Steven Johnson is a scholar of semiotics and the popular science author of the bestseller Where Good Ideas Come From, which re-characterized the rare “Eureka!” moment into the much more common “slow hunch.” (For more information see his excellent TED talk here). In his latest book, How We Got to Now, Johnson takes a look at six innovations pivotal to the modern world.
Rather than the standard list of key individual inventions, e.g. the steam engine, computers, the Internet, Johnson is examining the modernization of fundamental aspects of our world. His list of six: glass, cold, sound, clean, time, and light, covers a broad range of elements whose relationships with humanity have evolved substantially over the course of history. Within each area, there have been any number of innovations that have spawned profound changes within our world.
This book is truly fascinating and a must read for all who enjoy studying the intersection where science, history, and sociology cross. Johnson is a highly accomplished tangential thinker and is very adept at delineating the indirect, non-linear cause and effect.
Take, for example, the chapter on cold. Johnson begins with the standard ice houses common in the Northeastern U.S. of the mid 1800s. From there, we move to the discovery of the insulating power of sawdust and the development of an industry to ship ice to warmer climates lacking this resource. Then comes the inevitable warm winters and resulting shortage of this commodity, which spawned innovative thinkers to apply the recently discovered Carnot cycle to the development of artificial refrigeration. The knock-on effects of this invention extend in all directions, from the rise of Hollywood due to the popularity of air-conditioned movie theaters, to the centralization of food production to locations such as the Chicago stockyards and the California central valley enabled by refrigerated shipping, and even to the slow, steadily increasing population shift from colder regions to steamier southern regions made more temperate by artificial cooling.
Johnson has pulled apart the traditional historical narrative and revealed the human journey as the Rube Goldberg machine that it truly is.