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From Glass To Artificial Light: The Innovations That Got Us To 'Now'


Steven Johnson's new book, "How We Got To Now," is a history of the modern world. His vision is that technology has shaped people and society. And he follows six innovations which he believes brought us to where we are today. His big six are the development of glass, refrigeration, recorded sound, purified water, clocks and artificial light. Each of these, he argues, changed civilization and continues to affect our lives in profound ways. Steven Johnson joins us from our studios in New York City. Welcome.

STEVEN JOHNSON: Thank you. It's great to be here.

WERTHEIMER: In the introduction to the book, you cast it as an exploration of the hummingbird effect, which you define as an evolutionary principle that two different things might evolve together.

JOHNSON: Yeah. When we see - I mean, in evolution, the kind of metaphor I was using is flowers evolve alongside insects. And they create this elaborate kind of dance of pollination. But in the middle of this, this hummingbird appears that figures out a way to kind of evolve the strategy of hovering next to flowers. And so what seems to be a relationship between insects and flowers ends up having a transformation on the anatomy of a bird. And it's a metaphor basically for all the technological changes that happen over history where we see a technology invented for one purpose ends up having this amazing, unexpected effect on all these other fields.

WERTHEIMER: So given as an example of an unexpected development in a related field.

JOHNSON: So one of my favorite stories is the story about the printing press and Gutenberg. And everybody thinks they know the story of Gutenberg. That he invents a printing press and because people are reading and circulating these books, it instigates these changes in science and religion and so on. But it also has this other funny effect which is as Europeans first begin to read, a significant proportion of them suddenly realized that they are farsighted, that they need spectacles to read books. And so all across Europe, people start to make lenses. And so suddenly, Europe is awash with expertise in manipulating glass. And before long, the telescope and the microscope are invented, which very quickly set off these revolutions in both biology and astronomy and all of these other fields.

WERTHEIMER: Now one of your bolder assertions, in a book which is full of bold assertions, is that glass actually helped create the modern focus on the self and the individual during the enlightenment. Now defend that greatly.

JOHNSON: Well, one of the things that's really interesting to think about is that we didn't really have clear, reliable mirrors until right before the beginning of the Renaissance. And most human beings really lived their whole life without actually seeing themselves in a clear reflection. They would occasionally catch little glimpses if the light was, you know, correct on a pond or something like that. So people suddenly had an image of themselves. And there was an extraordinary explosion in self-portraiture because the mirror enabled people like Rembrandt to paint these very detailed images of their own face. The whole culture starts to kind of pivot towards introspection and kind of self-examination.

WERTHEIMER: Now I must say that we are interested, of course, in the invention that allows us to be here today - radio. The first radios did not transmit the sound of words, it was Morse code. And then a guy named Lee de Forest came along, and he changed that.

JOHNSON: Yeah, de Forest is a fascinating figure because he did a number of amazing things, but he also had this history of kind of failing. And one of his visions was that he really wanted music to be played over the radio - this new technology that he was helping to event. And he held one of the first broadcasts of live music. And he had these kind of listening parties around the city. But the technology just wasn't there at all. And what they ended up hearing just sounded like noise with the occasional hint of music somehow, you know, beneath the static. And it was roundly considered a complete failure. And ironically, eventually radio did, you know, become a mainstream technology about 5 to 10 years later. And the music that ended up thriving on radio was jazz. And de Forest hated jazz. He thought it was the worst thing in the world. He was a classical music and opera buff. And he was appalled that his creation was transmitting this - what he considered to be very second-rate musical form.

WERTHEIMER: Now in your book, you do mention inventors, the folks doing the innovating, but one gets the impression that often they had no idea of the larger significance of what they had done.

JOHNSON: What seems to happen is that a certain kind of idea becomes imaginable at a certain moment in time. So however smart you are, however, you know, however advanced your understanding of physics might be, you can't invent, you know, a microwave oven in 1650. It's just not possible. But as technology advances, as science advances, certain ideas then become available to us as things that we can imagine.

There's a great story that I love about this French inventor who was trying to invent the phonograph right around the time - it was actually a little bit before Edison started to invent the phonograph. But he was trying to capture recorded audio. But he made this kind of wonderful mistake where he, in fact, successfully invented and patented a device to capture sound waves out of the air and kind of record them onto a cylinder. But he failed to include a feature where you could listen to the audio that you had recorded. And that's the curse, you know, you get to the point in society where you can imagine a new technology. But if you're working on the cutting edge of it, sometimes you have these blind spots where you just can't see that extra feature that will ultimately make or break the device.

WERTHEIMER: Steven Johnson. His new book is "How We Got To Now." It's also a series on PBS, and it starts next month. Steven Johnson, thank you very much.

JOHNSON: It was a pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.