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New book and TV series, ‘How We Got to Now’

784x2048We all know how important the printing press has been to human history. Invented in the 1400s, it allowed the mass production of books, newspapers and magazines. That fueled rapid increases in literacy and spawned new industries such as publishing. It also laid the foundation for colossal changes in how citizens expected to be governed, leading to more open and democratic societies.

But did you know that the printing press also ignited a revolution in glassmaking? Europeans wanted eyeglasses to help them read all the material that printing presses were producing. When there was little to read, few cared about the farsightedness that hits us in middle age. Eyeglasses were hard to find and expensive. But because of the printing press, an entire industry of lens crafters was born.

Soon these artisans discovered that spectacles were just one kind of lens. By 1590 they had figured out a way to use lenses called microscopes to see the tiniest of things and, a generation later, lenses called telescopes to see big things that were very far away. Telescopes helped change our understanding of how humans and the Earth evolved. Microscopes helped drive quantum leaps in medicine. Eventually, new kinds of lenses changed the definition of media, too — to include photography, movies and television.

“How We Got to Now,” Steven Johnson’s new book about “six innovations that made the modern world,” is filled with weird and amusing examples like this. His point is simple, important and well-timed: During periods of rapid innovation, there is always tumult as citizens try to make sense of it. But listen to forecasters skeptically, Johnson suggests. Big innovations create so many important and unpredictable offshoots that even the smartest seers end up being terrible at predicting how the future will evolve/

Click here to read more from this October 3, 2014 Washington Post book review by Fred Vogelstein.

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