Book Review: How We Got to Now

How We Got to Now: Six Innovations That Made the Modern World
By Steven Johnson
Penguin Group, New York, 2014

How We Got To NowSteven Johnson starts off How We Got to Now with a very cool story: One little-known consequence of the invention of the printing press in 1450 by Johannes Gutenberg was that thousands of people suddenly discovered they were farsighted. Before printed books became widely available, few people needed to read, and very few people read a lot. Now they could and they did. And many realized they couldn’t see very well up close. This caused a dramatic increase in the demand for glasses. In turn, this led to improvements in the production of glass lenses. Improvements in lens technology led to the invention of the microscope and the discovery of cells and the opening up of a whole new branches of science. It also led Galileo to the invention of the telescope, the discovery of the rings of Saturn, the moons of Jupiter, and the reinvention of our understanding of the cosmos.

It’s not just this one story. The whole book is like this. Johnson has put together a collection of wild trips through time, tracing six areas of innovations that affect our everyday lives. The first one is all about glass. There’s a chapter about cold; how we developed the technology to keep stuff cold and what side-effects and consequences those developments produced. There’s one on time. It tells the story of how we developed ways to measure time more and more accurately, and what happened as a result.

In each chapter, Johnson traces the story of innovation over decades, sometimes centuries until today. These innovations don’t usually occur in a straight line or at regular intervals, but intriguing patterns do emerge.

First, innovations occur in sequences. They build on prior innovations, often combining (and requiring) knowledge and technology from several previously disconnected fields. But an innovation can’t occur until it can be imagined, and it can’t be imagined until our minds can make the leap from what is “now” to what is “next.” We can’t leap from fire to blast furnace, or from abacus to supercomputer in a single step. Johnson borrows the phase “adjacent possible” from complexity theorist Stuart Kauffman to describe this idea. Innovation moves us from where we are now to an adjacent possible. (As it happens, I wrote a review of one of Kauffman’s books, Reinventing the Sacred, here.) Once we’ve come close enough that an innovation is an adjacent possible, it seems almost inevitable that it will be discovered or invented by at least one person and often more than one.

The second pattern is that improvements in measurement often precede innovation in a particular area. One example illustrates this really well: our ability to measure time. The development of reliable clocks was crucial to improving navigation across the high seas. (Check out Dava Sobel’s excellent book, Longitude, if you’re interested in this.)  Later, rail travel benefited hugely from the development and standardization of time zones. Today the ability to measure minute differences (pardon the pun) in the time it takes to bounce radio signals off orbiting satellites is the cornerstone of GPS systems.

The third common element is that innovation usually drives democratization. In other words, innovation makes a thing more accessible and more affordable to more people. The printing press made books available to almost everyone, not just the wealthy. Innovations in refrigeration brought freezers into every home, and of course Moore’s Law has brought incredible advances in computing and communication technology onto our desks and into our pockets.

In each chapter, Johnson’s telling the story of innovation is exciting and enthusiastic. It’s really fun to read, but fascinating and thought-provoking too.

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