cover image How We Got to Now: Six Innovations that Made the Modern World

How We Got to Now: Six Innovations that Made the Modern World

Steven Johnson. Riverhead, $30 (304p) ISBN 978-1-59463-296-9

In this fascinating book, Johnson (Where Good Ideas Come From) presents a “history of ideas and innovation,” focusing on six important technical and scientific innovations that have shaped the modern world but that we often take for granted. The book reveals what Johnson calls “the hummingbird effect,” when “an innovation... in one field ends up triggering changes that seem to belong to a different domain altogether.” We learn how Gutenberg’s press created a market for spectacles, which, in turn, led to the development of the microscope, the telescope, and the camera; how muckrakers were empowered by flash photography in the Progressive Era; and how the modern advertising business has roots in the germ theory of disease. Understanding the hummingbird effect is crucial in our world of constant technological development. Johnson debunks the genius theory of innovation—the romantic idea of the lone inventor who changes history—arguing instead that ideas and innovations emerge from “collaborative networks” at the intersections of different domains. He says that this understanding is crucial to “see[ing] more clearly the way new ideas come into being, and how to cultivate them as a society.” 75 b&w and color photos. Agent: Lydia Wills, Lydia Wills LLC. (Oct.)