The world is rich with academics with a good turn of phrase exploring the history of ideas and innovations, making the mundane endlessly fascinating.


Examples include our own Mark Miodownik who does materials science so well and Brian Cox pondering the magic of stardust.

Johnson’s 12 stories of time, radio, ice, glass et al, are fascinating and well told and even landed me a few QI points (for the elevation of Chicago for the installation of sewerage).

What rankles though is Johnson’s promotion of his convoluted theory of convolution which he calls – with a degree of marketing elan – the “hummingbird effect”. He wants, I sense, to land an populist term that sticks and thus achieve immortality.

The long-standing “butterfly effect” proposes that unforeseen consequences occur from the slightest of changes in initial condition (a butterfly flaps its wings in Bishop Stortford and triggers a storm over Brazil for example).

The hummingbird effect is a variation on the theme. If the nectar wasn’t so difficult to access, the hummingbird would never have evolved its marvellous physiognomy.

There already is some kind of take on this in the social sciences – the law of unintended consequences – but Johnson is keener on his own thesis.

So keen that he stretches credibility to make a point. He hoovers up the furthest flung advances to bring them back to source with the discrimination of a factory trawler sponsored by Dyson.

So, for example, the Gutenberg press helped us to understand our bodies at a cellular level. The logic being – the press made people read, so they wanted to see better, so they needed glasses, so lens technology improved, so the microscope was invented, so Robert Hooke studied life at a tiny level etc.

Material science

“You wouldn’t think that printing technology would have anything to do with the expansion of our vision down to the cellular scale, just as you wouldn’t have thought that the evolution of pollen would alter the design of a hummingbird’s wing. But that is the way change happens,” says the American.

Er, yes. Up to a point. But this is a classic case of hindsight bias, isn’t it? Looking at a procession of incidents backwards and formulating a narrative that suggests there was always a logical and inevitable progression. The “aw gosh” epiphanies begin to grate eventually – and this is a short book.

Surely, there has to be a statute of limitations on consequences. Otherwise next we’ll be suggesting that McDonald’s Sweet Chilli Crispy Chicken Wrap is the predictable result of primordial cellular mitosis (Come to think of it…)

Breathless TV documentary makers looking for drama are the worst exponents of this false jeopardy, suggesting everything that ever happened was – phew – a close-run thing. But, of course, if didn’t happen, it wouldn’t have happened and there wouldn’t be a TV documentary. But it did, so it did so there is.

If you want a neat summary of stuff that happened and the people who made it happen – like the eureka moment an entrepreneur came up with the dumb-but-smart idea of selling ice to the Caribbean – then this is a compact, friendly study. But be prepared to swat a few hummingbirds along the way.

How We Got To Now
Steven Johnson (Penguin)
★★★✩✩