Title: How We Got to Now
Author: Steven Johnson
Genre: Pop science
Rating: 1.5 / 5
This book gets a giant “mehhh” from me. White dudes writing pop “science”–why do I even bother? Haven’t I learned my lesson? Have I ever read a pop science book by a white guy that I actually liked? Dragons of Eden by Carl Sagan, probably, but I think I may have been a teenager when I read it so my feelings might be different now (having been around the book block a few times, I’ve noticed I have increasingly high standards for books). Looking back over my reading history, it’s only been a little over a year since I read my last pop science by a white guy, and it was a pretty good experience (3 out of 5 stars!) so maybe I was more willing to give this one a shot.
Steven Johnson avoids some of the pitfalls I’ve noticed in the genre, in that he doesn’t do things like go to Papua New Guinea to pretend-stab the indigenous children (yes, there is a popular science writer who actually did this!). But he falls right into another common trap of popular science: trying to tackle a topic that is too broad for a single short book. He wants to cover glass, he wants to cover electricity, he wants to cover telephones and GPS, he wants to cover the ice trade and air conditioners and whaling and germ theory and clocks and flash photography and cave acoustics and advertising and and and… He even throws “postmodernism” into the mix, although based on how he talked about it I’m not entirely sure he knows what it is. This book is 255 pages long, the lines are nicely spaced, and I would guess about a quarter of the pages are pictures. Maybe you can guess by now what the problem is? Although he briefly touched on these things and many more, he did not actually cover them in any meaningful way. Some of the paragraphs in here may have been great Facebook comments, but a book? Seriously? He was sharing some interesting information, but it was obviously anathema to him to linger on a single topic for even two pages. The result is a very frenetic and confused book that was frustrating to read. It doesn’t even rise to the level of fluff for me, because at least fluff is fun.
Another gripe I have is that he spends a lot of time in every chapter trying to make his case, returning to what you might call his central argument over and over again with each new thing he mentions. An example: “But the history of Blitzlicht reminds us that ideas always travel in networks. They come into being through networks of collaboration, and once unleashed on the world, they set into motion changes that are rarely confined to single disciplines. One century’s attempt to invent flash photography transformed the lives of millions of city dwellers in the next century.” It felt like there were dozens of iterations of this paragraph in the book, just drop out “flash photography” and add “ice cubes” or whatever. I get it, I get it, something changes and then other things change too. Brilliant. I think an essay would have been much more suited to his content and writing style than a book-length venture. Peter noticed this too; I read him a small piece of one chapter out loud. He started getting antsy part way through (which is very unusual for him) and was soon making the “wrap it up” hand gesture.
I should have abandoned it, but I was waiting for some interlibrary loans to show up and, in the midst of school starting, didn’t have a lot of oomph for initiating a search for new reading materials. The best part was some of the pictures he’s found, mostly gathered from Getty Images. It kinda seemed like he just had some interesting ephemera but instead of making a scrapbook for himself, he decided to try to weave it into something coherent for the rest of us, which didn’t work out so hot for me. I could see how this might be appealing to people who don’t have a lot of time or are maybe only tangentially interested in tech science and history (or the history of technology), who would be happy with quick paragraph-long profiles and simplistic explanations. I guess this book is a companion to a TV series I’d never heard of, so maybe it makes more sense as a tie-in, I’m not sure. I just couldn’t find anything substantial or satisfying in it.