Book: How We Got To Now: Six Innovations That Made The Modern World

Author: Steven Johnson

Genre: Non-Fiction / Science & Technology

Think about the smart phone in your hands. Apart from communication, you are using it for browsing internet, capturing photos, playing games, reading books, paying bills and much more. But, have you ever wondered how rapidly this smart phone technology has changed in the decade? and how the idea of mobile phone exactly started in history? If you start searching for the answers, you would realize that the ‘smart’ progress was not at all a liner path. In fact, it went through many complex stages.

In How we got to now, Steven Johnson discusses these kind of technological developments that shaped the modern world. This book is full of powerful stories that illustrate how the innovations in history triggered unexpected changes in culture, politics and economics. Can you believe that the transparent appearance of SiO2 made foundations for Renaissance art movement in Europe? Do you know that Edison’s invention of lightbulb probably saved Great whales from extinction? And the flash photography in US led to anti-poverty programs in 19th century? These statements may seem absurd, implausible and unrelated at first. But in reality, they are not. How we got to now is all about unwrapping the secret connections like these !

Johnson divides the history of technology into six topics/chapters: glass, cold, sound, clean, time and light. In each chapter, he takes us back in time, exploring the birthplace of ideas, tracing the history of innovations and showing their influences on other fields. For example, take the case of glass. It all started from the molten silica (formed 26 million years ago) in Libyan desert; that captured the attention of desert travellers around 10,000 BC. In due course, monks from 12th century made curved chunks of disk shaped glasses (early spectacles) for reading aid. A few centuries later, spectacles became widespread with the invention of printing press, as the literacy rate got increased among people with the new entity called books. And then, combination of lenses led to the invention of microscopes, which led to the discovery of bacteria and viruses, and finally vaccine production. Similarly, telescope, another invention using glass, revealed the secrets of cosmos. Now, the invention of fiberglass, helped us in making optical cables for passing laser light to transfer data, surf internet and of course to read blogs like you’re doing right now. Interesting changes altogether, aren’t they?

Johnson calls these strange changes as “hummingbird effects”, which says, an idea or cluster of innovations setting an environment for unexpected changes in other fields, just like sexual reproduction strategies of plants ended up shaping the design of hummingbird’s wings. The narration in each chapter follows this approach. Although Johnson doesn’t give too much technical details of inventions, his logical attributions of tech influences on society are interesting to read. Many a times, it helps us to see innovation as a complex process which often results from the coalesced ideas of incremental breakthroughs. At some parts of the book, we are even introduced to the dark side of these innovations. For instance, in the chapter titled “sound”, Johnson talks about ultrasound scanning: the technique which made sex-selective abortions much common today.

“Someone builds a machine to listen to sound waves bouncing off icebergs, and a few generations later, millions of female fetuses are aborted thanks to that very same technology”

Steven Johnson, How we got to now

In a short note, I thoroughly enjoyed this book. The way it links history, technology and society is absolutely brilliant. Believe me, there is a lot of scientific information given in this book that you never heard of. You can surely enjoy this if you are excited about inventions.

What do you think about this book, How we got to now ? Have you read it? Please share your opinions in the comments 🙂