How We Got to Now

HowWeGottoNowHow We Got to Now: Six Innovations That Made the Modern World
Steven Johnson
Riverhead (September 30, 2014), 289 pages
Kindle Edition  $11.99, Amazon Hardcover  $19.55
eBook borrowed from the Santa Clara County Library System

If you watched the James Burke PBS series Connections in the 1980s the approach in How We Got to Now will be familiar to you. (Interestingly author Steven Johnson says that he was not familiar with Connections until after he completed this book and the accompanying PBS series.)

The thread that runs through this book is what Johnson calls the “hummingbird effect.” This is based on the idea that, as Johnson says, “The symbiosis between flowering plants and insects that led to the production of nectar ultimately created an opportunity for much larger organisms—the hummingbirds—to extract nectar from plants…”

The hummingbird effect, then, is when “an innovation, or cluster of innovations, in one field ends up triggering changes that seem to belong to a different domain altogether.” Johnson focuses on six areas of innovations: glass, cold, sound, sanitation, time, and light.

He describes, for example, how Johannes Gutenberg’s printing press led to the development of lenses because many people all of a sudden realized that they were farsighted. Before the printed page a much smaller number of people had the need to sharp close-up vision.

Johnson explains how sperm whales were killed in large part because the material above their brains made great oil for lamps. But with the discovery of petroleum products for lighting in the form of kerosene lamps and the gaslights the massive slaughter ended. Johnson says, “This is one of the stranger twists in the history of extinction: because humans discovered deposits of ancient plants buried deep below the surface of the earth, one of the ocean’s most extraordinary creatures was spared.”

How We Got to Now is a surprisingly quick read, but it’s interesting stuff and engaging reading.

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