Book Review: How We Got To Now by Steven Johnson

It’s a real pleasure to take a look at the world through the prism of someone who has taken time to reflect deeply on the historical foundations of advances so ubiquitous that we may not realize the role they’ve played in the development of our comfort and our culture.  Johnson’s book takes this approach to innovations in six areas – glass, cold, sound, clean, time and light – that are fascinating to examine and consider.  It must be said that one could probably do something similar with 60 innovations, so – with the possible exception of the electric light – these aren’t the only innovations or necessarily the main innovations that define our civilization, but charting the route of progress we followed in these six areas is certainly an interesting and reflective pleasure.

A central theme to the book – and one of its own innovations – is the notion of what Johnson calls “the hummingbird effect.”  It can be tempting to think of this as similar to the familiar idea of a butterfly flapping its wings in South America that leads to storms on the plains of Iowa, but that is not quite the thinking Johnson applies.  Instead, using the notion that evolutionary advances of specific plants for their own purposes led a line of birds to evolve into hummingbirds with their singular musculature and mechanics capable of harvesting the nectar of the new plants, he shows how various items created for one purpose lead to all sorts of advances for other, or as he calls them “the adjacent possible,” innovations — the invention of the printing press leads to a demand for spectacles which lead someone to develop telescopes and microscopes which lead to the discoveries of planets and diseases, the enterprise of an East Coast entrepreneur to export ice from Walden Pond around the world leads to changes in diet and eating habits, the determination to partition units of time into hours and minutes leads to the eight-hour workday.

They are fascinating notions to contemplate, and Johnson’s concluding chapter, “The Time Travelers,” building from the story of two unrelated 19th century thinkers who imagined – and laid the groundwork for – modern-day computer science a hundred years before it wraps up his theme effectively, while adding yet another layer of interesting historical detail.  Johnson doesn’t have the sense of humor or incisive wit of Bill Bryson, so his work is a little lacking in the “delightful” category.  But it makes up for it in the insight category.  How We Got To Now is an informative and thought-provoking work that can help you better understand and appreciate some of the devices and developments that are absolutely intrinsic to today’s quality of life.