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Science writer Steven Johnson talks about ‘How We Got to Now’

steven johnson

By Dennis Clemente

Steven Johnson, author of “How We Got To Now: Six Innovations That Made The Modern World,” likes to tell little-known success stories, sometimes or precisely because they are overshadowed by other bigger inventions or innovation and because people thought little of their connection with each other.

At the Huge UX meetup last September 30, for instance, the bestselling science writer cited the printing press as an example of how it was also connected to other inventions. When the printing press produced books, it also revealed human farsightedness that gave rise to lens-making for eyeglasses and later the telescope and microscope.

“People didn’t know they were farsighted until they read from a print that was too small to read. The discovery of the printing press created a demand for spectacles,” he said.

Johnson’s talk was about his book and his new PBS series this October about the history of technology and how gaining such historical perspective can certainly help us derive insights from it, especially in today’s startup world.

Johnson told one story after another from his latest book. Another interesting story was from an interesting man called Clarence Birdseye who got the idea for flash-freezing from ice-fishing. He discovered eating fish frozen after a days to be edible. Where most of us would just sleep after eating, he bothered to ask why the fish tasted good. He would follow little trails (in his mind), experimenting with other food, even vegetable, before coming up with an industrial product that made refrigeration possible.

“(Birdseye) was just curious (even if he had) no clearly defined path,” he said, as most of his examples confirmed. The other key points in Johnson’s talk included the following, paraphrasing here:

• We are in a complicated dance with innovation. We’re led by what technology is allowing us to do. It has flexibility
• When you are trying to get genuinely new ideas and pushing the envelope, you can have these crucial blind spots, because you are working at the edges of possibilities.
• Conscious of patent protection will only make you build walls within yourself
• Focus is not a big deal to him. You want to be a little distracted
• Invention overlaps with innovation but it’s almost the same thing
• When you are pushing the envelope, you get extraordinary insights.
• Don’t assume that technology has its own deterministic logic
• Ideas become imaginable at a certain point in time

Johnson is also the author of “Where Good Ideas Come From” and “Everything Bad is Good for You.” He is one of the foremost experts on the intersection between science, technology and personal experience. He recently gave a presentation at TED Talks.