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Book Review: How We Got To Now (Steven Johnson)

How We Got To Now is competent enough, but it feels threadbare.  It feels like a narrative designed to punctuate a picture show that is missing its pictures.  It probably feels that way because it is that way—it was written to accompany a PBS television series (which is flacked on the cover of the book), and, unfortunately, without the moving pictures, the book doesn’t stand on its own very well.

The dedication of the book is “For Jane, who no doubt expected a three-volume treatise on nineteenth-century whaling.”  I would have preferred that to the book I got.  Whaling, after all, is an infinitely fascinating activity, with deep roots and relevance to American history.  A detailed exploration of whaling would teach the reader a lot.  Instead, I got superficial histories of six areas of technology (glass; refrigeration; sound transmission; sanitation; timekeeping; and illumination); bound together by two less-than-gripping themes.

The first theme is what the author, Steven Johnson, calls (I’m not sure if the term is original) the “hummingbird effect.”  This is the idea that “an innovation, or cluster of innovations, in one field ends up triggering changes that seem to belong to a different domain altogether.”  The theme gets its name from the presumed evolution of hummingbirds to better access hard-to-reach nectar in flowers, which flowers had earlier evolved to allow insects, not birds, to access the nectar.  (Like all post hoc evolutionary explanations, this is a little too pat, but hey, I wasn’t there when hummingbirds evolved, so what do I know?  On the other hand, neither was Johnson.)  This is basically a gussied up law of unintended consequences.  Johnson refers to it frequently, but particularly in connection with improvements in measurement—when measurement improves, he says, it makes possible seemingly unrelated developments that could not happen before.  None of this is false, but I don’t think it’s the major set of insights Johnson thinks it is.

The second, related, theme is that single individuals are unimportant to scientific progress.  Johnson strongly believes that if Person X hadn’t invented something, Person Y would have invented the same thing at roughly the same time, because the hummingbird effect in essence dictates that that the conditions collectively ripen at a given time, and every breakthrough is “a network of other ideas, packaged together in a new configuration.”  Thus, the net effect of social configuration, other inventions, and other external circumstances dictates the emergence of new technologies.  Specific individuals have little or nothing to do with any particular invention coming to life.  Again, that’s probably mostly true, but (despite frequent cases of simultaneous invention), it’s often true only on longer time scales than Johnson says—witness, for example, Johnson’s own observation that hundreds of years passed between spectacles and telescopes, even though a telescope is merely two lenses placed together and now seems obvious.

I suppose every book (and TV series) needs an organizing structure, and these two themes are Johnson’s.  They’re not real exciting, but at least they’re not offensive.  And, to his credit, Johnson explicitly and repeatedly rejects the idea of judging whether any particular technological development is good or bad, instead sticking to the facts, so we are spared the lectures common in these types of popular science works, and his structure works well enough to keep the narrative moving.

Speaking of offensive, Johnson halfheartedly apologizes for “the ‘we’ of [this book’s] title [being] North Americans and Europeans.”  But, as he points out, that’s entirely apt, because “certain critical experiences—the rise of the scientific method, industrialization—happened in Europe first, and have now spread across the world.”  A crisper way of putting this would be that nobody in the rest of the world has contributed anything notably relevant to modern science or technology, whether antibiotics or nerve gas, but at least Johnson states the truth, which gives the reader more confidence in the accuracy of other parts of his book.

Johnson begins with glass.  He traces a line—not a straight line; more like the line traced by a bouncing pinball—from colored natural and man-made glass known to the ancients, to medieval Venetian scientifically produced clear glass, to monkish spectacles, to the printing press.  Occasionally there are jarring, though not critical, errors.  For example, Johnson makes a big deal out of the printing press increasing the market for reading up-close, given that prior to widespread printing most people had little need for close-up focus.  He repeatedly incorrectly refers to “hyperopia” and “farsightedness,” claiming that it was common in the population and spectacles corrected it such that people could read.  That condition exists, but it wasn’t the medieval problem.  Both hyperopia and myopia (nearsightedness) were rare problems in medieval society, just as they are in pre-modern societies today (myopia in particular is a disease of modernity, for reasons which are debated).  The real need was for the correction of presbyopia, which is a totally different eye condition—the decreasing ability of the lenses of the eyes to focus at near distances as people age, a problem that happens to 100% of the population.  So Johnson is right about the need for spectacles—but not for quite the reason he gives.

Anyway, Johnson’s ball keeps bouncing, from the printing press, to microscopes, telescopes, glass fibers (for communication and as a raw material), and to mirrors.  Then he tells us that glass mirrors played a major role in changing the consciousness of Europeans, “orient[ing] them around the self in a new way,” thus they were a key element of causing the Renaissance.  Well, maybe.  But the Renaissance was about a lot more than increased individualism, which was really a much later development, and anyway mirrors entered mass life only during the 19th Century, and therefore could have had little do with group self-perception during the Renaissance.  Like the explanation of why the hummingbird is the way it is, this story sounds good on first reading, but a little thought makes it seem glib to the point of being facile.

