Friday, September 7, 2018

How We Got to Now by Steven Johnson

Source of book: Borrowed from the library

I have greatly enjoyed Steven Johnson’s books. He has a way of thinking through connections between related but seemingly unrelated areas of knowledge, and finding the connections between science and human experience. Previous books of his have have read are:

The Ghost Map is about the discovery of the connection between Cholera and contaminated water. Where Good Ideas Come From is a fantastic look at innovation which debunks the American myth of the sole genius motivated by the lure of fantastic profits. Both books are worth a read. 


How We Got to Now is about six key technologies and their history. But don’t think these are modern, monolithic ideas. Rather these are technologies that started out as simple, but exploded over the centuries into completely unforeseen areas. Thus, ancient discoveries can be traced to our modern world - they made us modern.

Key to understanding this is Johnson’s idea of the “Hummingbird Effect.” Most of us are familiar (at least in passing) with the “Butterfly Effect.” In essence, a small cause can have great - and unexpected - effects down the line. In the case of the Butterfly Effect, the causal links in the chain are not generally traceable or predictable. (Fun fact: while the term was coined by Edward Lorenz, it comes from Ray Bradbury’s short story, “A Sound of Thunder.”)

In the case of the Hummingbird Effect, however, the causal links are - while unexpected perhaps - quite visible. Think of it this way: as plants evolved, and pollination became a survival need, various animals co-evolved to fill this role - and get their food in exchange. For the most part, these are insects. But, in what is rather a surprise, a vertebrate - a bird - also managed to co-evolve with a different solution to the same problem of hovering. So, while one may not have been able to predict that a hummingbird would be the result of co-evolution, it is quite easy to see in retrospect how it happened.

Johnson introduces this concept in his excellent introduction, and it sets the tone for the whole book.

The six chapters are entitled “Glass,” “Cold,” “Sound,” “Clean,” “Time,” and “Light,” and are fairly self-explanatory. But from the first human-created glass (to use one example) we get a tour that includes literacy, books, microbiology, astrophysics, and electronics. Johnson even argues that the development of glass mirrors was a contributing factor to the rise of an individualistic view of self. To tie it together in a way is this tour-de-force in a paragraph:

Think of that iconic, early-twenty-first-century act: snapping a selfie on your phone as you stand in some exotic spot on vacation, and then uploading the image to Instagram or Twitter, where it circulates to other people’s phones and computers all around the world. We’re accustomed to celebrating the innovations that have made this act almost second nature to us now: the miniaturization of digital computers into handheld devices, the creation of the Internet and the Web, the interfaces of social-networking software. What we rarely do is recognize the way glass supports this entire network: we take pictures through glass lenses, store and manipulate them on circuit boards made of fiberglass, transmit them around the world via glass cables, and enjoy them on screens made of glass. It’s silicon dioxide all the way down the chain.

Every chapter is like this, although the details and time frames obviously vary. Johnson also ties this book to his other writing. Discussing these developments, it is impossible to avoid talking of the “adjacent possible,” from Where Good Ideas Come From; and the chapter on sanitation and germ theory certainly needs a mention of Cholera and The Ghost Map. This is the kind of connectedness that characterizes Johnson’s writing - and his wide knowledge of specific scientific, sociological, and historical disciplines serves him well. I always walk away from one of his books fascinated by a connection I hadn’t noticed, but now seems obvious.

There are a few things I decided to mention specifically in this post. One is the beginning of the chapter on “Cold.” This is about the history of artificial cold. While fire was first controlled by humans a hundred thousand years ago, artificial cold turned out to be far more difficult to manage. Sure, if you lived where there were cold winters and hot summers, you could preserve ice in an icehouse. But this was impossible in more tropical climes.

