Steven Johnson blends the history of science with keen social observation to tell the story of how our modern world came about—and where it's headed. Cory Doctorow reviews How We Got to Now, also a six-part PBS/BBC series, which ties together a lifetime of work

Thanks to excellent "public understanding of science projects" like Radiolab, the "biography of an idea" has become a common and celebrated form for conveying facts about science and the context for those facts — not just what we understand about reality, but what that understanding means for our everyday lives, and how the understanding came about.

Johnson is one of the writers who pioneered the form, with books like Mind Wide Open (everyday neuroscience, 2004); Everything Bad is Good for You: How TV and games make us smarter (media theory, 2005); The Ghost Map (2006, geography and the history of epidemiology); The Invention of Air (2008, revolutionary America and the discovery of atmosphere and vacuum); Steven Johnson's Where Good Ideas Come From: multidisciplinary hymn to diversity, openness and creativity (2010, the theory of innovation and its relationship to cities); and Future Perfect: an optimistic look at the future of networked politics (2012, politics and the Internet).

In How We Got to Now, Johnson picks six profound technologies and follows their path from earliest prehistory to the modern age, showing how each developed and what changes they wrought on the societies around them, what new possibilities for good and evil they opened, and what false starts they were preceded by and where they might take us.

These six technologies are exceedingly well-chosen:

  1. glass (from Venetian glassblowers to telescopes and microscopes);
  2. cold (from icehouses to modern refrigeration, and the way our food infrastructure, medical science, and geography have been transformed by the ability to manipulate heat);
  3. sound (from early chanted ritual to phonographs, to music, urban noise, and radar);
  4. hygiene (the key innovations that let cities grow without being destroyed by disease, the germ theory of medicine, and clean rooms in microprocessor factories);
  5. time (early astronomy, the age of navigation and the Longitude Prize, the industrial revolution and the timeclock, and microsecond timing in modern computers); and, finally,
  6. light (from candles to whaling; the changes to human sleep cycles thanks to artificial light, lasers and electron microscopy).

Each of these six lively stories is a tapestry worn of fascinating technical tid-bits and engrossing stories of personal sacrifice, genius, error, foolishness and difficulty from the cluster of inventors who are responsible for each one. This is the sort of book that makes you want to take a lot of notes — in the chapter on cold, for example, I was struck by the fact that the ice trade of the 19th century was the first-ever example of a trade-route in which goods from a lower-energy zone were exported to a higher-energy one — and find friends to discuss the book with. Like the best Radiolab episodes, How We Got to Now is full of telling anaecdotes, full of personality, that I've recounted to both my colleagues and my six-year-old, with equal interest from both, because the human element serves so well in illumnating the technological and social forces.

Ultimately, the message of How We Got to Now is that the story of technology is complex and nonlinear. Innovations arise from the "adjacent possible" — you get railroads when it's railroading time, and not before, even if some prescient inventor sketches them out far in advance — and they open up all kinds of new possibilities. They are built by human labor, but they are also shaped by wider social forces, and they feed back into those forces. A technology doesn't change one thing, but several, and for a long time, and those changes reverberate down through the centuries.

It's a rare book that manages to capture both the excitement of discovery and the nuance of its good and bad sides, and this is where How We Got to Now shines.

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

Cory Doctorow