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How We Got to Now: Six Innovations That Made…
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How We Got to Now: Six Innovations That Made the Modern World (2014)

by Steven Johnson

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A case could be made for other innovations, but Johnson does make his case well for these six (glass, cold, sound, clean, time, light). These are presented a lot like James Burke's Connections, except that Johnson's direct linear and singular approach, as opposed to Burke's butterfly effect approach, is often more acceptable (to me, anyway...not that I don't enjoy Burke's forays.)

Nicely written popular science. ( )
  Razinha | May 23, 2017 |
I obviously didn't pick the most favourable way to encounter Johnson. As the tie-in book of a TV series, this is obviously limited by the need to comply with all the structural clichés of 45-minute documentary episodes, and you don't get the same sort of freedom to explore ideas in depth that you would in something written purely as a book. And the publishers don't see why any sane person would listen to the audiobook rather than watching the original show, so they make that in the cheapest way possible. The reading is so dry that I assumed "George Newbern" must be a conventional alias publishers use for a text-to-speech engine, but it turns out that he's a well-known voice actor with a Wikipedia page and everything. Who must have done so many audiobooks that he can read them without engaging with the text in any way at all...

So much for the form. As to the content, it's fairly unobjectionable. Some of the science is simplified to the point where it's borderline misleading, and some of the leaps he makes are too extreme, for instance in the chapter on Time, where he jumps straight from the 16th century to the 19th, leaving the naive reader with the impression that it must have been Galileo's pendulum clock that enabled ships to determine longitude. But those are constraints due to the need to fit everything in to a TV show. The producer obviously told him they could shoot on location in Pisa or Greenwich, but not both...

Obviously, this isn't a book that's addressed at readers who already know a little bit about the history of technology: most of the stories he tells here are very familiar ones, and there was very little that I hadn't already met many times in other places. After six chapters I caught myself thinking that we'd had just about all the usual suspects except Albert Einstein and Ada Lovelace - imagine my surprise when Ada turned up in the Conclusion after all! Johnson's discussion of how innovation comes about is rather more interesting than the actual examples he brings in, but it's all very anecdotal and not developed enough here to be really worth reading this book for. He has written another book devoted to that topic, of course. The other inevitable topic in books about the history of technology is "unintended nasty consequences of progress" - that's something Johnson touches on a few times here and there, but again he doesn't really get the chance to develop it. ( )
  thorold | Apr 2, 2017 |
Steven Johnson looks at the history of six different kinds of technologies that have been instrumental in shaping the world we live in today: glassworking, refrigeration, sound transmission and recording, sewers and hygiene improvements, timekeeping, and artificial light. But he's not simply telling us the backstories of these technologies we've come to take for granted. He also talks a bit about how innovations happen, including what it means to be an idea whose time has come (although he doesn't use that particular phrase) and how inventions like the light bulb are almost always messy endeavors involving lots of people working independently, not the lone genius eureka moments we like to imagine. (This, by the way, is a subject he goes on about at much greater length in his earlier book, Where Good Ideas Come From.)

More than that, though, he shows how inventions designed solely to solve one particular limited problem can have direct but unexpected consequences that lead not just to the development of still further technological developments, but also to influences on society, history, and art. To me, this weird, tangled web of causality and influence Johnson illuminates is by far the most fascinating thing about the book, whether he's drawing a direct line from Clarence Birdseye ice-fishing with Inuits to the existence of sperm banks, or outlining how the invention of the laser led to the growth and expansion of big-box retail stores.

It reminds me a little of James Burke's TV show/ book Connections and its follow-up, The Pinball Effect, but where Burke is random and rambly, Johnson is more focused and concise. Each of the chapters here is short, and the entire book is only about 200 pages. Meaning this isn't the book you want if you're looking for a really detailed and in-depth history of any of the topics it covers. But Johnson does manage to pack a lot of worthwhile thought and information into such a small amount of space, and he does it in his usual zippy, highly readable style.

I'd actually already read a fair bit about most of these subjects, and wondered going in if I were going to find some of the chapters a bit boring since they were talking about things I already knew, but Johnson includes so many odd and interesting little details that I'd either forgotten or never heard of, and he provides so many new perspectives and draws so many surprising connections between things that I never felt the least bit bored.

Rating: 4.5/5. If only just for including so many little things that made me go, "Oh, neat!" ( )
  bragan | Mar 28, 2017 |
Through the history of Glass, Cold, Sound, Clean, Time and Light, the author helps us to see behind our everyday conveniences. He used the history of these things to show how ideas take root and how they lead to products and inventions never dreamed of by the original inventor. I found this a very interesting read, tracing the history of things we take for granted now and finding the little threads of ideas which brought us to where we are.

"You don't need to know any of these things to tell the time now, but that's the way progress works; the more we build up these vast repositories of scientific and technological understanding, the more we conceal them. Your mind is silently assisted by all that knowledge each time you check your phone to see what time it is, but the knowledge itself is hidden."

I think that is a very important statement of the human experience and how much our future is determined by the past. In addition to making me say, "Wow!" this book also led me to think and ponder on the human condition without leading me to conclusions, something I always enjoy. ( )
  MrsLee | Jan 22, 2017 |
Excellent way to look at history. Johnson takes sic topics; glass, cold, sound, clean, time and light and develops their empact on earth from beginnings to now. Each topic moves through the inventors and thinkers who developed or enhanced their role. Example would be the whale oil dug out of the brains of sperm whales in the 1800 for produce a better candle and light and now unused so that the whale continues to be .Wonderful way to look at the history of humans. Recommended for both teenagers and adults. ( )
  oldbookswine | Jan 15, 2017 |
Showing 1-5 of 24 (next | show all)
While we appreciate it in the abstract, few of us pause to grasp the miracles of modern life, from artificial light to air conditioning, as Steven Johnson puts it in the excellent How We Got to Now: Six Innovations That Made the Modern World, “how amazing it is that we drink water from a tap and never once worry about dying forty-eight hours later from cholera.” Understanding how these everyday marvels first came to be, then came to be taken for granted, not only allows us to see our familiar world with new eyes — something we are wired not to do — but also lets us appreciate the remarkable creative lineage behind even the most mundane of technologies underpinning modern life.
 
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For Jane, who no doubt expected a three-volume
treatise on nineteenth-century whaling
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(Introduction) A little more than two decades ago, the Mexican-American artist and philosopher Manuel De Landa published a strange and wonderful book called War in the Age of Intelligent Machines.
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