To inaugurate the publication of his brilliant new book How We Got to Now: Six Innovations That Made the Modern World (also a PBS/BBC TV series), Steven Johnson has written about the difficult balance between reporting on the history of world-changing ideas and the inventors credited with their creation
How We Got to Now does an excellent job of striking this balance — it's the kind of thing that Radiolab gets right so often — and is also very careful to note (as Kevin Kelly did so masterfully in What Technology Wants) that ideas have their own life and logic. Da Vinci may be such a genius that he can mentally time-travel to a future in which helicopters exist and record his inventions on paper, but until all the other technical, political and social prerequisites for helicopters are in place — until helicopters are the "adjacent possible" of the current technical world — the idea remains an idea, and won't be realized.
How to Get to Next, the companion site for the book and show, is running a giveaway for copies of the book. And watch this space for my review, which I'll be posting early next week.
The left has long talked about the role of ideology and false consciousness, where ideas disseminated at a certain moment of economic development keep people from seeing, or struggling against, the oppression and inequality of the current order. (Frank actually wrote a superb book about exactly this phenomenon, What's The Matter With Kansas?) An ideological approach to history assumes that ideas can function a bit like a parasite, infecting a host and forcing it to behave in a way that is counter to the host's own interests.
The same phenomenon happens all the time in technological or intellectual history, only with less nefarious consequences. Edison is able to manufacture a working delivery system for electric light in the 1880s not just because Edison himself was brilliant and persistent, but also because the ideas required to even begin to imagine electric light were abundant by the second half the nineteenth-century. This is why nearly twenty other inventors created electric lightbulbs before Edison even started working on his. A hundred years before, the number of people even thinking about electric light was effectively zero. Obviously, it wasn't that human beings had suddenly become smarter, or innately more inclined to think about lightbulbs: it was that an entire network of ideas from seemingly unrelated research — materials science, electricity, the understanding of vacuums — had come together to make the lightbulb thinkable for the first time. Each of those ideas originated in a human mind, but the constellation they formed had a kind of life of its own, just as the ideology of social conservatism has a kind of life of its own in American society.
Robot Historians and the Heroic Idea [Steven Johnson/How to Get to Next]