Wednesday, August 23, 2017

Book Review: How We Got to Now by Steven Johnson (2014)

Steven Johnson’s How We Got to Now: Six Innovations That Made the Modern World tells the stories behind technological developments that impacted the day-to-day lives of ordinary people in ways so unforeseeable that, in hindsight, they’re almost shocking.  The flash bulb, for example—originally invented to enable photography inside lightless Egyptian tombs—finally gave journalist Jacob Riis the tool he needed to bring the horrifying conditions of New York City’s tenement slums into the public eye in a way that words and line drawings could never do, resulting in sweeping legislative reforms and, according to Johnson, “ignit[ing] a new tradition of muckraking that would ultimately improve the working conditions of factory floors too… chang[ing] the map of urban centers around the world.”

In a similar vein, Johnson shows, the invention of the printing press and the spread of literacy in the western world brought to light (somewhat literally) a surprising new problem: the prevalence of near-sightedness.  This led to a sudden demand for corrective lenses, which in turn prompted a surge in glass- and lens-making technology, which then rapidly gave rise to both telescopes and microscopes.  During the Renaissance and the Industrial Revolution, these developments had a profound effect on scientific discovery, leading to such momentous events as the discovery of germs and the widespread acceptance of a heliocentric solar system.  Gutenberg would never have seen it coming.

Johnson calls these processes the “hummingbird effect,” noting that when examining the evolution of pollen, almost no one would predict that it would eventually result in the development of the hummingbird’s wing, which rotates differently from any other bird’s, allowing it to hover in mid-air while it feeds on flower nectar.

The stories that Johnson tells in his six densely-packed chapters are fascinating, well-sourced (the bibliography is stacked with both primary and secondary sources), and relevant; any modern reader can easily draw connections between the innovations Johnson explores and their own life.  Fans of historical nonfiction or good science writing will find the book both interesting and informative.

I offer two minor critiques here—one of style, and one of substance.

Regarding style, though Johnson’s tone is both erudite and readable, he waxes rather pedantic from time to time.  Rather than allowing the reader to speculate on their own about the implications of a particular point, Johnson prefers to spell it out for them, occasionally drifting into aphorism.  “Ideas trickle out of science, into the flow of commerce, where they drift into the less predictable eddies of art and philosophy,” he writes.  This sentence is vague enough that it could be cut and pasted onto practically any page of the book; it happens to appear in the chapter “Light.”  He also tends to repeat his main idea more often than necessary—the theme of the book is innovations that led to far-reaching and unpredictable consequences, and he is determined that you won’t forget it.  Also in the chapter “Light,” he writes, “Here again we see the strange leaps of the hummingbird’s wing at play in social history, new inventions leading to consequences their creators never dreamed of.”  “Light,” incidentally, is the final chapter; it would be reasonable for Johnson to assume that the reader has gotten his point by now.

Regarding substance, Johnson acknowledges in his introduction that he is focusing exclusively on innovations from North America and Europe, because, he says, “certain critical experiences—the rise of the scientific method, industrialization—happened in Europe first, and have now spread across the world.”  But this brand of western exceptionalism is disingenuous.  Johnson chose to examine technologies that were first developed in Europe; to ignore technologies developed in other cultures and pretend that Europe’s innovations alone were somehow more far-reaching or significant is myopic and inaccurate.  The flash bulb illuminated New York’s slums and led to worldwide social reform, but the gunpowder which made the first flash bulb possible was invented in China nearly a thousand years earlier, and one could just as easily trace those social reforms back to it, rather than stopping at the flash bulb.

Likewise, BBC writer Tim Harford points out that the revolution brought on by Gutenberg’s press would have been impossible without another Chinese invention: paper.  And one could trace these innovations even further back to the development of written language itself, which was probably invented independently by more than one culture, including ancient Mesopotamia around 3500 B.C.E.  Johnson chooses to focus solely on western inventions—that’s his prerogative as a writer.  But to imply that western culture is somehow special or ahead of the curve when it comes to technological innovations that shaped modern life is misleading.

That said, Johnson endows his narratives with detail, robustness, and occasionally humor, making How We Got to Now an engaging, informative, and fun read.

Sunday, August 13, 2017

Implicit Bias and the Usual RAVs

This is Daniel Brühl.  If you are an American movie-goer, you might know him from his role as the villain Zemo in Captain America: Civil War (2016), or as the charming but dangerous Nazi officer in The Zookeeper’s Wife (2017), or as the charming but dangerous Nazi soldier in Inglourious Basterds (2009).

