An overly positive contribution — A review of How We Got to Now

cover of How We Got to Now by Steven Johnson

How We Got to Now: The History and Power of Great Ideas by Steven Johnson

I have mixed feelings about this book. I am a big fan of Steven Johnson, and my familiarity of his work might be why I didn’t love this book.

In How We Got to Now Johnson explores the scaffolding of concepts throughout the history of innovation. This is the phenomenon where various social and scientific advances converge simultaneously so that a new invention or innovation becomes possible. It is the reason why co-invention exists, how radio can have more than 20 independent inventors all coming up with basically the same design within a span of a few years.

Terms like the “adjacent possible” and “network-based innovation” will be familiar to readers of Johnson’s earlier work. How We Got to Now seems like a re-hashing of his previous (and excellent I might add) book Where Good Ideas Come From. No, it is more like an appendix. And a rosy-glassed one at that. From the outset Johnson removes himself from any judgement of the innovations he covers. He does admit that each innovation has had both good and bad effects on society: when discussing the vacuum tube, he raises Hitler at Nuremberg and Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech as examples. But on the whole, Johnson is focused on “progress.” He wears his techno-optimism on his sleeve, which is fine, but if you have read much of his previous work, this book may leave you wanting.

Furthermore, he walks a fine line in the story telling of the six innovations he covers (glass, cold, clean, sound, time, light). His conceit is the “hummingbird effects” of each innovation — how these effects ripple out and impact society through time. It is an analysis only enabled by 20/20 hindsight and comes mighty close to playing Six degrees of separation. The result is sometimes a wistful sentimentality, and positively Gladwellian. “If you want to make an apple pie from scratch, you must first invent the universe.” A pithy quote from Carl Sagan, and one of my favourites. But I would refrain from using it as a framework to write a social history of innovation.

“Hummingbird effects” are certainly fun to ponder. Even though they had been around for centuries, popular demand for eye glasses was finally sparked by the Gutenburg press. Prior to the explosion in literacy rates, the common folk simply did not perceive that they were overwhelmingly short-sighted. Johnson’s book is littered with examples like this.

Thinking of today, and my work in computers, I cannot help but wonder what the hummingbird effects of code literacy might be. In the past 30 years the world has been eaten by software (to paraphrase Marc Andreessen). Some argue that to understand the world around us we must understand the code. Therefore everyone should learn to program. But learning to program is difficult — personally, I have had a terrible time of it. Which leads me to ponder — like the above-mentioned hummingbird effect of Gutenburg’s machine on reading glasses — is there some sort of short-coming in the human brain that makes coding so difficult to grasp for most people? Some sort of analogue to short-sightedness for programming that we are only just becoming aware of? At some point in the next 50 years will I be able to buy mental “glasses” that will allow me to code, and thereby perceive the world around me with more clarity? Or to the contrary, once we attain that clarity, might we discover that code is not the right lens to view society? In the face of the zeitgeist of our technocentric modern culture, that would be an interesting hummingbird effect.

Which leads me to another shortcoming of Johnson’s latest work: Silicon Valley-centrism. In How We Got to Now Johnson debunks the proverbial single inventor and his lightbulb moment. A laudible contribution, yet he falls flat in the last few pages. After detailing how Bell Labs was responsible for much of innovation during the 20th century (the subject of an upcoming review of mine in the LRC), he ends the book with a paen to the garage inventor — a nod to startups just south of Marin County where Johnson lives. Diversity is certainly a desirable attribute for spurring innovation, but do not discount the effects of a center of excellence like Murray Hill. Bell Labs provided literally tons of infrastructure for some of the smartest people of the age to gather around and build upon. No wonder it is called The Idea Factory (the title of Jon Gertner’s excellent book, also recommended by Johnson in How We Got to Now).

For those that have never read a book by Johnson, you may very well enjoy How We Got to Now. It certainly aspires to inspire. But I would rather recommend Where Good Ideas Come From, and then maybe pick up a more critical take to temper your view on innovation.

Author: Chad Kohalyk

Bellatrist, communitarian, tech contrarian. Generous with Likes. http://chadkohalyk.com