Tuesday, September 1, 2015

How We Got Here

Sharing a few highlights from How We Got Here: Six Innovations That Made the Modern World by Steven Johnson. 

Unwittingly, the Venetian doges had created an innovation hub: by concentrating the glassmakers on a single island the size of a small city neighborhood, they triggered a surge of creativity, giving birth to an environment that possessed what economists call “information spillover.

What followed was one of the most extraordinary cases of the hummingbird effect in modern history. Gutenberg made printed books relatively cheap and portable, which triggered a rise in literacy, which exposed a flaw in the visual acuity of a sizable part of the population, which then created a new market for the manufacture of spectacles

Hummingbird effects sometimes happen when an innovation in one field exposes a flaw in some other technology (or in the case of the printed book, in our own anatomy) that can be corrected only by another discipline altogether. But sometimes the effect arrives thanks to a different kind of breakthrough: a dramatic increase in our ability to measure something, and an improvement in the tools we build for measuring.

New ways of measuring almost always imply new ways of making.

This is what the robot historian’s perspective allows us to see: the technology is not a single cause of a cultural transformation like the Renaissance, but it is, in many ways, just as important to the story as the human visionaries that we conventionally celebrate

The art of human invention has more than one muse

Those patents rippling across the planet are an example of one of the great curiosities in the history of innovation: what scholars now call “multiple invention.” Inventions and scientific discoveries tend to come in clusters, where a handful of geographically dispersed investigators stumble independently onto the very same discovery

Like every big idea, Birdseye’s breakthrough was not a single insight, but a network of other ideas, packaged together in a new configuration. What made Birdseye’s idea so powerful was not simply his individual genius, but the diversity of places and forms of expertise that he brought together

may sound ridiculous to say that Bell and his successors were the fathers of modern commercial architecture—of the skyscraper. But wait a minute. Take the Singer Building, the Flatiron Building, the Broad Exchange, the Trinity, or any of the giant office buildings. How many messages do you suppose go in and out of those buildings every day? Suppose there was no telephone and every message had to be carried by a personal messenger? How much room do you think the necessary elevators would leave for offices? Such structures would be an economic impossibility

Thanks to the antitrust resolution, Bell Labs became one of the strangest hybrids in the history of capitalism: a vast profit machine generating new ideas that were, for all practical purposes, socialized

The next time you glance down at your phone to check what time it is or where you are, the way you might have glanced at a watch or a map just two decades ago, think about the immense, layered network of human ingenuity that has been put in place to make that gesture possible. Embedded in your ability to tell the time is the understanding of how electrons circulate within cesium atoms; the knowledge of how to send microwave signals from satellites and how to measure the exact speed with which they travel; the ability to position satellites in reliable orbits above the earth, and of course the actual rocket science needed to get them off the ground; the ability to trigger steady vibrations in a block of silicon dioxide—not to mention all the advances in computation and microelectronics and network science necessary to process and represent that information on your phone.

One of the reasons garages have become such an emblem of the innovator’s workspace is precisely because they exist outside the traditional spaces of work or research. They are not office cubicles or university labs; they’re places away from work and school, places where our peripheral interests have the room to grow and evolve.