The Future of History
For American author Steven Johnson, history isn't just a set of textbooks piled on top of each other, it's an intricate web of eccentric figures and fascinating stories woven together through time.
A popular espouser of innovation and its perks, his 1.4 million twitter followers understand there are more than just history lessons in his work, there some serious life lessons too.
Author of nine books, (mostly bestsellers) his latest, How We Got to Now: Six Innovations that Made the Modern World is in part a look at the evolution of our intelligence, a pat on our backs as we learn how we’ve excelled and revolutionised our way into the 21st century. His writing has been called “strikingly original” and “infectious”, but there’s also a much more profound side to Johnson’s work; history in all its wonderment has its lessons to teach us, so let us try to make sure we use them to create a better future.
There are a lot of pop-science writers out there, but one of the things you do which is so unique, is that you bring a sense of wonder and almost bewilderment to the topics you write about. Do you think that’s an accurate observation?
Bewilderment is a good word to describe my relationship to science. I know that I’m often overwhelmed by it. I think that one of things I’ve always been interested in, and that my readers have come to enjoy, is being taken on a journey to unpredictable places. So, you may think that you’re reading a book about 19th century London, but it’s as much a book about bacteria as it is about the city. I think that has become one of my more identifiable styles.
I’m kind of surprised there isn’t more work done in this way. When How We Got To Now first came out people would note that it reminded them of Connections, the old classic James Burke show. That was a great thing because it certainly was a big influence and structurally they’re very similar. But Connections was on in the 70s and early 80s and that’s how far you have to think back to find another program that tells history from that angle. It seems to me that there should be far more.
"The typewriter really wasn't invented in a commercially viable way until 1880, and yet mechanically we had the skills to make a typewriter 400 years before that. People were making clocks that were much more mechanically advanced than the typewriter."
One fascinating subject you’ve written about is glass. How it was first stumbled upon in Libya in the desert and then how it shaped our culture to the point at which we became overly narcissistic, changing us almost physiologically. I can’t help but feel a twinge of sadness at the innocent state in which we existed in simpler times. Is change always inevitable? Does evolution go hand in hand with innovation?
Yeah that’s a big question. In that chapter I try to make the argument that glass is the single most important material of the last thousand years. Without it they’d be no windows, drinking glasses or wine bottles, but also no microscopes, telescopes, mirrors, all sorts of lenses, even fibre-optics and all of these other things we never think of as being glass. And so the history of science and medicine alone was fundamentally dependent on the physical properties of silicon dioxide and the way that it allows light to pass through it in a way that most materials don’t. Our whole history as a culture is bound up in this weird little accident of physics and matter. An accident that really wasn’t noticeable to people until we were able to make transparent glass. It was this property that lay dormant for thousands of years of humans history until we were able to make transparent glass, and then it changed everything very quickly. Over the space of 400 years glass revolutionised all these different fields.
There are two questions here: Was it inevitable? Were we eventually going to discover this property of glass? Or was it just chance? If we rewound the tape of history, might we not have stumbled across this property, would science and technology have taken a different path? And secondly, was it a good thing? Think about our vanity and the introspective culture that came out of the renaissance because of mirrors.
I think the answer to the first question is that a lot of these things, these big discoveries, are pretty inevitable. The reason I think that is because they tend to be independently discovered at roughly around the same time all around the world. In terms of whether these changes are good news or bad news, I’m a believer in progress. But there sure are a lot of trade-offs along the way.
It does seem that there’s a positive sentiment in the way you describe things in your books. Things have gotten better, I don’t doubt that. But would you agree with me that a lot of your work is not so much the evolution of innovation but the evolution of intelligence?
Well a big part of it is our ability to work in ever larger and co-operative networks. There have been a lot of smart people throughout history, but they were always far less connected to each other than we are now. One of the big themes, particularly in Where Good Ideas Come From but also in How We Got To Now, is that although we have a whole mythology of the lone genius inventor, in fact the most important and often most difficult ideas come out of collaboration. Somebody coming up with half of an idea and somebody else building on that. That’s something that’s become easier, starting with the invention of writing and then the proliferation of whole other methods of information storage and retrieval, leading up to the internet. And crucially the invention of large cities, where people were able to just see each other for a cup of coffee and share ideas. All of those things together have made us collectively smarter. The real breakthroughs have come out of those networks of collaboration.
Right, I agree that the eureka moment is often the result of the contribution of many people. An example you give is this 1956 agreement with Bell Labs and the US Government, it really sets a precedent, and no similar agreement has been set up since. What does that agreement that led to so much technological progress, say about social innovation of governments? Do you think more deals like that one would be beneficial in our society?
