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How We Got to Now

Six Innovations that Made the Modern World

Steven Johnson



The isolated genius coming up with an idea no-one else has thought of is very much the exception. Most discoveries become imaginable at a very specific moment in history, at which point multiple people start to imagine them.

Birdseye's frozen food invention needed him to have a range of experiences to draw on. In 1916 he spent winter in Far North where the only fresh food was ice-hole caught trout. The local Eskimo showed him that the fish naturally flash-froze, and still tasted fresh when cooked days later. He then went to work in New York inspecting fishing boats, appalled at the condition of the 'fresh' fish being sold. By 1920 Birdseye had modified existing refrigeration technology to flash-freeze cartons of fish at -40°F. And finally, he adapted Henry Ford's production line innovations to process food at speed.

Carrier air conditioning took off after WW2. Humid and/or hot cities suddenly became tolerable. Florida boomed as retirees flocked to the sun. And this had obvious political impact as the older, conservative voters turned the South Republican.

Could argue that the telephone made skyscrapers possible - without it there would simply be too many message boys needed to run up and down the stairs. But the most unexpected aspect was the strange organization that grew out of it - Bell Labs. As detailed in The Idea Factory), AT & T were able to convince legislators that they should be a regulated monopoly because of the expense of developing and maintaining the network. In return, they agreed that the results of the research of Bell Labs would be unpatented public property. They could keep their profits, but they had to give away their ideas.

The result with the greatest effect was the discovery of how to turn sound waves into binary form, by sampling it at 20,000 times a second.

As of 1800, no city had ever sustained a population over 2 million. The task of getting food in and especially, waste out before it infected too many people, was too hard.

Clean Rooms for manufacture of computer chips. Humans have to wear suits to prevent any shedding that will contaminate. When you shower you can't use soap, because most soaps are scented and give off contaminants. Manufacture requires a lot of purified water - not only purified of bacteria, but also all minerals and salts. Can't drink it because it will leech minerals out of your body.

Suggestion that our accustomed sleep pattern (pre-artificial lighting) was to go to bed when got dark, sleep for 4 hours, wake up and chat/have sex, then go back to sleep again until daybreak. The millions of people who wake in the middle of the night are just seeing the body's natural sleep patterns, rather than some insomnia disorder.

Myth that Thomas Edison 'invented' the lightbulb. Lightbulb needs 3 things: a filament that glows when push an electric current through it, some way of stopping it from burning out too fast, and a means of supplying the electricity. The inventive process started with Humphry Davy in 1802 with the first lit filament connected to an electric battery.

Edison was a pioneer in the way he organised all the elements, and figured out how to get paid for the service. He also pioneered practice of paying employees in stock rather than cash. In 1879 he offered his chief engineer choice of 5% share of company in lieu of his $600 a tear salary. By the end of the year his stock was worth $10,000 (more than a million today).

(London Times)

The meteorologist Edward Lorenz famously asked, in the title of a lecture in 1972: 'does the flap of a butterfly's wings in Brazil set off a tornado in Texas?', and the phrase 'the butterfly effect' entered the language. If Steven Johnson's book How We Got to Now catches on - and it deserves to - then the 'humming bird effect' will also become common parlance.

Humming birds exist because flowers needed to find a way to spread pollen over long distances, and they invented nectar to attract insects. Birds were not part of the deal at all until much later. That the evolutionary emergence of flowers would lead to a radical redesign of the anatomy of some birds could not have been foreseen.

Likewise, the history of human innovation is riddled with examples of unexpected consequences of new technologies. As Johnson tells it, Gutenberg made printed books cheap, which triggered a rise in literacy, which created a market for spectacles, which led to the invention of microscopes and telescopes, which led to the discovery that the earth went round the sun. Then, during the American Civil War, the Union blockade of southern ports led to a shortage of ice, which created a market for the newly invented refrigeration machine, which later enabled a man named Clarence Birdseye to get very rich after inventing flash-frozen food. The invention of the railway led to the standardisation of time. The invention of flash photography led to campaigns for improving the living conditions in New York tenements.

Johnson is one of the world's best chroniclers of innovation and in this book he brings a plethora of insights to the history of glass, refrigeration, sound, hygiene, time and light. The unintended consequences, for good and ill, that follow each innovation form only one of these insights.

He points out that inventions are nearly always 'ripe' or inevitable in the sense that many people come up with the same idea around the same time. The basic idea behind the light bulb, for example, occurred to more than 20 different people; Edison proved best at turning it into a business success mainly because he understood that innovation is about bringing together different ideas and skills.

