a world with hummingbirds but no flowers. The anatomy of a hummingbird exists because the flower exists, the flower does not depend on the hummingbird.
Technology is similar to a hummingbird, most technologies could not exist without something else. Ideas for computers, batteries, and engines have been around for ages but without existing technology the ideas had to stay dormant.
This book is flat out one of the most interesting books I have ever read. It is amazing how simple ideas have given way to technological revolutions. It is amazing to see how much technology has evolved in a matter of two centuries. For millennia light only came in one form: fire. For millennia information only travelled at the speed of a man’s gait. For millennia a man never saw his reflection. Today, that and so much more has changed.
It is so easy to forget how simple innovations have changed the world, and it is easy to forget how much the world has changed.
The dedication of the book is “For Jane, who no doubt expected a three-volume treatise on nineteenth-century whaling.” I would have preferred that to the book I got. Whaling, after all, is an infinitely fascinating activity, with deep roots and relevance to American history. A detailed exploration of whaling would teach the reader a lot. Instead, I got superficial histories of six areas of technology (glass; refrigeration; sound transmission; sanitation; timekeeping; and illumination); bound together by two less-than-gripping themes.
The first theme is what the author, Steven Johnson, calls (I’m not sure if the term is original) the “hummingbird effect.” This is the idea that “an innovation, or cluster of innovations, in one field ends up triggering changes that seem to belong to a different domain altogether.” The theme gets its name from the presumed evolution of hummingbirds to better access hard-to-reach nectar in flowers, which flowers had earlier evolved to allow insects, not birds, to access the nectar. (Like all post hoc evolutionary explanations, this is a little too pat, but hey, I wasn’t there when hummingbirds evolved, so what do I know? On the other hand, neither was Johnson.) This is basically a gussied up law of unintended consequences. Johnson refers to it frequently, but particularly in connection with improvements in measurement—when measurement improves, he says, it makes possible seemingly unrelated developments that could not happen before. None of this is false, but I don’t think it’s the major set of insights Johnson thinks it is.
The second, related, theme is that single individuals are unimportant to scientific progress. Johnson strongly believes that if Person X hadn’t invented something, Person Y would have invented the same thing at roughly the same time, because the hummingbird effect in essence dictates that that the conditions collectively ripen at a given time, and every breakthrough is “a network of other ideas, packaged together in a new configuration.” Thus, the net effect of social configuration, other inventions, and other external circumstances dictates the emergence of new technologies. Specific individuals have little or nothing to do with any particular invention coming to life. Again, that’s probably mostly true, but (despite frequent cases of simultaneous invention), it’s often true only on longer time scales than Johnson says—witness, for example, Johnson’s own observation that hundreds of years passed between spectacles and telescopes, even though a telescope is merely two lenses placed together and now seems obvious.
I suppose every book (and TV series) needs an organizing structure, and these two themes are Johnson’s. They’re not real exciting, but at least they’re not offensive. And, to his credit, Johnson explicitly and repeatedly rejects the idea of judging whether any particular technological development is good or bad, instead sticking to the facts, so we are spared the lectures common in these types of popular science works, and his structure works well enough to keep the narrative moving.
Speaking of offensive, Johnson halfheartedly apologizes for “the ‘we’ of [this book’s] title [being] North Americans and Europeans.” But, as he points out, that’s entirely apt, because “certain critical experiences—the rise of the scientific method, industrialization—happened in Europe first, and have now spread across the world.” A crisper way of putting this would be that nobody in the rest of the world has contributed anything notably relevant to modern science or technology, whether antibiotics or nerve gas, but at least Johnson states the truth, which gives the reader more confidence in the accuracy of other parts of his book.
Johnson begins with glass. He traces a line—not a straight line; more like the line traced by a bouncing pinball—from colored natural and man-made glass known to the ancients, to medieval Venetian scientifically produced clear glass, to monkish spectacles, to the printing press. Occasionally there are jarring, though not critical, errors. For example, Johnson makes a big deal out of the printing press increasing the market for reading up-close, given that prior to widespread printing most people had little need for close-up focus. He repeatedly incorrectly refers to “hyperopia” and “farsightedness,” claiming that it was common in the population and spectacles corrected it such that people could read. That condition exists, but it wasn’t the medieval problem. Both hyperopia and myopia (nearsightedness) were rare problems in medieval society, just as they are in pre-modern societies today (myopia in particular is a disease of modernity, for reasons which are debated). The real need was for the correction of presbyopia, which is a totally different eye condition—the decreasing ability of the lenses of the eyes to focus at near distances as people age, a problem that happens to 100% of the population. So Johnson is right about the need for spectacles—but not for quite the reason he gives.
