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A hummingbird feeds as the sun sets.
A hummingbird feeds as the sun sets.
(Helen H. Richardson/The Denver Post/Getty)

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Eureka moments are mostly fictional — here’s how innovation really happens

Steven Johnson sees the world as an endless web of connections.
The author is extremely adept at taking the most seemingly unrelated of phenomena —Turkish glassmakers and the Gutenberg press, Inuit fishermen and frozen peas, sperm whales and carbonized bamboo filament — and drawing unexpected, revealing links between them.

His latest book, How We Got to Now, is full of these and other connections. Subtitled Six Innovations That Made the Modern World, Johnson's book looks at how six everyday technologies we take for granted — glass, cold, sound, clean, time, light — helped get us to this point in history.

Johnson is also hosting a PBS miniseries based on those six innovations. I recently caught up with him to talk about his work and his unique way of presenting history. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.


Steven Johnson, a popular science writer with several bestsellers under his belt, has become well-known for his historical method of connection-making, which he calls the long-zoom approach to history. Though the approach has been an organizing principle of some of his other works, in How We Got to Now, it's on full display.

The histories Johnson sketches are lively and intriguing, and much of the book's narrative thrill comes from discovering how exactly history's slowest and greatest hunches played out. But the innovation histories Johnson outlines are more than clever — they're important.

They're important because of what they teach us about how innovation happens, as Johnson writes in his chapter on light:

... it's more than just a matter of getting the facts right, because there are social and political implications to these kinds of stories. … If we think that innovation comes from a lone genius inventing a new technology from scratch, that model naturally steers us toward certain policy decisions, like stronger patent protection. But if we think that innovation comes out of collaborative networks, then we want to support different policies and organizational forms ... [like] cross-disciplinary connections.

In other words, if our paradigm for innovation is the myth of Thomas Edison's lone invention of the lightbulb — a myth which Johnson debunks, or at least contextualizes, in his book — then we're going to continue to support educational aims and political programs that are premised upon that. We'll continue to reinforce the misguided notion that innovation happens best when one person pulls herself up by her own bootstraps, and, as a result, large swaths of our population — who are perhaps poised to be some of history's greatest innovators! — won't be able to take their ideas to the next level.

How the Libyan Desert led to the Renaissance

Consider, for example, the profound effect that the development of glass had on Western civilization, which Johnson meticulously outlines in his first chapter. Discovered in the Libyan Desert, the substance made its way to the Roman Empire, then to the Isle of Murano, and eventually throughout Western Europe, where it became something of a status symbol. Pretty soon, monks began using glass as makeshift magnifiers to help them study and transcribe religious texts. Glassmakers in Northern Italy had a similar idea, and manipulated tiny disks of glass into curvy lenses, creating roidi da ogli (discs for the eyes), history's first glasses.

Conrad von Soest, "Brillenapostel." (Wikipedia Commons)

At first, there wasn't much of a demand for glasses — most people at that time were farsighted, they just didn't know they were farsighted because, well, why would they? You weren't reading unless you were a monk. Enter Gutenberg's moveable type printing press in the early 1440s. All of a sudden, everyone was aware that they needed little discs made of glass to help them read. Gutenberg's invention, which made books more widely available by cutting their costs, helped create a demand for glasses.

But of course, the innovative streak didn't stop with glasses: microscopes and telescopes followed within the next two centuries, which allowed humans to study their bodies and galaxy with ease, which led to even more breakthroughs. The humanities, too, were fundamentally altered by the development of glass, which allowed artists to experiment with self-portraiture. The result of this newfound introspection, or self-gazing, writes Johnson, was a radical "reorientation of society" that led to property rights, Hamlet's soliloquies, and the modern novel, which takes as its starting point the experience of the individual.

Granted, says Johnson, we're not used to interpreting history in this kind of expansive, interdisciplinary way. "We tend to think," says Johnson, "if you want to think about bacteria, you have to think like a microbiologist. You want to think about the history of London? You have to think like a historian or an urban theorist." But if we do history in this limited way, then we risk leaving out important pieces of the historical puzzle.The point of all of this, argues Johnson, is that the Renaissance as we know it was inextricably bound up with the development of glass, in ways that we often tend to overlook.

The butterfly effect vs. the hummingbird effect

To help his readers understand what he's getting at, Johnson contrasts two interpretive models in his introduction — the butterfly effect and the hummingbird effect. We've all heard of the first: a butterfly flaps its wings somewhere in China, which triggers a chain of events which ultimately leads to a sandstorm in the Sahara. The problem with this model, Johnson tells me, is that it's "almost impossible to map" because the sequence relies on an "unknowable chain of causation" to make the case.