The next two chapters cover refrigeration, from the transport of ice blocks to southern climes to modern frozen foods; and sound transmission, from Neanderthal cave rituals to ultrasound as a scientific tool.  Then Johnson turns to sanitation, treading the well-worn path that led Europeans to discover the importance of medical and water sanitation and disinfection.

When talking about sanitation, Johnson makes an interesting point I had never considered.  We are used to our ancestors being ridiculed, and being held up as stinky barbarians next to supposedly enlightened people in China and the Islamic world, because they bathed so rarely.  As Johnson says of our ancestors, in this context and also in general, “they look and act like modern people in many ways . . . but every now then, strange gaps open between us and them, not just the obvious gaps in technological sophistication, but more subtle, conceptual gaps.”  But, as Johnson notes, they didn’t fail to bathe because they lacked the technology or ability.  They made the deliberate, considered choice not to bathe because bathing was universally regarded in the West as extremely bad for one’s health.  As far as they were concerned, cleaning oneself was one of the “barbaric traditions of Middle Eastern bathhouses, not [fit for] the aristocracy of Paris of London.”  Of course, that aristocracy could have bathed as much as they wished.  But as Johnson says, “The virtues of washing oneself were not self-evident, the way we think of them today.”  Our ancestors were wrong about the health consequences, no doubt, but it doesn’t make them any less sophisticated or cultured than those cleaner people in other parts of the world (whom, after all, the Europeans proceeded to dominate for centuries, while creating everything good, and most of the bad, in the world we live in today).

Johnson finally turns to timekeeping and illumination.  As to time, he discusses the history of modern clocks (arising from Galileo’s work on pendulums), and their impact on European technology, from the calculation of longitude to the regularization of work hours, all the way to atomic clocks and the Clock of the Long Now.  As to illumination, he follows the changeovers from tallow and beeswax to whale oil to electric illumination (using the now famous calculations of William Nordhaus of the exponentially decreasing amount of wages needed to purchase a thousand lumen-hours of light).  Johnson notes that Edison was not the first to work on lightbulbs, just the most successful (and perhaps the most dogged)—the basic formula of a carbonized filament in a glass bulb pre-dated Edison by decades.  But Edison, of course, like Steve Jobs, was a tireless self-promoter and a “master of vaporware.”  Johnson also attributes a variety of social changes to the ability to create light.  For example, he attributes to flash technology Jacob Riis creating his muckraking photos of New York tenements, resulting in legislation to protect the poor, and to neon lights the creation of Las Vegas, which had a significant influence on modernist architecture.  (In the argument over whether social change drives technological change, or vice versa, Johnson is very much on the side of vice versa.)

Johnson ends on a false note, unfortunately, with a short chapter buying into the myth that Ada Lovelace, Lord Byron’s daughter, was the first computer programmer.  This claim is based on her interest in mathematics, encouraged by her mother, and her professional relationship with Charles Babbage, inventor of the Analytical Engine, regarded as the first computer.  Lovelace translated an Italian engineer’s essay on the Engine, to which she attached extensive footnotes, some of which constituted a type of early program (for example, to calculate Bernoulli numbers with punch cards).   Until recently, it was universally agreed those were summaries of Babbage’s own earlier-created programs, placed there at his request (and nobody disputes he wrote programs prior to Lovelace, so she was not in any case the “first programmer”).  She may or may not have improved Babbage’s earlier programs; it’s impossible to tell from the limited documentary evidence.  But because of the modern desperation to find and elevate any female role model in science, in order to pretend it is not female choice and innate abilities that results in fewer female computer (and other) scientists, but rather supposed sexist suppression, history has been re-written to claim (as Johnson does) that the programs were Lovelace’s original contributions.  On the other hand, Lovelace did have some interesting speculations, perhaps original, in her notes on the future uses of the Engine beyond calculation.  Johnson retreats to focusing on those, but even there, his characterization of Lovelace’s suggestion that the Engine might compose music as “an imaginative leap . . . almost beyond comprehension” suggests hyperbole covering up a lack of faith in the subject of his focus.

Anyway, this book isn’t great.  But it’s a quick read.  The PBS series accompanying it is available for streaming (for a price) on Amazon, and combining the two might be a worthwhile exercise (I haven’t done so).  As an education tool for a high school student, or a not-well-informed adult who wants to kill some time, the book could be pretty good.  It’s certainly better than watching PewDieDie on YouTube (or Twitch, or whatever).  If you know something about the history of these technologies, though, you won’t learn anything new here.

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Published in American History Book Reviews Business & Money Charles European History Longitudinal History Practical Skills Science


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