Anyway, Johnson’s ball keeps bouncing, from the printing press, to microscopes, telescopes, glass fibers (for communication and as a raw material), and to mirrors. Then he tells us that glass mirrors played a major role in changing the consciousness of Europeans, “orient[ing] them around the self in a new way,” thus they were a key element of causing the Renaissance. Well, maybe. But the Renaissance was about a lot more than increased individualism, which was really a much later development, and anyway mirrors entered mass life only during the 19th Century, and therefore could have had little do with group self-perception during the Renaissance. Like the explanation of why the hummingbird is the way it is, this story sounds good on first reading, but a little thought makes it seem glib to the point of being facile.
The next two chapters cover refrigeration, from the transport of ice blocks to southern climes to modern frozen foods; and sound transmission, from Neanderthal cave rituals to ultrasound as a scientific tool. Then Johnson turns to sanitation, treading the well-worn path that led Europeans to discover the importance of medical and water sanitation and disinfection.
When talking about sanitation, Johnson makes an interesting point I had never considered. We are used to our ancestors being ridiculed, and being held up as stinky barbarians next to supposedly enlightened people in China and the Islamic world, because they bathed so rarely. As Johnson says of our ancestors, in this context and also in general, “they look and act like modern people in many ways . . . but every now then, strange gaps open between us and them, not just the obvious gaps in technological sophistication, but more subtle, conceptual gaps.” But, as Johnson notes, they didn’t fail to bathe because they lacked the technology or ability. They made the deliberate, considered choice not to bathe because bathing was universally regarded in the West as extremely bad for one’s health. As far as they were concerned, cleaning oneself was one of the “barbaric traditions of Middle Eastern bathhouses, not [fit for] the aristocracy of Paris of London.” Of course, that aristocracy could have bathed as much as they wished. But as Johnson says, “The virtues of washing oneself were not self-evident, the way we think of them today.” Our ancestors were wrong about the health consequences, no doubt, but it doesn’t make them any less sophisticated or cultured than those cleaner people in other parts of the world (whom, after all, the Europeans proceeded to dominate for centuries, while creating everything good, and most of the bad, in the world we live in today).
Johnson finally turns to timekeeping and illumination. As to time, he discusses the history of modern clocks (arising from Galileo’s work on pendulums), and their impact on European technology, from the calculation of longitude to the regularization of work hours, all the way to atomic clocks and the Clock of the Long Now. As to illumination, he follows the changeovers from tallow and beeswax to whale oil to electric illumination (using the now famous calculations of William Nordhaus of the exponentially decreasing amount of wages needed to purchase a thousand lumen-hours of light). Johnson notes that Edison was not the first to work on lightbulbs, just the most successful (and perhaps the most dogged)—the basic formula of a carbonized filament in a glass bulb pre-dated Edison by decades. But Edison, of course, like Steve Jobs, was a tireless self-promoter and a “master of vaporware.” Johnson also attributes a variety of social changes to the ability to create light. For example, he attributes to flash technology Jacob Riis creating his muckraking photos of New York tenements, resulting in legislation to protect the poor, and to neon lights the creation of Las Vegas, which had a significant influence on modernist architecture. (In the argument over whether social change drives technological change, or vice versa, Johnson is very much on the side of vice versa.)
Johnson ends on a false note, unfortunately, with a short chapter buying into the myth that Ada Lovelace, Lord Byron’s daughter, was the first computer programmer. This claim is based on her interest in mathematics, encouraged by her mother, and her professional relationship with Charles Babbage, inventor of the Analytical Engine, regarded as the first computer. Lovelace translated an Italian engineer’s essay on the Engine, to which she attached extensive footnotes, some of which constituted a type of early program (for example, to calculate Bernoulli numbers with punch cards). Until recently, it was universally agreed those were summaries of Babbage’s own earlier-created programs, placed there at his request (and nobody disputes he wrote programs prior to Lovelace, so she was not in any case the “first programmer”). She may or may not have improved Babbage’s earlier programs; it’s impossible to tell from the limited documentary evidence. But because of the modern desperation to find and elevate any female role model in science, in order to pretend it is not female choice and innate abilities that results in fewer female computer (and other) scientists, but rather supposed sexist suppression, history has been re-written to claim (as Johnson does) that the programs were Lovelace’s original contributions. On the other hand, Lovelace did have some interesting speculations, perhaps original, in her notes on the future uses of the Engine beyond calculation. Johnson retreats to focusing on those, but even there, his characterization of Lovelace’s suggestion that the Engine might compose music as “an imaginative leap . . . almost beyond comprehension” suggests hyperbole covering up a lack of faith in the subject of his focus.
Anyway, this book isn’t great. But it’s a quick read. The PBS series accompanying it is available for streaming (for a price) on Amazon, and combining the two might be a worthwhile exercise (I haven’t done so). As an education tool for a high school student, or a not-well-informed adult who wants to kill some time, the book could be pretty good. It’s certainly better than watching PewDieDie on YouTube (or Twitch, or whatever). If you know something about the history of these technologies, though, you won’t learn anything new here.
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