Skip to content

How We Got To Now: Six Innovations that Made the Modern World by Steven Johnson

May 3, 2015


If I had to say what this book is about, I would say it’s about the linking of ideas. It’s about the fact that an innovation opens doors for new, often unforeseen and unexpected innovations, sometimes in surprising fields. To prove this out, historian Steven Johnson traces six different paths through history: glass, cold (i.e. refrigeration), sound, clean, time and light. Some of these are obviously a little broad, but he’s more interested in how ideas link than the specific technology of each idea.

For example, consider that without glass, there would be no beauty industry. It wasn’t until mirrors were invented that we could regularly see a perfect representation of our own appearance. Glass shaped our very notion of self, and allowed us to imagine who we’d like to be, how we’d like to look. Fashion, beauty, and selfies followed.

Or consider the impact that refrigeration has on not just agriculture and the shipping of food, but on city planning and the Internet. Without the ability to artificially cool buildings, many cities in the U.S. and around the globe would be unlivable in the hotter months. Likewise, the massive server farms that run the Internet require massive amounts of cooling power to function.

The modern skyscraper would be impossible without the telephone—the foot traffic of people delivering all those messages in person would require too many elevators to be feasible. Also making the modern city possible: bleach. Ironically, Johnson credits Clorox bleach, one of my clients at my job, with essentially founding marketing, which is my job. But beyond that personal connection, it’s only with the sanitizing effects of bleach and other sterilizers that life in our big urban centers is even possible. Without germ-killing cleaners, we’d be ravaged by disease (think Black Plague, every cold and flu season).

And how about the link between travel and time? It wasn’t until the railway started to connect cities that it was required to synchronize time from city to city.

Many of these examples are both fascinating and somewhat trivial. But they serve to illustrate the main point: that we stand on the shoulders of everyone who came before us. With a skillful approach that contains enough science to be clear, but not too much for a general audience, Johnson shows how every innovation is made possible by other innovations. And try as we might, it is usually very difficult to predict what today’s innovations might make possible tomorrow.

No comments yet

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: