How We Got to Now by Steven Johnson

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Oh non-fiction, you are so delicious.

How We Got to Now is a book about just that – what innovations and inventions have contributed largely to how we each live today. The author focuses on six things – artificial cold, glass, clocks, recorded sound, clean water, and artificial light. Each chapter talks about the origins of each, and how the science progressed to what it is now. For example, how we went from glass being a mysterious substance found in the desert thousands of years ago to something that is used in almost everything today – glasses, cell phone screens, fiber optic cables that we use for the internet, etc. He also takes a look at the indirect consequences of those innovations, the good and the bad.

I can’t go into too much detail, because otherwise I’d be stepping on Johnson’s toes. His book does a fantastic job at looking at these things in a straightforward manner, and I’m absolutely bursting with weird little facts that I learned while reading. (To the annoyance of my friends and co-workers, I’m sure.) Most interesting about his book though is the idea of the “adjacent possible” – the concept that ideas and inventions are most often a result of a network of other ideas, studies, advances, and conditions available at the current time, rather than the result of one person’s sudden stroke of genius. Even further, that many advances and inventions would not have been possible at earlier times, because the adjacent possible wasn’t there – the idea would never have occurred to a person without the networking of other ideas in the current society.

If you’re looking for a good, engrossing non-fiction read, this is it. I’m definitely going to seek out more of Steven Johnson’s work.

 

Sarah Says: 4.5 stars

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6 comments

  1. What a fascinating book! Added it to my goodreads list. I love the idea of the “adjacent possible” because it acknowledges the hard work and research involved in things like bioinspiration, reinvention, prototyping. Yes, it’s important to have a genius idea, but to make it work is entirely another beast.

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  2. I wish I were as good as you are about reading nonfiction. You review so many things that sound great, and I always say to myself, ” I should look into this…” but I rarely follow up. But this one really does sound great, and I really *should* look into this one! πŸ˜‰

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