Clare Lindeque

Head of Quantitative Analysis

March 2018

Book Review - How We Got to Now

Innovation in one aspect of life can trigger surprising and unpredictable changes elsewhere, argues the author of this book.

How we Got to Now is a fast-paced, wide-ranging exploration of the history of six pivotal technologies that have shaped the modern age. In broad strokes, Steven Johnson picks out the causal chains of incremental invention and innovation that brought us glass (exemplified by lenses), cold (air conditioning), sound (recordings), clean (treated tap water), time (a wristwatch), and light (flash photography).

He compares the process by which an innovation triggers surprising and unpredictable changes elsewhere in its milieu to the evolution of the hummingbird, whose body shape and capabilities are a specific response to the reproductive strategies of flowering plants. This kind of analysis is possible only with hindsight; the process by which humanity has fumbled towards the basic truths of chemistry, physics and biology is chaotic and hard to discern while it is in progress. In his chapter on light, Johnson lists the 23 “partial inventors” of the light bulb prior to Thomas Edison. He shows that few inventions or discoveries are the product of a single “eureka” moment, but can be traced through a tangled web of experimentation and innovation, possibly stretching back centuries, all building on prior discoveries.

Johnson takes a long view of history – the chapter on glass commences with an event 26 million years ago – and provides no value judgements on the changes wrought by his six innovations. His argument is that while the arc of history may trend in the long term towards improvements in tools, energy sources, and ways of sending and processing information, the smaller-scale consequences along the way are mixed. He sacrifices some detail and nuance in favour of pacing and scope, but this leaves plenty of room for reader research after the fact.

Many of the consequences of the six innovations that form the subject of this book are social and cultural. The discovery of the bleaching properties of sodium hypochlorite (and the resultant opening of thousands of chlorinated public swimming pools after World War I) led to the dramatic shrinking of women’s bathing suits between 1920 and 1940. The invention of the printing press led to a surge in demand for spectacles, as many people discovered that their eyesight was not perfect when they tried to read printed documents. The invention of the mirror provided a means for Renaissance artists to create era-defining self-portraits, and provoked novelists and playwrights into increased introspection of the interior life of their characters. (Perhaps a future edition of this book will include the front-facing cellphone camera in this section...)

This is a hopeful, optimistic book that will leave you with the conviction that even when it doesn’t seem so, consequential innovation is happening all the time. For the cultural observer, it provides an opportunity to attempt to trace societal shifts and trends to their ultimate origins. For the aspiring inventor, entrepreneur or hard worker casting about for a successful side hustle, the surprising and sometimes radical consequences of ideas provide inspiration to persist.

Note: An equally interesting tour of modern history through a similar lens is Tim Harford’s Fifty Inventions That Shaped the Modern Economy. Harford makes use of short chapters on pivotal – and often surprising – objects, ideas and other inventions to describe the genesis and current state of modern markets.

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