The world is what it is today thanks to these six innovations | Innovation

Glass. Refrigeration. Recorded sound. Water treatment. Clocks Artificial light. Modern life is made possible by these monumental inventions and the many technologies they have generated.

At least that’s the argument Steven Johnson makes in his new book, How did we get to nowand a six-part PBS Serie premiered on October 15.

The prolific author follows the unpredictable course of human invention, showing how one great idea inadvertently leads to a multitude of others. The creation of clear glass by Murano glassmaker Angelo Barovier in the early 14th century, for example, led to the invention of glasses, the microscope, and the telescope, even fiber-optic cables from the Internet.

Thomas Edison invented the phonograph to send audio lyrics, and Alexander Graham Bell intended for people to use the telephone to listen to live orchestral music. What does this say about innovation and unintended consequences?

He says that part of the innovation process comes from the consumer side of the equation. You can invent the phone and put it in the world and say, “This would be great for you playing the cello at one end and someone else listening to you play the cello at the other,” but it goes out to the world and to the people. start using it. They say, “That would be a terrible way to use the phone. But it’s really cool to call my grandmother.” That is always the case with technology when it is released to the world. People end up pushing it in directions the inventors never dreamed of.

You mean the “possible adjacent”. What is this?

It is a term originally coined by Stuart Kauffman, a brilliant complexity theorist. Basically, when someone comes up with a new idea, technology, or platform of some kind, it causes a completely different set of new ideas to be imagined for the first time.

So, as smart as it may be, there is no way you could invent air conditioning in the 1650s. You just can’t do it. There are too many fundamental ideas about physics, industrial engineering, and electricity that are not yet understood. There is no way to achieve that breakthrough. But what happens throughout history is that when someone understands one thing and if someone else understands another, certain ideas, inventions, or technologies become thinkable. They become part of what Kauffman calls the “adjacent possible.”

If you think of it as a chess board, you play a game of chess and, in the middle of the game, you pause and look at the board. There is a finite set of moves that you can make at that point in the game according to the rules of chess and a much larger set of moves that you cannot make given the rules. The set of movements that you can perform are the adjacent ones possible at that moment.

It tells the story of the modern world through six innovations: glass, cold, sound, clean, time and light. How did you choose?

One of the goals of the book and the show is to celebrate a different kind of innovation than we usually do. There’s a lot of talk of innovation in our society, but it’s almost always focused on Silicon Valley and the new Apple Watch or some 25-year-old billionaire. The history of innovation is much bigger than that. It’s people like John Leal, John snow Y Ellis Chesbrough, who helped create the fact that we can now drink tap water and not worry about dying of cholera 48 hours later. They did not become famous. They did not get rich. But we are completely indebted to his work. I am really attracted to these people. They are the kind of heroes we should celebrate, just as much as the Mark Zuckerbergs and the Steve Jobs.

Most people are familiar with the “butterfly effect” of chaos theory – the premise that a butterfly flapping its wings in California could trigger a hurricane on the East Coast. But when it comes to innovation, he strongly believes in the “hummingbird effect.” What is this?

A new idea is invented by a person or a group of people trying to solve a specific type of defined problem. By solving that problem, they have set ideas about what their invention will be good for, but what they cannot see is that there will be all these strange and unexpected side effects that will flow from that innovation. The world transforms in all these truly amazing ways that would have been very difficult to predict beforehand. In almost all cases, the inventors had no idea that they were going to trigger these effects.

We see this phenomenon over and over again in history. I wanted to give it a name. I was writing the book at our house in California and we have all these hummingbirds in our garden. Here’s this funny thing that happened in evolution where flowers and insects developed this complicated pollination relationship. They have this long evolutionary dance together. But then this bird appears and develops this crazy strategy, which consists of diverting the muscular and skeletal structure of its wing so that it can behave like an insect and float next to the flowers and drink nectar. It is very similar in my mind. One would think that, in evolution, this would be just the relationship between a flower and an insect, but it ends up transforming the structure of this bird’s wings. I started calling it the “hummingbird effect”.

Gutenberg’s printing press is an example of an invention that had a number of unforeseen effects.

Once people started reading, and once the books were in circulation, the European population quickly realized that they had a vision of the future. Interestingly, this is a problem that hadn’t occurred to people before because they didn’t have the opportunity to look at little letter forms on a page, or anything else that required being able to use their vision at that microscale. Suddenly, there is an increase in demand for glasses. Europe is flooded with people who were playing with glasses and because of their experimentation they start saying, “Hey, wait. If we take these two lenses and put them together, we could make a telescope. And if we take these two lenses and put them together, we could make a microscope. “Almost immediately this extraordinary scientific revolution occurs in terms of understanding and identifying the cell and identifying the moons of Jupiter and all these different things that Galileo does. So Gutenberg’s press ended up having this very strange effect on science that it wasn’t about the content of the books that were being published.

The lightbulb has come to represent a “lone genius” theory of the invention, when in reality Edison was just one of many in a network of thinkers who helped make it a reality. Why is it important for people to know?

About William G.

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