From this Johnson then draws the conclusion that 'the more we build up vast repositories of scientific and technological understanding, the more we conceal them'. For instance, your ability to tell the time today depends on somebody understanding how electrons circulate within cesium atoms; the knowledge of how to send signals to satellites; the ability to trigger steady vibrations in blocks of silicon dioxide; and much more. None of which you need to know as you glance at your watch or smartphone.

Johnson is a fluent writer and knows the value of telling stories about people to bring history to life. Inventors make for a rich cast of characters. This book is written to accompany a television series, which is perhaps why it consists of a series of discreet episodes, but they all illustrate similar themes, so the whole hangs together well. In the telling, the history of technology has tended to be the poor relation of the history of science. Brilliant geniuses had great ideas and clumsy tradesmen put them into action. Johnson is one of a new breed of authors who are turning this upside down by showing just how independent of science most innovation was. More often than not it enabled science, rather than sprang from it.

And compared with political and military history, the history of innovation is not just one damned thing after another; it chronicles genuine, irreversible and magnificent changes in society. Take the story of a New Jersey doctor named John Leal who got a job managing water supplies for Jersey City and set out to do something to make them safe. In secret, without permission and against the law, he decided to try adding a strong poison called calcium hyperchlorite, a procedure known as 'chlorination' today. When dilute, it killed bacteria but not people. Fortunately he got the dose right and nobody died. Interrogated in court, he adamantly insisted that his experiment had worked, that Jersey City's water was now the safest in the world and that he was not in it for the money: his refusal to patent it led to the adoption of chlorination all over the world. The court agreed and exonerated him of wrongdoing.

The impact of Leal's innovation was extraordinary. Between 1900 and 1930 chlorination cut total mortality in the average American city by 43 per cent and infant mortality by 74 per cent. Almost nothing has done more to reduce misery. Chlorination went on to make swimming pools safe and popular which led, Johnson argues, to changes in fashion, reinventing attitudes towards how much of the shape of the female body could be revealed in polite society. A hummingbird effect.

(Book Forum)

Steven Johnson is the best-selling author of several other popular science works, and his latest, How We Got to Now, is a multimedia affair: A six-part miniseries will air on PBS this fall, and the Knight Foundation (the same outfit that gave a defrocked Jonah Lehrer $20,000 for a speech) has ponied up $250K for an 'online innovation hub' connected to the project.

Here, in two hundred-odd pages stretched - through the magic of typography and archival photos - to three hundred, is the real stuff. Pure, uncut innovation-speak: Scratch the pages and take a hit.

How We Got to Now takes six innovations, broadly defined (Glass, Cold, Sound, Clean, Time, and Light), and explains how they influenced the world. To do this, Johnson calls on what he describes as the 'hummingbird effect,' a more modest version of the butterfly effect, but still showcasing a taste for speculative, associational thinking. There are times when this methodology works. For instance, when Johnson writes that the invention of glass led to telescopes and microscopes, which in turn radically altered our view of the world and our place in it, one can nod in appreciation.

Borrowing a term from the biologist Stuart Kauffman, Johnson describes these progressions as examples of the 'adjacent possible.' Certain technologies dilate our imaginations, showing us potential that we hadn't envisioned. The printing press, he argues, played this role in the dissemination of eyeglasses and in how people saw their world. Because most people had never owned any books before, they didn't realize that their vision was imperfect, much less that they had a reason, or the means, to correct it. This makes a kind of sense, all the more so when backed up with the choice historical anecdotes that Johnson digs up. But he tends to belabor this concept beyond its limits, particularly when, in the spirit of marveling at the wonders of technology - which seems to be the book’s raison d'etre - he makes some far-fetched connections.

For instance, Johnson traces the rise of postmodern architecture to 1968, when the architects Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown visited Las Vegas and fell in love with neon light. But that light owed something to Tom Young, who decades earlier had started a neon-sign business in Utah and brought his buzzing bounty to Sin City. And Young owed his knowledge of neon to Georges Claude, who demonstrated neon light in Paris in 1910. So a schematic history of postmodern architecture, according to Johnson, goes something like this: Georges Claude-> Tom Young-> Las Vegas-> postmodern architecture. It's a history of innovation as a loosely connected chain of causality. Johnson offers a dubious sense of teleological progress, privileging the idea of innovation over what an innovation really meant. So, in this instance, postmodern architecture becomes more important for its place in this history-as-a-series-of-inventions than for the avant-garde buildings and social change it produced.