What Johnson is proposing, on the other hand, is the hummingbird effect: just as hummingbirds evolved an entirely novel way of flying so they could get at the nectar produced by flowers, innovations often arise in completely unexpected ways, in response to seemingly unrelated circumstances.

As Johnson documents in his book, many of the greatest hummingbird effects were slow to take off, occurring incrementally, sometimes imperceptibly. In fact, he says, most of history's greatest inventions didn't come about in a flash of light — the veritable Eureka! moment — but were rather the result of years' worth of innovations happening across vast networks of creative minds.

Johnson calls this the "slow hunch" — his theory that many ideas have a long incubation period, during which time they lie dormant, lurking just below the surface of full realization. Here's Johnson talking about the slow hunch in a TED talk.

Johnson's thesis certainly does offer a new way to think about creativity, one that calls bluff on the idea that innovation is best encouraged when we let geniuses stew on the world's problems locked away in a room somewhere, alone. But if we educate ourselves about the multidimensional, layered histories of innovation, the kinds of stories Johnson is telling, then maybe we'll begin to place new emphasis on the importance of each other, and we'll support policies and solutions premised on the idea that human connectivity is what will get us to the future.

It is, after all, what got us to where we are now.

Brandon Ambrosino: Your long-zoom way of reading history isn't unique to How We Got to Now, right?

Steven Johnson: I think it's been there all along. But I think the first time I was doing it, I didn't have the phrase for it. In my second book Emergence — which is subtitled The Connected Lives of Ants, Brains, Cities, and Software — I was trying to write across these different scales. But I didn't use that phrase. I just kind of had it as an organizing principle. But by The Invention of Air, I was definitely thinking of it as a method. Now it's just become my shtick.

Brandon Ambrosino: The long-zoom reading of history is very interdisciplinary, but that kind of cross-disciplinary work is sometimes frowned upon in academic departments.

Steven Johnson: It's one of my big pet causes, and I'm trying to spread the word because it is so important. You just see the world in a more creative and more accurate light when you approach from multiple angles. It's the multidisciplinary collaboration that so often is what leads to inventive solutions to problems.

Sometimes, we tend to think if you want to think about bacteria, you have to think like a microbiologist. You want to think about the history of London, you have to think like a historian or an urban theorist. Want to think about the planets? Then think like an ecosystems person. But the fact of the matter is, when we talk about history, we're trying to figure out, as in How We Got To Now, what happened, and why did society proceed the way it did. So we have to work on all those scales.

The tendency in traditional history, and popular history —like most of the history you see on TV most time — is to center in on the lives of individual people and leaders, or sometimes social movements. But you can't tell the history of the last 1,000 years without talking about, say, the very interesting physical properties of silicon dioxide, and glass in general. The technology of making transparent glass to make lenses is absolutely essential to the last 1,000 years. If you somehow took glass out of it, everything would be different. But that's just not the way we tell stories — and it's too bad.

Brandon Ambrosino: You classify the stories you tell in How We Got to Now as various hummingbird effects. How are those different than butterfly effects?

Steven Johnson: The butterfly effect is, basically, an almost unknowable chain of causation: a butterfly flaps its wings somewhere in Texas, and sets in motion a series of air molecules which trigger other molecules, and eventually, through 10 million other variables, a hurricane develops off the coast of Africa. That's the argument of chaos theory: very small inputs lead to disproportionate outputs. But what is actually happening there is almost impossible to map. It does happen there on some level, but it's hard to figure out exactly what it is.

yellow pink hummingbird

Juvenile male ruby-throated hummingbird. (Chris Smith/flickr)

What the hummingbird effect is trying to say is that actually, you don't have to do that many leaps. It's not even Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon, right? It's almost always two or three degrees. So, home air-conditioning gets invented, and because of air-conditioning everybody moves to the Sunbelt, and that changes the electoral college in ways that work for Ronald Reagan. You know, it's three steps, not 1,000 steps.

Brandon Ambrosino:And you show that these hummingbird effects are happening more often than we realize.

Steven Johnson: The point is that this is always happening as new ideas get into circulation, particularly new technology. They're invented to solve a very specific problem, but in solving that problem they sometimes create new problems the inventors didn't think of. Or they enable other forms of behavior that were not part of the original goal. And those things happen in a pretty directed way. You can go back and look at them, and say, these things are clearly related to each other.

