How We Got to Now by Steven Johnson

A engrossing account of how glass, cold, sound, clean, time, and light have shaped our modern world.

How We Got to Now is both a book and a PBS mini-series about six innovations- glass, cold, sound, clean, time, and light- that have shaped the world that we live in today. Each of these innovations are so commonplace that we take them for granted and their innovators and inventors are often forgotten. But just as he did with The Ghost Map (see related article, The Ghost Map), author Steven Johnson reveals the human story behind the innovations, particularly the events and smaller innovations that had to come first, as well as the unexpected innovations that continue to occur afterward. For example, Frederick Tudor’s shipments of frozen lake ice from New England to the southern United States is connected to Clarence Birdseye flash freezing vegetables, which is connected to the technology we now use to freeze embryos. Steven Johnson debunks the conventional wisdom that innovation comes from isolated “a-ha moments” or exclusively from well-known solo innovators like Thomas Edison or Henry Ford. But instead, innovation occurs from a series of smaller innovations, often developed over time and often by multiple people unaware that others are working on similar breakthroughs.

Good Mythical Morning hosts Rhett and Link discuss the book How We Got to Now.

The book also provides the foundation for an engaging six-part miniseries where Steven Johnson and PBS travel the globe uncovering the stories behind these six key innovations.

View the trailer for the PBS mini-series How We Got to Now, now available on Blu Ray and DVD.

I was able to borrow both the book and the mini-series DVD from my local library. It’s thought-provoking material and I can’t wait to hear what Steven Johnson will say in his keynote at next week’s ASUG SAP Analytics and BusinessObjects User Conference (follow #SABOUC on social media). If you’re headed to the conference, it’s not too late the pick up the Kindle edition of How We Got to Now to read on the flight to the event.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I borrowed a copy of this book from a public library and did not receive it free from its publisher. Some of the links in the post above are “affiliate links.” This means if you click on the link and purchase the item, I will receive an affiliate commission. Regardless, I only recommend products or services I use personally and believe will add value to my readers.I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

The Ghost Map

This book is a must-read for all data visualization professionals, not just those in healthcare.

A few months ago, Andrew Fox demonstrated how to use SAP Lumira with geospatial mapping via its ESRI integration (see SAP Community Network article, Integrating SAP Lumira and ESRI mapping to deliver Location Intelligence). For his data set, Andrew used the map created in 1854 by physician John Snow in the midst of a cholera outbreak in London. I was able to learn more about the 1854 cholera outbreak by reading The Ghost Map by Steven Johnson (Penguin, ISBN 978-1594482694), who creates a gripping historical narrative. The Ghost Map itself was created by Dr. John Snow, a physician who was puzzled why some people contracted cholera and others did not.

The map is a brilliant work of information design and epidemiology, no doubt. But it is also an emblem of a certain kind of community— the densely intertwined lives of a metropolitan neighborhood— an emblem that, paradoxically, was made possible by a savage attack on that community.

Steven Johnson in The Ghost Map

Even though John Snow’s map clearly pointed to the Broad Street water pump, his analysis did not immediately gain traction. The prevailing understanding of disease in the mid-nineteenth century was the miasma theory, or literally “bad air”. It was thought that diseases such as cholera were carried by the foul smells. Psychologists refer to the inability to accept new facts that don’t agree with our assumptions as confirmation bias, something that humanity still combats today whether its a high-profile science issue like climate change or just the data in our monthly reports. But Dr. Snow finds an unlikely collaborator in the Reverend Henry Whitehead, who was originally skeptical of Dr, Snow’s research but won over based on his first-hand knowledge of the cholera victims in his parish.

It’s easy to look at 19th century scientific understanding with a critical eye from our perspective in the 21st century and our understanding of the germ theory of disease. I imagine there will be scientific discoveries made over the next 100 years that make our own present understanding of the physical world seem quaint to the citizens of the next century.

This book is a must-read for all data visualization professionals, not just those in healthcare.

UPDATE: SAP published the following 3-minute documentary about John Snow, How Data Turned a Doctor Into a Hero, on October 14, 2015.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I borrowed a copy of this book from a public library and did not receive it free from its publisher. Some of the links in the post above are “affiliate links.” This means if you click on the link and purchase the item, I will receive an affiliate commission. Regardless, I only recommend products or services I use personally and believe will add value to my readers.I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”