Nina's Reading Blog

Comments on books I am reading/listening to

Posts Tagged ‘How We Got to Now’

How We Got to Now: Six Innovations That Made the Modern World

Posted by nliakos on June 2, 2017

by Steven Johnson (Riverhead Books 2014)

This is the companion book to the PBS/BBC collaborative series of the same name. I missed that back in 2014, but I’m inspired to watch it now, because the book was really interesting. It shows, for example, how the discovery of the special properties of silicon dioxide led to the invention of window glass, eyeglasses, mirrors, microscopes, telescopes, fiberglass, even the World Wide Web. Johnson writes that when we snap a selfie and upload it to the Internet, we usually don’t think of “the way glass supports this entire network: we take pictures with 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.”

And that’s just Chapter 1! In addition to Glass, Johnson has chapters dedicated to Cold, Sound, Clean, Time, and Light.  In each chapter, he follows the development of concepts and technologies related to the theme. He explains how most new technologies are invented by several people working at similar times (“in clusters of simultaneous discovery”), and that inventions are developed on the backs of previous ones.  He discusses the concept of the adjacent possible, a kind of discovery zone of possibilities that is normally present when an innovation is being incubated; without it, the innovation would be unthinkable. And he connects the dots to show us how each innovation clears the way for further innovations, like how solving the problems of waste disposal and clean water made possible the existence of mega-cities (which are not necessarily a good thing, but that’s another issue).

In the final chapter, “The Time Travelers”, Johnson introduces us to some exceptions to the ideas of simultaneous inventions and the adjacent possible: Charles Babbage, who essentially invented the computer in the 19th century, and his younger friend Ada Lovelace, who saw in Babbage’s invention the possibility of its uses beyond mathematics. Johnson writes in awe, “To have this imaginative leap in the middle of the nineteenth century is almost beyond comprehension. It was hard enough to wrap one’s mind around the idea of programmable computers–almost all of Babbage’s contemporaries failed to grasp what he had invented–but somehow, Ada was able to take the concept one step further, to the idea that this machine might also conjure up language and art. That one footnote opened up a conceptual space that would eventually be occupied by so much of early twenty-first-century culture: Google queries, electronic music, iTunes, hypertext. The computer would not just be an unusually flexible calculator; it would be an expressive, representational, even aesthetic machine.” Then he points out that when the time was finally ripe for this to actually happen, no one would remember either Babbage’s Analytical Engine or Lovelace’s vision of how it might be used, and they had to be re-invented by others.

A fascinating book for both science and history buffs! I am looking forward to watching the series.

Advertisements

Posted in History, Non-fiction, Science | Tagged: , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »