Mark Bao's Reviews > How We Got to Now: Six Innovations That Made the Modern World

How We Got to Now by Steven Johnson
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Oct 28, 2014

really liked it

4.5 stars. Glass, which started as a novelty and an ornament, exploded when the printing press, a coevolutionary/symbiotic factor, created a desire to read more, but also exposed the fact that many people were farsighted and needed glasses. The economic incentive to produce glasses led to improvements and discoveries in glass, leading to the development of microscopes and biology, and the invention of fiber optics which is at the backbone of the internet today.

The key idea in this book is that inventions and discoveries are, by nature, networked, and exhibit what Johnson calls the "hummingbird effect". Each discovery expands what Stuart Kauffman calls the "adjacent possible", the scope of possibilities now unlocked by that new discovery. This adjacent possible is sometimes combined with other factors that allow for coevolution and symbiosis, like how flowers offered more nectar to incentivize increased pollination, which caused hummingbirds to evolve wings that allowed them to extract nectar while floating in air. Many times, this constitutes the engine of invention and discovery. Glass is certainly the most convincing case.

Cold caused innovations in preservation and, Johnson argues, a migration to hotter climates that air conditioning enabled, causing political changes due to retirees moving to the South.
Sound led to a sort of liberation for African–American culture through jazz, sonar, and ultrasound.
Clean led to the all-important germ theory and a healthier populace.
Time led to an industrial society and computers, and this is where Johnson reiterates that "our ability to measure things turned out to be as important as our ability to make them" (176). Our measure of time led to us changing our experience of our lives to be set within the grid of hours.
Light, which was attributed to Edison mostly because he knew how to market and he built a better product (but did not invent incandescent lights in the first place), led to photography being immensely more useful with flash photography which led to political change, and also led to the importance of lasers in the development of fusion energy.

Johnson concludes by saying that the best inventors that tend to see far ahead seem to be ones that cross disciplinary lines and aren't afraid to try something crazy – like what Astro Teller calls the 10% change vs. the 10x change. 10% changes are within disciplines. 10x changes are cross-discipinary.

It's clear that this is a really well-written book that is pretty engaging. I finished this (short, 250-page) book in the span of 36 hours, and everything was extremely understandable and couched in laymen's terms. Certainly, the "long lens" that he takes to the historical impact of innovations makes for a great narrative. The real benefit of this book is that Johnson talks about these innovations in a way that explains exactly how they're relevant in the real world, and he puts this overarching model of invention and discovery over it, one that is evolutionary and a sort of genealogy, which ties the innovations together conceptually. Finally, he extends his model of discovery and invention to what it means for policy: if we understand that invention and discovery is done as a network, collaboratively, then we should advocate more liberal, not stronger, patent laws. It's an extremely coherent narrative that is as informative as it is entertaining.

However, it suffers from uncontrolled expectations. The Glass example was so good and fitting and overarching that each of the four following innovations, up until Light, made it difficult to follow up. It seemed to follow the format of a term paper: present your second-best idea up front, followed by some of the more duller ideas, and then go out with your best one. The best and second-best seemed to be reverse in this narrative, which felt like Glass promised some great things that the rest of the chapters failed to quite deliver up to. That's not to discount the innovations that he talks about – they could have just been way more hard-hitting.

Finally, it also suffers from the common problem that plagues nonfiction books of this ilk, which comes from the need to weave a narrative and from historical look-back format of this book: historical revisionism. Sadly, Johnson makes no reference to the problem of revisionism, and general readers won't make the attempt to go into the primary sources to validate whether some of Johnson's pivotal points, like the economic engine of people needing eyeglasses due to the printing press caused an explosion in glass production, are actually true or not. So, readers should take a skeptic's perspective to this book, as with any book on history as longitudinal as this one.

All in all, this book inspired me to be one of the makers that contribute to the path of discovery and be a part of the combinatorial hummingbird effect of invention, in the hopes that our collective human work will lead to a second volume of this book a few hundred years from now, perhaps subtitled "Six More Innovations That Made The Modern World."
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Reading Progress

October 28, 2014 – Shelved
October 28, 2014 – Shelved as: to-read
June 15, 2015 – Started Reading
June 15, 2015 –
33.0% "omg beyond awesome"
June 15, 2015 – Finished Reading

Comments (showing 1-2 of 2) (2 new)

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message 1: by Alyssa (new)

Alyssa How should one organize points in a term paper when all of them are killer?


Mark Bao @Alyssa by writing a book instead


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