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.

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