The narrative thrill of the book, and the show in large part, comes from the surprising, unintended consequences of the hummingbird effect. In a detective story, the thrill comes from, "Oh, I thought it was going to be that guy who murders someone, but it was really that guy." In my book, the playfulness of it is, "Oh, I never thought how Gutenberg's invention would make people need reading glasses, which would lead to lens-making, which would lead to the telescope. That's a chain of connections I never thought about!"

Hooke microscope

Robert Hooke's microscope. From Scheme I. of his 1665 "Micrographia." (Wikimedia Commons)

I think of it as being a particularly fun way to do history partly because it's connected to now. Next time I sit down and have glass of clean drinking water, I'm going to think about the 200 years of sewers and chlorination and all the things that happened to make this possible. So you're not just reading about kings and queens who died 400 years ago, who have no discernible relation to your life. You're reading about the history of objects that still populate world.

Brandon Ambrosino: How did you settle on these particular innovations?

Steven Johnson: One innovation we knew from the beginning we wanted to do was cold. I wrote about Willis Carrier in Where Good Ideas Come From, and Jane Root, the executive producer, came up with the Frederick Tudor story, which we knew would be terrific. We knew there was a great arc there from Tudor to Reagan and air condition, so that was kind of the template for what wanted to do.

Overall, the objective was to have stories that involved everyday, ordinary things we don't think of as high tech — we deliberately chose not to have a chapter on smartphones. They also had to have internal, mini-narratives, with crazy people, and lots of hummingbird effects. It was a process of six months, where we looked at about ten to fifteen potential topics. We looked at the history of currency, skyscrapers, a bunch of different things. Eventually we settled on these six, but there's a lot more to do. We could keep it going for a while.

Brandon Ambrosino: So which came first, the book or the miniseries?

Steven Johnson: This was collaborative from go. I'd been preaching about the importance of collaborative networks in all my books, but I'd written them all on my own, alone, in study mode. Finally with this project, it was really nice to work in collaborative networks. I finally got to practice what I preach!

We knew from the beginning I was going to write a book, but the first thing we worked on was the show. We started about two and half years ago. We had an initial script, but everything else after that was back and forth. For instance, on TV, we tell the John Snow story — it was something I'd already written, and we adapted it for the show. Once we got going, I wrote the book while we were working on the scripts and shooting. It was great because we'd shoot for ten hours, then I'd go back to the hotel and work on a chapter. And sometimes I'd get to set, and I'd be, "Oh, guys, I wrote whole new riff we should do in this scene." One time I kind of improvised a line at the end of the clean segment while I was shooting, and I was like, hey, that's really good, put that in the book! I went back and transcribed what I spontaneously said on camera.

But the series and book are also quite different. There's a lot of present tense stuff in the series. Like, I go skiing in Dubai, and other stuff that obviously wouldn't have made much sense in the book. The book let me go into much more detail about the framework, the theory of change —it's much more explicitly spelled out. We don't use the phrase hummingbird effect at all in the show. It seemed like it would be confusing to a TV audience.

Brandon Ambrosino: The long-zoom approach isn't just helpful for interpreting the past, though, right? It sounds like it would help us read contemporary situations as well, right?

Steven Johnson: Absolutely. I've been thinking a lot about Ebola. A couple people, because of Ghost Map, have been asking me if have thoughts about it. My thought is: Ebola is really bad. But part of what I'm thinking about is, to really put it in perspective.

You have this disease that's spreading, you have the tiny microorganisms trying to reproduce. And our human scale systems in a complicated dance with those microorganisms. But our media systems are part of this process as well. In Ghost Map, for instance, everyone is dying in the middle of London from this cholera outbreak in SoHo, the people inside the outbreak in SoHo thought this terrible outbreak must be happening on the scale of the whole city. They probably thought that London itself was under siege, and that everyone was dying in that city. It was really contained to a ten block by ten block area, but they had no way of knowing that. By the same token, the rest of the city didn't hear about it until later — it took the rest of the city at least ten days to even a hear a word of it.

Compare that to one newly emerged case of Ebola in the entire US, and 50 percent of American citizens have heard about this guy. That a huge number of people heard about this one case is a sign of progress on one level — we're able to identify things, and get the word out, and get a whole infrastructure in place to think about detecting the threat. But this also means people are way more panicked because, thanks to the media, they hear about that one case in ways that no one heard about it 50 years ago, and certainly not 150 years ago.

In a weird way, the fact that we know about one Ebola case is a sign of the progress we've made, but it's also the trigger of a lot of anxiety. So think about that in the context of the technology and communication systems that surround this battle between microorganisms and one human body. Anyway, that's one way of looking at it.


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