Book review: ‘How We Got to Now’

In a lively companion to the recent PBS-BBC series, Steven Johnson explains how innovations in six key technological domains explain the modern world.
In a lively companion to the recent PBS-BBC series, Steven Johnson explains how innovations in six key technological domains explain the modern world.

Over the years I’ve often asked students what the world “technology” calls to mind. Almost invariably there is a pause before a few brave souls throw out nouns such as “machines” or “computers” or names like Bill Gates or Steve Jobs.

Such answers, however intuitive, are incorrect. The students have identified either the embodiments of technology or people associated with particular technologies rather than zero in on technology itself.

Instead, technology is better viewed as a form of knowledge relating to the transformation of the material environment into useful goods. Computers and lasers and robots – as well as simpler products such as toothbrushes or shoes – all embody some type of technological knowledge, but the key is the knowledge behind such products rather than the products themselves.

Not surprisingly, best-selling science and technology writer Steven Johnson understands this point. In “How We Got to Now,” Johnson explains how innovative ideas in six key technological domains over the course of history go a long way toward explaining the modern world.

What are these domains? Those pertaining to glass, cold, sound, clean, time and light, each the subject of a chapter in Johnson’s book, which was intended to accompany a recent six-part PBS-BBC television series. In both the book and the TV series, Johnson traces how unplanned, often haphazard, and sometimes completely unexpected developments in these domains led to technological breakthroughs such as lenses, refrigeration, recorded sound, water purification, clocks and artificial light, the foundations of evolving technologies based on fiber optics, cryopreservation, ultrasonic devices, clean rooms, atomic clocks and nano-measurement, light-induced nuclear fusion, and more.

Although Johnson views each of these technological domains as hugely important, he suggests that innovations in glass-making and, as important, glass-using have perhaps had the most profound consequences for human development.

First, of course, humans had to figure out how to manipulate silicon dioxide via intense heat, and then to broaden its uses beyond jewelry, ornaments and ceramics. Once they did, silica became the foundational “advanced technology” behind an array of useful products, including spectacles, mirrors, windows, microscopes, telescopes, architectural glass, fiberglass, computer chips and fiber optics.

Several themes resonate throughout Johnson’s book. Most notably, he makes the case that innovations in one technological domain often have had profound, if unintended, consequences for others. The invention of the printing press, for example, significantly expanded the number of readers, which led in turn to the demand for spectacles. The invention of the radio caused a surge in demand for recorded music. And the innovations in cooling technology that led eventually to air-conditioning completely reshaped world geography, including the livability of the U.S. South.

Johnson is equally committed to the idea that technological innovation is better seen as the result of communities and networks rather than lone wolves and individual inventors, however brilliant. As a result, innovation, according to Johnson, generally occurs incrementally rather than in great leaps: This was certainly the case for innovations such as sound recording and the electric light bulb. Johnson also points out that almost every historical innovator of note took advantage of ideas that were already “in the air” in what the author, borrowing from complexity theorist Stuart Kauffman, calls the “adjacent possible” at any given time.

Whether or not one agrees completely with Johnson’s choice of domains or with his view of the history of technology, one will be captivated by this lively primer and finish it with a much deeper appreciation of, ahem, how we got to now.

Peter A. Coclanis is Albert R. Newsome Distinguished Professor of History and director of the Global Research Institute at UNC-Chapel Hill.