I’m glad you raised that point. To give a bit of background on this story, I always thought of Bell Labs as being this great engine of innovation. I was aware that many of the important technologies of the 20th century had their roots in one form or another at Bell Labs, from transistors, to cell networks, to lasers.
There has been a general opinion that they had a lot of different disciplines and they had a great attitude of allowing people to do interesting open-method research. That’s all true, but there’s a missing piece that I hadn’t realised. Bell Labs’ parent company, what ultimately became AT&T, had a monopoly on telecommunications in the United States. They were constantly battling the antitrust department over the question, should they be allowed to have this monopoly? And it was recognised that if we wanted to have a continuous phone service across the United States then we needed to have a monopoly. It’s was just too complicated to do with a bunch of different networks. So the government structured this deal saying, okay you can have this monopoly, you can control the entire telephone system. But in return for that monopoly, any innovation that you come up with in your labs has to be made freely available to any American company that wants to take that idea and run with it.
So what was unique about the deal was that you had a situation where there was this extreme of capitalism, this insanely profitable private company, but the ideas coming out of that company were socialised. They belonged to anyone (or at least any US citizen.) And I think that’s the piece that we missed in the shorthand version of why Bell Labs was so innovative. Yes, they put research and money into it, but also, any interesting idea that took root in Bell Labs was free to go anywhere else. So it greatly extended the brainpower and the number of people that could take these ideas to new places.
I do think that is the example for the way that governments should be encouraging open source models and new kinds of patents. In some cases it may be appropriate to do away with patents altogether, and in other cases we may just need to figure out more fluid models for sharing information. Progress doesn’t come from protecting and building walls around intellectual property, because every time you do that you limit the number of people who can actually take that idea and improve on it. In the US particularly we have this assumption that the way to encourage innovation is to make sure that the inventor can get maximum profit out of their invention, and I think that’s a mistake.
Everywhere you go right now, people seem to mention terms like disruption and innovation. These seem like very key timely topics, and yet ironically the innovation you write about references just how disruptive and innovative we were a century or many centuries before today.
Yeah it’s really funny. I had the idea for Where Good Ideas Come From about ten years ago and it took me about five years to write. I kept putting it off and writing these other books. Other books that I was racing to get out because I was seeing something in the culture that was happening at that moment, and no one else had quite identified it in the way that I had. But with Where Good Ideas Come From, I didn’t think it was a particularly timely topic. I didn’t think it was ‘of the moment.’ But in part because of the crash in 2008/9 and the continued importance of the tech sector, by the time the book came out it was a very trendy topic. Innovation was a part of Obama’s first State of the Union address. So I’d just stumbled across this thing that was suddenly everywhere.
I like talking about history. I am interested in new ideas and innovation, but if I were just writing full time about start-ups I would get tired. It’s more fun for me to look at the past and suggest some of the ways in which that past can guide us into the future. But weirdly I find myself more and more wanting to just be a historian and nothing else.
"I'm a believer in progress. But there sure are a lot of trade-offs along the way."
I want to ask you about some of the biggest world changing ideas around at the moment, CRISPR/gene editing, bitcoin, big data, all these kinds of things. It was Oppenheimer who, after working to develop the hydrogen bomb and seeing the damage it could do, famously said, “I am become death, the destroyer of worlds.” There’s a lot of unpredictability now in new technology and science. Do you think that in the future we will be remembered as being on the right side of history?
That’s a great question. I wrote a little bit about this in the AI debate Superintelligence: Paths, Dangers, Strategies by Nick Bostrom which was extremely interesting. On a side note it becomes clear with AI, whatever you think is going to happen, all these debates that academic philosophers have been having for a century or two about decision theory and all these things, they used to seem completely esoteric and now they may determine the future of the species.
I am persuaded that in terms of something like AI, the superintelligence threat is real enough that it’s worth thinking about. I’m not well educated enough to give you an honest appraisal of whether they’ll be some kind of rogue AI, but I think it’s likely enough that we should think about it. What I find encouraging in all this, which I think is true of CRISPR and other genomic technologies, is that we’re trying to do things as a species that were unimaginable fifty years ago. We’re sitting down with very smart people, thinking about and planning for problems that will most likely not hit us for another half-century. Whatever else you want to say about our capacity for self-destruction, the fact that we’re having this conversation is commendable. It’s like the industrialists in Manchester in 1800 gathering together and saying, “hey, this industrial revolution is great and this coal sure is effective, but I did notice that we’re putting some carbon into the atmosphere and that could really cause problems in 150 years.” No one got close to thinking about that.