These flights of associative fancy are one of the book's most frustrating and, alas, most persistent features. Johnson says that they 'might seem like yet another game of Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon,' and I can't help but agree. Why, I wonder, isn't Johnson content with making us appreciate these inventions and the peculiar characters behind them? Why does he push us, like a priest escorting a truant to the altar, toward an unearned sense of awe?

An answer might be found in the book's introduction. Johnson briefly talks about the 'externalities and unintended consequences' of technological development. He presents some incisive questions, ones that might be germane to his book: 'Cars moved us more efficiently through space than did horses, but were they worth the cost to the environment or the walkable city? Air-conditioning allowed us to live in deserts, but at what cost to our water supplies?' These aren't frivolous concerns. They are, in fact, at the core of what it means to be a serious, worthwhile thinker about technology and its place in our world - a world that, as his mention of the environment indicates, doesn't fully belong to us. But Johnson is content to brush off his own provocation: 'This book is resolutely agnostic on these questions of value,' he says. 'Figuring out whether we think the change is better for us in the long run is not the same as figuring out how the change came about in the first place.'

Sure, but can we not have both? Why do these people equate being apolitical with enlightenment? Why, when we enter the hushed cathedrals of techno-wisdom, must we check our values, concerns, and humanity at the door?

After all, Johnson is not content simply to revel in the well-varnished glories of the past. His sprightly account of Frederic Tudor’s adventures in the ice business (a series of spectacular failures followed by even more spectacular success) leads to the advent of refrigeration, which allowed for the creation of industrial farms, which brought us frozen food, improving the diets of people who didn't have prior access to fresh fruits and vegetables. These innovations in cold technology additionally brought us air-conditioning, which has improved the comfort and health of millions of people. It has also, as Johnson mentions, allowed for the growth of enormous cities in tropical climates. Or, as he puts it - far too grandly and without evidentiary support - 'what we are seeing now is arguably the largest mass migration in human history, and the first to be triggered by a home appliance.'

Johnson doesn't consider that the very features he celebrates - industrial farming, the boom in air-conditioning in the developing world, the growth of megacities powered by fossil-fuel plants - are helping to push our planet toward environmental collapse. If you were driving toward a cliff, would you still gaze at the beautiful mountains in your rearview mirror? Or would you perhaps wonder why you were still driving?

Another bizarre but characteristic moment emerges in Johnson's tour through the history of radio. Lee De Forest, a pioneer of the medium, listened aghast as jazz swept the airwaves of late-'20s America. He wrote a letter to the National Association of Broadcasters, speaking of radio as if he had birthed it himself: 'You have debased this child, dressed him in rags of ragtime, tatters of jive and boogie-woogie.' The letter is, of course, racist. But that's not how Johnson sees it. His own response is brilliantly technocratic. 'In fact,' he writes, 'the technology that De Forest had helped invent was intrinsically better suited to jazz than it was to classical performances. Jazz punched through the compressed, tinny sound of early AM radio speakers.' By way of technical fact, this may be true, and it certainly matters. But it also matters that an early, influential figure in radio was an unabashed racist and that, in a dose of deserved irony, his own invention helped promulgate a culture he despised. A fuller accounting of this history would acknowledge that. The closest Johnson comes to this is by saying that 'jazz stars gave white America an example of African-Americans becoming famous and wealthy and admired for their skills as entertainers rather than advocates.' There is a lot of nonsense packed into these remarks, but what puzzled me most was the tossed-off use of 'advocates,' with the attendant implication that advocacy is somehow unseemly.

I've decided that the champions of innovation-speak are as confused by the subject as anyone. To them, technology is a thing with a life of its own. And it can evidently only be understood via the ministrations of a class of reverent spiritual adepts, duly catechized in treating its essence as holy and its creators as demigods. And so their tales are ultimately as simple, as explicit in their lessons, as a sacred text. Innovation is the irruption of God in the machine, but its supplicants can only describe it in platitudes designed to read like koans.

These writers have been captured, in other words, by their own techno-determinism, which has blinded them from apprehending any other path. That is why Johnson stitches together his elaborate chains of association into little more than reassuring pieties of accidental or unintended progress. It's also why, when Isaacson says that Lee Felsenstein, an important figure in the development of the PC, saw the utopian promise of print media 'turn into a centralized structure that sold spectacle,' the author fails to shriek in recognition. For isn't that exactly what's happened to the Internet? Does that not perfectly express today's digital media, with its dependence on big telecoms, advertising, and virality? But to recognize these truths would require pulling back the silicon curtain and realizing that, along with the magic, there exists here as much ugliness as in any other realm of human experience.

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