Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Networked innovation

Many people saw PBS' various installments of Steven Johnson's How We Got to Now. Here is the book which is equally enjoyable. In fact, the book is crammed with great visuals and parallels to the TV presentation (though not in the same order). This may be a new thing: market a book and a TV series that are practically interchangeable; watch the popularity of the one prompt interest in the other.

Economists see a world of supply chains. I like supply chains of ideas; we get smart and we get ideas by interacting with each other.  Johnson likes to string inventions together ("networked innovation"). Gutenberg got people to read; many then discovered that their eyes were not so good; the people who had found how to work with glass also found a way to make lenses for seeing-eye glasses; it was not long before we got to microscopes and telescopes and all of the science these brought forth. Johnson evokes chains like these throughout the book.

Once clean water was possible via chlorination, there were public baths. Once we had these, women's bathing suits became skimpier. Historians of ideas are supposed to make connections and some of Johnson's will be challenged. But what fun. "Before the rise of municipal pools, women bathers generally dressed as though they were bundled up for a sleigh ride. By the mid-1920s, women began exposing their legs below the knee; one-piece suits with lower necklines emerged. Open-backed suits followed by two-piece outfits followed quickly in the 1930s. (p. 149). And we know the rest of the story.