On the other hand, if you are a German movie-goer, you probably know Brühl as the sweet and devoted son in Good Bye Lenin! (2003), or as the ambitious journalist in the absurdist comedy/drama Me and Kaminski (2015).

Brühl was born in Spain and grew up in Germany, and though he speaks six languages fluently, he speaks them all with a German accent.  Heroes with German accents are about as common in American film as unicorns are on the streets of Kansas City—that is to say, they don’t exist.  Brühl might be handsome, funny, likeable, and talented, but he’s a native speaker of German, and though his English is flawless, his accent is unmistakable.  As a result, he is and probably always will be the villain in American culture.  (This, of course, despite the fact that Germany is currently one of the U.S.’s strongest allies.)

In a similar vein, Rob Lowe’s character in Thank You For Smoking (2005) comments that in modern American movies, the only people who smoke are “the usual RAVs... Russians, Arabs, and villains.”  This comment is a bit redundant, however, since Russians and Arabs nearly always are villains in these films.  Lowe’s character should have said “RAGs”—Russians, Arabs, and Germans—knowing the audience would automatically associate these groups with movie villains anyway.

The reasons that these groups are still consistently depicted as evil in American film are myriad and too complex to delve into here.  Instead, I want to discuss the potential effects of these depictions.

Many, perhaps most, modern movie fans would agree that it is important for both children and adults to see women, people of color, and other marginalized groups in leadership and hero roles.  Wonder Woman (2017) has been acclaimed partly for this reason.  Seeing women exclusively in secondary or submissive roles; seeing Black men exclusively in predatory or other stereotypical roles; seeing women of color not represented on the screen at all—these patterns reinforce implicit biases already instilled in us by our culture.

The researchers at Project Implicit at Harvard University write that “Implicit preferences for majority groups (e.g., White people) are likely common because of strong negative associations with Black people in American society.  There is a long history of racial discrimination in the United States, and Black people are often portrayed negatively in culture and mass media.”

If negative portrayals of Black people in the media contribute to implicit biases, then it stands to reason that consistently negative portrayals of people with specific non-English accents would have a similar effect.  For example, if a large portion of Americans hear German, Russian, and Arabic accents only or primarily in the movie theater or in fictional TV series, and those accents belong almost exclusively to villains, an implicit association is likely to be created and/or reinforced.

Of course, German and Russian people do not typically experience serious discrimination or marginalization within American society (though refugees and other immigrants of Arabic and Middle Eastern descent most certainly do), so why is this a problem?

Here’s one reason: News outlets and other media typically use words such as “Russia” and “Germany” as metonyms; for example, “Russia invaded Crimea.”  In this headline, “Russia” means the Russian military, or might even refer to Putin’s order to invade; it does not imply that the entire country of Russia moved wholesale into the Crimean peninsula.

Yet news outlets on all sides—left-leaning, right-leaning, and centrist—frequently conflate the will of a group of citizens with the actions of its government, overlooking the obvious fact that not all citizens (often, not even a majority) agree with those actions.  In both mainstream and non-mainstream media, “Russia” should not be equated with “the Russian people” or even “the majority of the Russian people,” and yet it consistently is.

The current rhetoric regarding North Korea provides an even more poignant example.  Americans are certainly justified in their fears of a nuclear attack, yet commentators across the board ignore the point that a war between the two countries would have a far more devastating effect on the citizens of North Korea, who by and large are pawns and victims of their leader’s sociopathic decision making.  When news outlets discuss “North Korea,” they mean Kim Jong Un and his government; they largely ignore the millions of powerless citizens who are subject to his whims.

Hollywood encourages American audiences to view other nations as monoliths—all Germans are Nazis; all Middle Eastern people are terrorists; all French people are hypersexualized; all Brits are humorless and polite.  These stereotypes may not have the same kinds of immediate, at-home effects as stereotypes about American people of color and women, but they are two sides of the same coin.  They are tired, outdated tropes that discourage critical thinking and promote prejudice, discrimination, nationalism, and myopia.  If it is healthy to see American women and people of color in hero and leadership roles, then we should demand the same of actors with commonly stereotyped nationalities and foreign accents, including the talented Mr. Brühl.

My TED Talk

My TED Talk from TEDx Rapid City, June 28, 2017.