FSG Blog
December 24, 2014

How We Might Not Have Gotten to Now

Steven Johnson’s How We Got to Now: Six Innovations That Made the Modern World (incidentally, a great read and holiday stocking stuffer) may inadvertently point to something essential to innovation that is missing from our current society.

Johnson’s book outlines six innovations – “Glass,” “Cold,” “Sound,” “Clean,” “Time,” and “Light,” that undergird our entire way of life.

“Cold” is interesting for at least two reasons. First, because, as he notes, the ice trade, predecessor to artificial refrigeration, was a possibly unique case of the export of a product from a geographic area of low energy (in this case New England) to an area of higher energy (the American South, the tropics). Second, as he does not note, it may be the only one of the six innovations that occurred almost entirely without some sort of broader societal consensus or government assistance (leaving aside the patent system for the moment). 

The other five all depended to one extent or another on the approval, assistance, prodding, funding, or mass agreement of a broader society, usually some governmental entity, to reach its full potential.

  • Glass did not reach its potential until the glassmakers of Byzantine Constantinople who fled the Western Catholic sacking of the city in 1204 were allowed to emigrate to Venice, where they promptly started burning down much of the then largely wooden city. The government of Venice therefore exiled the glassmakers to the adjacent island of Murano, where, crammed cheek by jowl, they formed a competitive-cooperative fraternity, driving innovation and producing the first product we would recognize today as glass.
  • Sound critically depended for its development on a Murano-like U.S. government decree that in return for granting AT&T a national monopoly, the company had to license all the results of its research to anyone who would pay a reasonable fee. Among these innovations were vacuum tube-based radio, signal and voice amplification, and later on the transistor and digital telephony that resulted in computers and cell phones. In a very real sense the Internet and the iPhone are partly the result of government dictating that communications innovation be shared. 
  • Clean – specifically modern sewerage and water-purification systems that eliminated cholera and the like – required a more direct and obvious societal and/or governmental involvement in order to achieve its maximum potential. Ellis Chesbrough, the Chicago sewer authority in the 1850s, obtained city government permission to jack a large portion of the city’s buildings up by 10 feet or more in order to allow sewers in the city to take advantage of gravity. Later, John Leal, the Jersey City water authority, went ahead and chlorinated the city water supply without permission, then went on trial for having done so. His unflinching, unapologetic performance in the witness stand showed both how individual courage can overcome bureaucratic governmental pigheadedness, AND how subsequent governmental embrace of a new idea can propel it to its full potential (after the trial, chlorination swept the country as its benefits in eliminating cholera became evident). 
  • Light also required municipal help, and was far from the epitome of lone invention that it is portrayed as being. Thomas Edison’s invention of the light bulb, as Johnson states, was the result more of his ability to learn from previous innovators and to assemble teams of superb individuals than it was the result of his own (undoubted) technical genius. But it was his vision of the use of the incandescent light bulb (something that had been invented, less successfully, a number of times before Edison), and the infrastructure required to make that universal use possible, that allowed him to stand apart. (We at FSG often begin our scenario planning training with the statement that forecasts of the future often get single isolated things right – such as the flying machine, in the late 1800s – without also imagining the infrastructure and systems that must be put into place to make that isolated innovation effective.) In the end, it was Edison’s demonstration project – lighting up the entire Pearl Street District in lower Manhattan, with the go-ahead of city fathers – that demonstrated the efficacy of electrical lighting, and allowed a universal societal embrace of the new technology – which in turn required massive new government intervention to achieve reality in cities, towns, and hamlets across the entire country.
  • Time – specifically accurate timekeeping – also required a societal consensus and acceptance in order to achieve its full transformative potential. Before 1883, each meridian of longitude in the United States (indeed, in the whole world) had its own potentially unique time – noon was whenever the sun achieved its highest point in whatever place you happened to be, and watches and clocks were set to that time. This of course caused disarray, especially when railroads began to run east and west and people needed to know when the trains were going to arrive and leave. Eventually, a railroad engineer named William F. Allen proposed a system of four standard times for the United States. In this he was up against sentiments such as those expressed by a Cincinnati newspaper, which according to Johnson railed, “It is simply preposterous. …Let the people of Cincinnati stick to the truth as it is written by the sun, moon and stars.” Despite this resistance, Allen barnstormed the country for a year and persuaded observatories and city councils to move to his four-time-zone plan, which remains in place, essentially, today. And as a result, similar systems were adopted worldwide, starting with the debut of Greenwich Mean Time in the U.K. the following year.

My point here is not to say that government is the source of all wisdom and innovation, or that collectivism is the way to go. It is that some form of governmental assistance and/or societal agreement has historically usually been necessary for innovations to produce their full positive impact for society (as well as the highest profit to the private sector).

Let’s contrast the nationwide rapid-fire acceptance of chlorination of water after 1908, and the federal government’s demand that Bell Labs yield up the fruits of its research to all comers, and the ability of one man to persuade an entire world to change its watches and clocks, and Chesbrough’s cranking of an entire city up by ten feet, to some trends we see today:

  • Widespread distrust of big government and denial that any sort of regulation or collective or cooperative measures are legitimate – on both ends of the political spectrum, in different flavors
  • Large-scale infrastructure, dating in some cases from the 1800s, from Chicago and Jersey City’s water pipes to roads, rail, and electrical grids, falling apart for lack of upkeep
  • The rise of “artisanal” everything – locally grown or craft-made foods, home-made beer, single-craftsperson furniture, non-pasteurized milk, etc.
  • A larger number of people living “off the grid,” with well water and septic as opposed to sewers and city water, and solar panels or the like for energy
  • The gigantic boom in bottled water, despite the evidence that it is no more (and sometimes dramatically less) healthful than municipal sources of water
  • Distrust of governmental and academic authorities on scientific matters (e.g. climate change, drug safety)
  • Parental rebellion against inoculation of children
  • “Preppers” with “go bags” in the trunks of their cars, seemingly looking forward to the collapse of society, either from political stasis, disease, or the zombie apocalypse
  • A seeming acquiescence to the notion that the highest possible aim of science and technology is the creation of the next hand-held device, video game or flat screen television (Peter Thiel: “They promised us flying cars, and we got 140 characters”)

Again, government is not THE answer here. 

But you can’t tell the story of “How We Got to Now” without it, any more than you can tell it without reference to individual genius and entrepreneurship.

The question now is, given recent trends, how do we get to “Then?” 

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