'How We Got to Now' by Steven Johnson

Book Review by Philip Delves Broughton in the Wall Street Journal: “Theories of innovation and entrepreneurship have always yo-yoed between two basic ideas. First, that it’s all about the single brilliant individual and his eureka moment that changes the world. Second, that it’s about networks, collaboration and context. The truth, as in all such philosophical dogfights, is somewhere in between. But that does not stop the bickering. This controversy blew up in a political context during the 2012 presidential election, when President Obama used an ill-chosen set of words (“you didn’t build that”) to suggest that government and society had a role in creating the setting for entrepreneurs to flourish, and Republicans berated him for denigrating the rugged individualists of American enterprise.
Through a series of elegant books about the history of technological innovation, Steven Johnson has become one of the most persuasive advocates for the role of collaboration in innovation. His latest, “How We Got to Now,” accompanies a PBS series on what he calls the “six innovations that made the modern world.” The six are detailed in chapters titled “Glass,” “Cold,” “Sound,” “Clean,” “Time” and “Light.” Mr. Johnson’s method is to start with a single innovation and then hopscotch through history to illuminate its vast and often unintended consequences….
Mr. Johnson calls this “long-zoom” history, an examination of what he refers to as the “hummingbird effect” in history. Back in the Cretaceous age, he explains, flowers evolved colors and scents to alert insects to the presence of nectar. Hummingbirds evolved their peculiar flying mechanics to hover beside a flower like an insect in order to extract nectar. From flowers to nectar to insects to an innovation in avian flight. Mr. Johnson professes to be agnostic about the innovations he describes, but the hummingbird effects he believes in are so hard to predict that taking the long view means withholding negative judgments on the present. One may not like the Facebook of today, for example, but who knows what benefits its social network might yield in decades to come?
Mr. Johnson’s ideas are popular in Silicon Valley, and it is easy to see why. He is an optimist about technology and its possibilities. In his section on “Light,” he links the discovery of neon lighting to the growth of Las Vegas and then to the post-modernist movement in American art and architecture. A more raffish mind might have gone from Las Vegas to Siegfried and Roy, Wayne Newton, and the Nevada flesh trade. But Mr. Johnson is too upstanding for that. He believes that the arc of technological history may be long but that it bends toward good.”