A reading club with a view to the future

394 Steven Johnson: How We Got to Now

Tracing the interconnected history of six key innovations and their impact on shaping the modern world.



 In "How We Got to Now," Steven Johnson takes readers on a captivating journey through the intertwined history of innovation. Exploring six major breakthroughs, he reveals the unexpected connections and ripple effects that have shaped our world. From the influence of clean water and electricity to the transformative power of timekeeping and glass, this book highlights the fascinating stories behind crucial inventions and their profound influence on society.


Title: "How We Got to Now"

Author: Steven Johnson

Publishing Year: 2014

Publisher: Riverhead Books

Length in Hours: 6 hours and 11 minutes

5 main ideas

  1. The power of connectivity: Examining how innovations have interconnected and amplified each other, leading to exponential progress and societal transformation.
  2. The impact of unexpected consequences: Uncovering the unforeseen and far-reaching effects that major inventions have had on various aspects of human life.
  3. Serendipity and the role of chance: Highlighting the role of chance discoveries, accidental breakthroughs, and the creative sparks that have propelled innovation forward.
  4. Cultural shifts and innovation: Exploring how social, economic, and cultural changes have influenced and been influenced by major inventions throughout history.
  5. The ongoing journey of innovation: Illustrating how the process of innovation is continuous and iterative, with each breakthrough building upon the foundations of past discoveries.

5 funny quotes

  1. "It turns out that sometimes a slight misalignment of lenses can lead to a whole new way of seeing the world."
  2. "Imagine a world without glass—no windows, no lenses, and no smartphones with shattered screens."
  3. "Timekeeping was once a revolutionary concept, but now it's just something we constantly battle against with snooze buttons and missed deadlines."
  4. "Clean water not only quenches our thirst but also fuels the progress of civilization, one hygienic sip at a time."
  5. "Electricity: the force that powers our modern lives and occasionally gives us a shocking reminder of its presence."

5 thought-provoking quotes​

  1. "Innovation doesn't happen in a vacuum; it emerges from the interplay of ideas, circumstances, and individuals across time and space."
  2. "The greatest breakthroughs often come from unexpected connections and intersections between seemingly unrelated fields."
  3. "Our modern world is built upon the invisible network of ideas and inventions that have shaped and transformed our lives."
  4. "Progress is not linear; it's a web of interdependencies and feedback loops that propel us forward."
  5. "The most transformative innovations are often born out of the collision between necessity and curiosity."

5 dilemmas

  1. How do historical innovations, as described in "How We Got to Now," demonstrate the ripple effects of seemingly small ideas on larger societal changes?
  2. Discuss the concept of "exaptation," as explained by Johnson in the book, and how it has influenced some of the most significant inventions and discoveries in history.
  3. Consider the unintended consequences of certain innovations mentioned in the book. Can you identify examples where an innovation initially intended for one purpose led to unexpected outcomes?
  4. In "How We Got to Now," Johnson emphasizes the role of collaboration and the building upon existing ideas. How have collaborative efforts shaped the progress of innovation throughout history?
  5. Reflect on how technological innovations in the past have shaped the way we approach problem-solving and innovation today. Can we draw lessons from history to inform our approach to addressing modern challenges?

5 examples

  1. The Printing Press: Johnson delves into the impact of Johannes Gutenberg's invention of the printing press with movable type. This innovation revolutionized the spread of knowledge and ideas, facilitating the dissemination of information and contributing to the advancement of education and culture.
  2. Clean Water: The book explores the development of technologies and ideas that led to the availability of clean and safe drinking water. Innovations such as water filtration, sewage systems, and public health measures significantly improved human life and longevity.
  3. Refrigeration: Johnson examines how the invention of refrigeration technology transformed society by enabling the preservation and transportation of perishable goods. This innovation played a crucial role in changing the way people eat, live, and work.
  4. Electricity: The book covers the story of electricity, from early discoveries and innovations to the creation of power grids. The widespread use of electricity revolutionized industries, transportation, communication, and daily life.
  5. The Internet: Johnson discusses the development of the internet and its profound impact on society, communication, and access to information. The internet has transformed how people connect, learn, and conduct business on a global scale.

Referenced books

  1. "The World Without Us" by Alan Weisman
  2. "The Victorian Internet: The Remarkable Story of the Telegraph and the Nineteenth Century's On-line Pioneers" by Tom Standage
  3. "Longitude: The True Story of a Lone Genius Who Solved the Greatest Scientific Problem of His Time" by Dava Sobel
  4. "The Innovators: How a Group of Hackers, Geniuses, and Geeks Created the Digital Revolution" by Walter Isaacson
  5. "The Control of Nature" by John McPhee

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"Clean water not only quenches our thirst but also fuels the progress of civilization, one hygienic sip at a time."

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