But we just don’t have that ability for foresight. That’s one thing I take from your work. We can’t blame them.
But at least we’re trying now. Superintelligence is a book saying, I think potentially there’s a problem that we’re not going to see for fifty years, but I think we should start having the debate now. The fact that we’re bad at predicting future problems is to be expected. But the fact that we’re trying is commendable and maybe we can get better at it as we exercise this new skill as a species.
Yes, it reminds me of something the AI expert Jaron Lanier said a few years back, “The unreliability of computers can be traced to someone’s AI belief 25 years ago.”
[Laughs] I like that.
He goes on to say that it was part of these design flaws ideas that contributed to trillions of dollars in inefficiency in technology on a global basis.
Yeah, the other thing that reminds me of, is how we were talking before about technologies that were inevitable. But I’m interested now in technologies that actually seem to have shown up too late. The typewriter really wasn’t invented in a commercially viable way until 1880, and yet mechanically we had the skills to make a typewriter 400 years before that. People were making clocks that were much more mechanically advanced than the typewriter. I think about that in our own present moment. Is there some late arrival that we should have thought of by now?
That question is going to keep me up at night.
Good, you can figure it out. Let me know what it is and we can go into business together.
I think the most incredible innovations that don’t get much coverage are in the area of life-extension. In 1920 the average life expectancy in the US was only 58 years, in 1960 it had jumped to 70 years, and today it’s 79. That’s incredible, and I don’t know why people don’t talk about it or at least enough.
Yeah, if we were really broadcasting the news properly in terms of the most important things happening then that would be the headline every day. But as Stewart Brand notes, it doesn’t get reported because it’s a slow process. People forget this profound shift in day-to-day life because it doesn’t dominate the news. Obviously the unintended consequences of ageing has economic and budgetary effects. In the United States we’re constantly talking about how we can’t afford to pay the health care and social security for all these people who are living much longer. And it also raises another issue; if you really start to get to the point where you’re guaranteed to live 100 years, which seems pretty plausible at this point, then it becomes hugely important to not die accidentally. Back in the day when you could get cholera at the age of 25, if you were also in some kind of physical accident, it didn’t really matter so much. But if there’s a very good chance you could live to 100, it changes the influence on where the risks are and your choices in life. There are a lot of people in Silicon Valley trying to eliminate death altogether.
Yeah we actually interviewed one of them, a man called Aubrey de Grey who is doing exactly that.
I always think of that great Steve Jobs line from his Stanford speech. “Death is life’s change agent.” If we actually eliminated death then what would we do? We’d have a massive problem of this population boom. It would be the single most challenging thing we’ve ever faced as a species. So the ethics surrounding this are pretty tricky.
Lastly Steven, I’ve noticed that there are a lot of musical references in your work. Can you tell us a bit about your history with music? Were you a musician in a past life?
In my present life I am a very bad musician. When I’m writing my books there’s a piano keyboard between me and my computer, and I spend thousands of hours writing and playing music that pretty much only I have heard. It’s a great passion of mine and one that I have no professional ambition towards, but it’s a huge part of my life. It makes me a better listener to music, and it’s a wonderful exercise for the mind, particularly with the technology. I’m always getting a new piece of software and experimenting with what it can do.
I think one of the great ways to be creative is to be influenced by other fields and to have hobbies. Some of the defining characteristics of the people that I’ve written about has been that they have a lot of hobbies. They sit there and work on their main project, but in their spare time they do something else, and that external interest will trigger a new idea, or there will be a metaphor that can be brought over from that world. Music is one of those hobbies for me. I actually just finished writing a chapter on the history of musical instruments and music technology, there’s an exclusive for your readers. It’s the first time I’ve written directly about music rather than just alluding to it and it was enormously fun. That book will be out later this year.
Someone I’m always inspired by. Most people have never heard of him even though he was an incredibly influential person with the American founding fathers. What’s so amazing about him is that he had this very early influential vision of progress. He could see what was beginning to happen with the scientific revolution and the experiments in democracy.
I’ve basically lived in New York and San Francisco full time, but London is a constant theme in my work. The city has just been endlessly inspiring to me.
He’s been so influential. A friend and an incredible role model. The way that he figured out the whole idea of using the studio as a song-writing composition tool. That way of composing is similar to the way I try to write books. You start with the hint of an idea and start exploring.