HOW WE GOT TO NOW: Six Innovations That Made the Modern World, by Steven Johnson. Riverhead Books, 293 pp., $30.
Steven Johnson, in his latest popular take on technology, seems to have adopted as his motto a famous line from E.M. Forster: "Only connect."
In "Howard's End," Forster was talking about connecting passion and propriety. In "How We Got to Now," the enjoyable new book from bestselling author Johnson ("Future Perfect," "Where Good Ideas Come From"), the connections span centuries to tie together developments most of us probably don't realize have anything to do with one another.
In a clear chapter on glass, for instance, Johnson shows how the invention of the printing press revealed human farsightedness and therefore spurred a boom in lens-making, how this in turn led to the microscope (which let us see germs), the telescope, and some experiments involving a homemade crossbow that resulted, a century later, in a world spanned by fiber-optic cables.
Regular readers of such books will recognize the format: sections often begin on some long-ago day with some eccentric character doing something strange or innocuous, but pretty soon we discover it's Galileo, or the engineer who eventually would raise the entire city of Chicago for the installation of sewers. Johnson is not breaking a lot of new ground here.
But he doesn't pretend he is. The point, rather, is the connections, and the author's range and gusto will remind baby boomers of an earlier "Connections" -- the BBC series and book of the same name, both by the British journalist James Burke, who back in the 1970s dashed madly about in a safari jacket to help us make sense of our world. In fact Johnson will host his own PBS series in October with the same name as his book.
Judging by that book, the programs will probably be worth watching, because romping around in the history of technology with Johnson is fun as well as enlightening. He writes elegantly and draws on wide learning to illustrate the ways history and technology interact. If he gives the latter too much credit in shaping the former, as when perhaps he overemphasizes the invention of the mirror as a catalyst for the Renaissance (the mirror encouraging an emphasis on the self), well, it's nice to see someone at least giving technology its due.
Johnson cleverly organizes his book around six key areas of innovation, each a handy vessel for channeling his curiosity while allowing it free rein. The topics are Glass, Cold, Sound, Clean, Time and Light. Along these paths you'll find yourself learning all kinds of things, including the origins of neon, Sears Roebuck and the name "sperm whale."
Who knew that a bird placed in a vacuum won't just die, it will freeze? Or that Clarence Birdseye got the idea for flash-freezing food from ice-fishing? Labrador got so cold that trout pulled out of a lake would freeze in seconds and taste great when defrosted.
It's not all trivia, of course. The section on time explains that in the 19th century America had thousands of local time zones -- intolerable in the age of the railroads, which were instrumental in getting us down to four. And since time and space are related, more accurate clocks mean more people can pinpoint their location with ease.
"Every time you glance down at your smartphone to check your location, you are unwittingly consulting a network of twenty-four atomic clocks housed in satellites in low-earth orbit," Johnson writes, adding that, "each new advance in timekeeping enables a corresponding advance in our mastery of geography."
In addition to connections, Johnson finds lessons in the history of technology. In certain times and places, for instance, certain inventions are pretty much inevitable, which is why we see again and again that several people think up the same big thing at roughly the same time. It's because most inventions can't happen until a critical mass of prior discoveries has occurred. Leonardo da Vinci was a genius, but you can't blame him for not coming up with the iPhone.
Ultimately, Johnson's connections aren't just interesting, they're also sobering. The author makes no value judgments about the innovations he describes -- "this book is resolutely agnostic on these questions of value" -- yet he is clearly an enthusiast, even though technology can be a two-edged sword. "The vacuum tube helped bring jazz to a mass audience," the author observes, "and it also helped amplify the Nuremberg rallies."