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How We Got to Now: Six Innovations That Made the Modern World (2014)
by Steven Johnson
Books Read in 2016 (2,414)
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Entertaining. A bit more narrative and a bit too little engineering for my taste, but well written.
Great premise of how one invention gives rise to a whole host of unintended offshoots. The chain of how thigs all connect, while simple, is not something I spend a lot of time thinking about so I appreciated the brain exercise.
This book looks at connections in inventions – one thing had to be invented or discovered, which created a chain reaction for the next thing and the next thing, etc. Glass, then spectacles, then the printing press caused more people to need spectacles, then microscopes, etc.
I found this interesting – the connections more than how the things were invented. Many inventions would have happened even if the person who invented had not been the one to do so – someone else would have done so soon after. I listened to the audio. The narrator was mostly fine, but there was the occasional odd pause that was noticeable, though the content was enough to (mostly) keep my interest in the book, anyway.
Interesting - it was nice to hear the progression of inventions, the background setup and the ramifications.
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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Wikipedia in English (4)
"From the New York Times-bestselling author of Where Good Ideas Come From and Everything Bad Is Good for You, a new look at the power and legacy of great ideas. In this illustrated volume, Steven Johnson explores the history of innovation over centuries, tracing facets of modern life (refrigeration, clocks, and eyeglass lenses, to name a few) from their creation by hobbyists, amateurs, and entrepreneurs to their unintended historical consequences. Filled with surprising stories of accidental genius and brilliant mistakes-from the French publisher who invented the phonograph before Edison but forgot to include playback, to the Hollywood movie star who helped invent the technology behind Wi-Fi and Bluetooth-How We Got to Now investigates the secret history behind the everyday objects of contemporary life. In his trademark style, Johnson examines unexpected connections between seemingly unrelated fields: how the invention of air-conditioning enabled the largest migration of human beings in the history of the species-to cities such as Dubai or Phoenix, which would otherwise be virtually uninhabitable; how pendulum clocks helped trigger the industrial revolution; and how clean water made it possible to manufacture computer chips. Accompanied by a major six-part television series on PBS, How We Got to Now is the story of collaborative networks building the modern world, written in the provocative, informative, and engaging style that has earned Johnson fans around the globe. "--
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Melvil Decimal System (DDC)338.064 — Social sciences Economics Production Efficiency Effect Of Innovation
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This book/series will almost certainly reveal things that the reader didn't know, untold stories behind basic innovations that make modern life possible, in these categories: glass, sound, light, time, clean, and cold.
Johnson introduced me to an interesting phrase, "the adjacent possible." It means that inventors and visionaries have to work with the tools and concepts that are already available to them, meaning that innovation happens, not in a lightbulb moment or with a huge jump forward, but only after a lot of other people have worked in related fields first. For instance, in the mid-1800s, ultrasound was not part of the adjacent possible. But transcription of sound waves (albeit without playback) was. Smaller developments expand the adjacent possible until you get to the memorable, world-changing inventions.
Johnson also acknowledges that the development of technology almost always leads to unforeseen uses. On the same subject of sound waves, he highlights that ultrasound is responsible for saving millions of lives in ships on the ocean, but it has also enabled millions of gender-based abortions in China.
This is a particularly somber example of the connections Johnson makes, but the book is not heavy or depressing at all. It is interesting and sometimes very unexpected, even funny!
I enjoyed the conclusion where he talks about Ada Lovelace. I knew something about her, as her story has gained a bit more notoriety in recent years, but the details were super interesting. She was the daughter of the scandalous Lord Byron, the man who was labeled "mad, bad, and dangerous to know." (A phrase that has stuck in my mind for years!) To counteract her father's profligate "romantic" influence, Ada's mother insisted she study mathematics. She had a genius aptitude for it, and when Victorian wifehood and motherhood began to pall, she made her skills available to the inventor of an "analytical engine" and basically became the world's first software programmer. The fascinating part is that the machine that could read such code wouldn't be actually built for another century. As Johnson says, it was "trying to build a digital-age computer with industrial-age mechanical parts." Like Leonardo da Vinci designing a helicopter. Not in the realm of the adjacent possible. But brilliant anyway.
Took me a while to settle into "nonfiction mode," but once I did the pages flew by. I finished four of the six sections in one day. ( )