Invention is not about smarts, but logic

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If you have ever wondered how in the world our forefathers thought to invent the technologies we so much rely on today such as fridges, cars, or even toilets - you’re asking the wrong question.

In his book ‘How we got to now: Six innovations that made the modern world’, Steven Johnson replaces this query with a different one: what might have existed before the invention of fridges that inspired the absurd idea of storing one’s food in a cold empty box?

Instead of looking at an invention as a sudden light bulb above a genius’s head, Johnson invites readers to understand innovation as a logical outcome in a chain of events.

He attempts to replace our obsession with the people behind a creation, think Thomas Edison or the Wright brothers, with the creation itself.

In this 2014 book, Johnson tackles six innovations: glass, cold, sound, clean, time and light. On each topic, he delves into the history, technologies, and maps a contextual framework of each innovation.  

Author Steven Johnson signs his other book 'Where good ideas come from' at ZINC's anniversary in Amman. December, 2015 (Image via Khaled Kamal)

The hummingbird effect

The backbone of the book rests on the concept of the ‘hummingbird effect,’ which explains how “innovations usually begin life with an attempt to solve a specific problem, but once they get into circulation, they end up triggering other [inventions]”.

One example is the Gutenberg’s press. When Gutenberg invented the printing press, he had no idea prints would eventually pave the way for another invention: spectacles. Spectacles would later inspire more experimentation on lenses, and eventually lead to the creation of the microscope.

Similarly, when Reginald Fessenden invented a hydrophone system to detect icebergs in the early 1900’s, he didn’t intend for his technology to reverberate into the creation of the ultrasound decades later.

Although the ‘hummingbird effect’ sounds very similar to the ‘butterfly effect’, Johnson highlights the distinction as follows: The latter “involves a virtually unknowable chain of causality; you can’t map the link between the air molecules bouncing around the butterfly and the storm system brewing in the Atlantic,” he writes.

Although they are connected in the larger sense, we cannot track the connections or extract patterns. Meanwhile, the ‘hummingbird effect’ produces change in direct and intelligible way that can be studied and analyzed to predict the ‘adjacent possible’.

Cover of 'How we got to now'. (image via Amazon)

The adjacent possible

The ‘adjacent possible’ refers to the possibility of predicting future inventions when given the “tools, metaphors, concepts and scientific understanding of our time”.

In other words, the information and scientific progress we have at this current stage can dictate what will be invented next. The scientific information we have now forms the building blocks of what we are capable of inventing next.  

“However smart you might be you can’t invent an ultrasound before the discovery of sound waves,” Johnson argues.

The inevitable invention

It is a misconception to think that an invention is unilateral, tied to only one creator, writes Johnson.

Due to the adjacent possibilities, most inventions come in clusters where many unrelated investigators could independently stumble onto the same discovery. This means that innovation is inevitable - if inventor X couldn’t create a certain tool, inventors Y, Z, or Q will.

In conclusion, Johnson’s argues that although inventors are highly admirable for implementing their ideas, they have a dormant role in the inevitable and evolutionary process of innovation.

To Johnson, an invention is a successor and a predecessor to a sequence of other inventions, not a solitary milestone caused by mere coincidence or a one man band.

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