Here We Are Now

I’m old enough to not quite take it for granted that as I type this on a laptop, eventually to hit “send,” I am thus speeding written words to what could be a nearly limitless distribution. I once used “carbon paper” to make a single copy of work that was smudged with corrected typos. But until now I haven’t sufficiently grasped that the definitive innovation behind the computer is glass—the same stuff through which I look out my window.

It is the cerebral fun of Steven Johnson’s new book, “How We Got to Now” (companion to a PBS series starting this week) that he peels back layer after layer of subsequent applications of original breakthroughs to reveal surprising invention trails. In addition to glass, he traces the wonders of today’s myriad magics to the development of technologies around cold, sound, cleanliness, time and light.

Glass might reach farthest back in human history (the use of fire goes back earlier, but we didn’t invent it). Roman empire glassmakers produced ornaments and windows. Fleeing the 1204 siege of Constantinople, a small group of Turkish glassmakers settled in Venice. The super hot fires they used to make beautiful glass—which soon became a luxury item and important to trade—also tended to combust the mostly wooden structures of the city, so they were convened on the island of Murano.

Johnson points out that this concentration of people working on the same essential project caused “information spillover,” something economists identify as happening today in places like Silicon Valley (which owes its existence to glass). The resulting cognitive surplus, to use another techno-utopian term, produced super-clear glass called crystal. “This,” Johnson says, “was the birth of modern glass.”

Monks transcribing religious manuscripts in the 12th and 13th centuries began using pieces of crystal the better to see their work with, and so spectacles were born. And then came Gutenberg, whose printed books created a bigger market for them. In 1610, Galileo used a crystal lens to make the telescope, through which he observed moons orbiting Jupiter, and from there came the doctrine-shattering revelation that the Earth is not the center of the universe.

The discovery had a reverberating impact that is still being absorbed today. Not only did it reveal a truth about the physical world, it reflected back on the human sense of our place in time and space. The innovation that allowed us to “see things that transcended the natural limits of human vision” also made glass mirrors possible. In these we saw not only our likenesses, but were nudged into reflection on our inner selves. In the words of historian Lewis Mumford, “Self-consciousness, introspection, mirror-conversation developed with the new object itself.”

And glass was just getting started. Glass has allowed us to look into the small as well as out at the large. Science focusing on cells, viruses, bacteria and genes all depend on glass. And from the development of fiber optics unfolds the world of phones and computers we now conduct so much of our lives through. As Johnson writes, “we take pictures through glass lenses, store and manipulate them on circuit boards made of fiberglass, transmit them around the world via glass cables, and enjoy them on screens made of glass.”

One of Johnson’s stories on the cold front is that of Clarence Birdseye. Birdseye had spent some winters in the “remote tundra of Labrador,” where he started a fur company. Out with Inuits, he observed that within seconds fish pulled out of a hole cut from thick ice over a lake froze solid. Frozen food was available in the early 1900s, but it didn’t taste good, because it wasn’t frozen at a low enough temperature. Birdseye took his idea for flash-freezing food and added to it an inspiration from another industry altogether — the assembly line of the nascent automobile business.

On the cusp of the market crash in 1929, Birdseye’s General Seafood company was acquired by Postum Cereal Co., which shortly changed its name to General Foods. You can still find Birdseye’s name in the freezer aisles of supermarkets today.

The ability to control and direct coldness has had enormous impacts not only on how and what we eat but on where we live and how we work. Johnson points out that the advent of air conditioning induced a mass migration to Florida, Texas and Southern California, shifting the demographic of the electoral college toward the Sunbelt.

Without air and humidity control, we wouldn’t be working in tall office buildings year-round in highly dense cities. Johnson covers the unfolding permutations of sound technologies as well, and points out that if we didn’t have telephones, office buildings wouldn’t work, either. To get someone a message on the 48th floor would take a lot more time and a lot more manpower than it does now to either pick up the phone or send an e-mail.

The reader of “How We Got to Now” cannot fail to be impressed by human ingenuity, including Johnson’s, in determining these often labyrinthine but staggeringly powerful developments of one thing to the next. One quibble is that Johnson calls the triggering of change upon change “coevolution,” which he renames “the hummingbird effect.” Coevolution is the development of traits in one organism in relationship with another organism, and that goes both ways, back and forth between the hummingbird’s long beak, for example, and the equally long spur of a flower it pollinates. But coevolution ties organisms more and more deeply together — its innovations are narrowing rather than expanding. He is really talking about another thing that nature does, which is riff on forms, retaining useful ones and mostly getting rid of those that no longer serve a purpose.

And a dark cloud hangs over the techno-exuberance on display in these pages and in our world. Johnson points out that millions of lives have been saved from death and disease by innovations he explains in his chapter on “Clean.”

“And yet today,” he writes, “there are more than three billion people around the world who lack access to clean drinking water and basic sanitation systems. In absolute numbers, we have gone backward as a species. (There were only a billion people alive in 1850.)” Hopefully, the abundant human creativity his book celebrates will find another way.

Mary Ellen Hannibal is the author of “The Spine of the Continent: The Race to Save America’s Last, Best Wilderness.” I wrote this for the San Francisco Chronicle Book Review E-mail:

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