In the BookTree: Steven Johnson’s How We Got to Now

Steven Johnson writes good science-history books. Not just science books, or history books, but science-history books. They are usually a composite of the the material history of the science, as well as the ideological history of the material artifact. Steven Johnson looks at 6 ideas/artifacts — “clean”, “time”, “glass”, “light”, “cold” and “sound”. As one can tell — they are generic enough to encompass a range of things, but still narrow enough to have a meaningful conversation about them.

  • Glass refers to the development of optics, and how it led to the invention of telescopes and microscopes, and eventually the pulses of light for fibre-optic cables.
  • Cold refers to the control of temperature, and the refrigerator that would play a key role in the transportation of goods across the world.
  • Sound refers to the transmission of sound waves and entertainment, and how it became the basis for mass media and politics.
  • Clean refers to the development of sanitation methods, such as chlorine, and the flush toilet.
  • Time, refers to the way people kept time, and how time became the basis for a kind of social power.
  • Light, for the sources of light, and the invention of artificial light.

His central metaphor has to do with the hummingbrd — how hummingbirds and flowers co-evolve together. And so it is with innovations — how printing technology necessitated glasses, as people realised they needed aids to see. Innovation in one domain can inadvertently affect innovation in another domian — just as the emergence of flowering plants on the scene created changes that led to the appearance of hummingbirds. This isn’t the chaos theory of butterfly wings, but more like Don Norman’s affordance — the emergence of flowers creates niches/spaces for an organism like the hummingbird to appear/enger into.

I have to say, I am a fan of Steven Johnson, and I guess with this, I have followed much of his works. “How We Got to Now” is in the vein of recent books about scientific-material cultures, such as Neil MacGregor’s “A History of the World in 100 Objects”, Mark Miodownik’s “Stuff Matters”, Tim Harford’s recent “50 Things That Made The Modern Economy”.

Unsurprisingly, How We Got to Now is related to other Steven Johnson books in the BookTree, and also to some Vaclav Smil Books.

Steven Johnson:

Future Perfect (#2)

Emergence (#1)

Where Good Ideas Come From (#11)

Vaclav Smil:

Transforming the 20th Century (#49)

Creating the 20th Century (#53)

Neil MacGregor

A History of the World in 100 Objects (#70)

Mark Miodownik

Stuff Matters (#71)

*Note the numbers here will change as I make and change connections along the way.