Until the someone monomaniacal Frederic Tudor decided to ship ice from New England to the Caribbean. This rather crazy story opens the chapter, and it gets more and more implausible as it goes on. I won’t spoil it by telling it badly, but I was reminded of a mediocre Harrison Ford movie I saw as a kid: Mosquito Coast. I suspect the book was better - but even the movie stuck with me. The idea of delivering ice to remote South American tribes was an obvious metaphor for colonialist missionary work - and it is a powerful picture. Looking back, it rather expresses why I have a lot of discomfort for a lot of what American (and Western) missionaries have done and continue to do. More often than not, it seems to be all about exporting the most toxic parts of our culture, making monolingual whites feel righteous for learning a second language, and mostly wasting time with little to no results. I’m sure some of this comes from being the grandchild of missionaries, and hearing from my parents how things really looked on the ground. (For a really fantastic discussion of this, check out Jamie Wright’s podcast with Peter Enns and Jared Byas. She really clarified what I was feeling.)

Another really interesting story comes in the chapter on Sound - which is about how we developed sound recording and transmission. A key player in this saga was the Bell Corporation. As Johnson notes, the Bell Labs subsidiary of Ma Bell had a hand in the development of pretty much every major technology of the 20th Century. This was no surprise. What WAS a surprise was that much of its ability to innovate came from the peculiarities of antitrust law as applied to Bell. My lawyer ears perked up at this, to be sure.

What happened was that Bell had a monopoly over phone service in the US. Until 1984, it was impossible to make a call - any call - without using Bell’s network. Starting in 1913, Federal antitrust regulators battled with Bell, which responded with claims that it was a “natural monopoly,” because its systems were too complex to be run by a bunch of companies. This argument had some merit, but the drawbacks to the monopoly were every bit as real. After decades of wrangling back and forth, a compromise was reached: Bell would retain its monopoly...BUT...any inventions coming out of Bell Labs would have to be freely licensed to anyone who could use it. In essence, Bell’s monopoly gave it lots of research and development funding - but the results belonged to everyone. That’s why, by the way, you can use the internet without having to use a Bell computer, a Bell cell phone, all using Bell microchips, Bell fiber optic lines, and so on.

Also fascinating in this chapter is the connection between sound recording, jazz, and the Civil Rights movement. I think Johnson is right that radio and recorded music gave African American artists access to a global medium, vastly amplifying their influence and visibility. On a related note, white supremacists HATE that African American athletes protest police brutality in a visible way. Protest is all very fine until it actually becomes visible and makes [white] people uncomfortable. The book has a great quote by Martin Luther King Jr.

It is no wonder that so much of the search for identity among American Negroes was championed by Jazz musicians. Long before the modern essayists and scholars wrote of “racial identity” as a problem for a multi-racial world, musicians were returning to their roots to affirm that which was stirring within their souls. Much of the power of our Freedom Movement in the United States has come from this music. It has strengthened us with its sweet rhythms when courage began to fail. It has calmed us with its rich harmonies when spirits were down. And now, Jazz is exported to the world.

I already mentioned it in a post long ago, but the cultic tradition I spent time in (Bill Gothard’s cult - but this teaching was everywhere) HATED all forms of music that were considered “Black.” From Jazz to Rock to anything with a drum set in it, these were considered evil and demonic - coming from Pagan Africa, of course. I think the racist patriarchists were on to something. Music is inherently political. And the rise of African American forms of music (which Czech composer Dvorak correctly identified as the truly American voice in music...back in the 1800s) was the beginning of the end of Jim Crow. Long live Jazz and Rock and Roll.

One final thing to mention. The book has an interesting epilogue, which I thought didn’t really fit the rest of the book. It actually would have fit well at the end of How Good Ideas Happen, and I wonder if he thought of it after the book went to press. It focuses on Ada Lovelace - the first computer programer. The daughter of Lord Byron, she had a truly original mind. A true genius at math, but with a broad range of knowledge, she was recruited by Charles Babbage for his computing machine project. While the steam powered gadget never really worked in practice, Lovelace’s programs for it turned out to be predictive of the future of computing. She saw that they would be more than just calculators - they would go far beyond that into a change in our conception of, well, everything.

Johnson cites her as an example of the rare exception to the rule. The person who was truly ahead of her time - and its technology. As I said, this would fit perfectly in his earlier book, but it seems to be just a bit out of place here. That said, as a stand-alone essay, it is great. So enjoy.

I really enjoyed this book, as I have all of Johnson’s writing. The experience in this case was enhanced by the fact that it was published in a high quality hardback. It just feels so delightful in the hands, I am tempted to buy one just for that reason.

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