How We Got To Now

For the past two years, NYC’s loss has been the Bay Area’s gain. No I’m not talking about hot startups, VC, or anything like that. I’m talking about Steven Johnson‘s two year departure for the beauty of Marin County over the grimy streets of NYC. But this summer Steven and his family came back to NYC, reminding me that the world is just and fair if you wait long enough.

I liked Steven the minute I met him. He has a wonderful smile and a gracious being, he is whip smart, and he writes beautifully and simply. He tells stories that educate. I have read pretty much everything he’s written and whenever something new comes out, it is an instant buy.

Yesterday was “pub day” for his most recent book, How We Got To Now. It’s the story of six technological revolutions that set up the world for what it is now. Those would be glass, cold, clean, sound, light, and time. The book has a companion TV series on PBS of the same name. The first of the six episodes airs on Oct 15th at 9pm

And to make things even better, I got to spend part of “pub day” with Steven yesterday. We did an event at WNYC’s Greene Space (a great venue in west soho) yesterday morning.

I believe the event was recorded and will be online at some point. If and when that happens, it will be a video of the week post.

We talked about a bunch of things, but the most interesting thing is how all of these innovations are related to each other. Steven told a story about the printing press and how when books started making their rounds, people realized that they needed reading glasses, which spurred a spike in demand for lens makers, which in turn led to microscopes and telescopes, which led to all sorts of biological and astronomical discoveries. That’s the kind of connections Steven makes in his stories. I love them.

I have the book and I am going to watch the series. If you love history, technology, and great story telling, I strongly encourage you to do both of these things as well.

#Books#VC & Technology

Comments (Archived):

  1. kirklove


    1. fredwilson

      me too

  2. Mac

    He reminds me of James Burke. His PBS ‘Connections’ series and accompanying book were fascinating. Interesting how little known events and inventions brought us to where we are today.

    1. vruz

      Right! Burke was the host,Thanks for unearthing this memory.

      1. Mac

        You’re welcome. I’d like to see it brought back.

    2. Kirsten Lambertsen

      That’s the one I grew up on 🙂 Thought of it immediately reading this post.

      1. vruz

        Lucky girl! 🙂

      2. Mac

        Burke was great at explaining how we are still connected to the past. Everyone interested in Steven’s work should see this.

  3. Twain Twain

    Well, that’s another book added to my “Must Read” list!There are 3 so far:(1.) Walter Isaacson’s “The Innovators: How a Group of Hackers, Geniuses, and Geeks Created the Digital Revolution” which will be released 7 October:*…(2.) Peter Thiel’s “From Zero to One”:*…I liked the original blurb about how startup founders should not be asking, “What would Mark Zuckerberg do?” Instead we should be asking, “What valuable company is no one building yet?”Amazon blurb for Thiel’s book: “Doing what someone else already knows how to do takes the world from 1 to n, adding more of something familiar. But when you do something new, you go from 0 to 1. The next Bill Gates will not build an operating system. The next Larry Page or Sergey Brin won’t make a search engine. Tomorrow’s champions will not win by competing ruthlessly in today’s marketplace. They will escape competition altogether, because their businesses will be unique.”I completely get Thiel’s “0 to 1” principle because I watched Elon Musk talk about innovation by first principles and this is very much the practice of mathematicians. We construct hypothesis from Base 0 and then make systems to prove those hypotheses.(3.) Eric Schmidt and Jonathan Rosenberg “How Google Works”:* http://www.technologyreview

  4. Guest

    Welcome home (to both of you). Was kicking around some Johnsonian connections myself earlier this morning. The end point is where the Twilio’s, the Kiks, the Converser’s live.

  5. Barry Nolan

    Was kicking around some Johnsonian connections earlier this morning. The end point is where the Twilio’s, the Kiks, the Converser’s live.BTW: Disqus v grumpy this morning

    1. fredwilson

      me too. been saying no nonstop for two hours. i hate doing that.

    2. JimHirshfield

      Grumpy how?

      1. fredwilson

        A frame of mind. Which i try to hide in my communications. In suspect it bleeds out though

        1. JimHirshfield

          Oh, sounds like you’re grumpy from inbox overflow.Barry said that Disqus was grumpy, which is possibly a tech issue.

          1. fredwilson

            No I am grumpy from having to type ‘I’m not interested in investing in your business’ 40 times before 7am

          2. JimHirshfield

            Ah, I see! Have you embraced gMail’s “canned responses”?

          3. kidmercury

            help a brother out somebody make an app for the man!

          4. JimHirshfield

            It’s like the Yo app, but it’s called the No app.

          5. Dave W Baldwin

            Do a random no app and then see over time good vs bad investment choices achieved

          6. JimHirshfield

            Ha! I fear that would be a losing proposition since there are probably 1000s of incoming funding requests and only about 10 to 20 can get funding per year. The numbers would be against you.

          7. Twain Twain

            Fred needs a variation on the Wordsmith robot that can write stock reports:*…One day there’ll be an AI smart enough to read pitch decks, differentiate between which teams and growth projections are worth Fred allocating human time to looking into more deeply, sorting and prioritizing the pitch decks that survive by Fred’s personal criteria and sending a canned response to all the others (“Thanks, your startup is not a fit for USV’s investment strategy. Good luck with it!”).That would be a cool AI to invent.

          8. awaldstein

            gotta wonder sometimes why the money is not chasing the talent not the talent chasing the money.

          9. kidmercury

            hahahaha i love it!maybe fred needs a swipe app like tinder or something. swipe left, entrepreneur gets a video of fred laughing at them while throwing benjamins up in the air, telling them they are rejected and their sorry ass will never succeed. swipe right, and they quietly get put into a save folder.

          10. JimHirshfield

            Love it! Build it!

          11. awaldstein

            wait–people email you cold for attention? that’s a bit crazy.I just about never send a cold email. It’s invariably lazy when I do.

          12. kidmercury

            is that something you think you could crowdsource (either to a pre-approved sample group or to the world at large) in any capacity, or do you feel you really need to give each one your individual attention?

      2. Barry Nolan

        Hey JimUploading pics fail and then wouldn’t delete a posted comment. Former as likely to be a network error.Tx for reaching out

        1. JimHirshfield

          There’s always latency when uploading images. So, the comment text (and depending upon how you added an image to the comment) the image URL appear before the image itself.

          1. Barry Nolan

            Actually red >2mb warning modals. Pic was 60kbs.

          2. fredwilson

            Its way too long though. It used to be immediate. Now its not. When someone posts something to the internet the expectation is that it posts immediately. Any time you don’t meet that expectation, you have failed them. I realize its not your job to manage product Jim but I have to be honest about this. Its broken and has been for a while

          3. JimHirshfield

            Looping in Product Support for a diagnostic.

          4. kirklove

            I give our beta to Lili and Bean. If they have to wait more than a second for anything they say, “It’s broke”. That’s just the reality now. Tough bar to hit, but has to be hit or you’re toast. #SpeedKillsRelated:

          5. fredwilson

            genius. using pre-school kids to beta test. the purest opinions. no holding back. “dad, this sucks!”

          6. Kirsten Lambertsen

            Id testing 🙂

          7. LE

            It’s actually more than pure opinion. It’s limited brain power as well.Most products should always be designed for the “puny brain”.[1] This is easy for anyone to do you just have to find some normals out in the wild and let them give it a whirl.Separately and along the lines of “dad this sucks” is that I’ve found over the years that most people aren’t interested in any criticism. This just happened over the weekend at a plumbing fixture store that we went to. The store is around the side from a tile store that literally is owned by the same company and shares the showroom. So we go there and the tile store is closed and we’re ready to go back home and I say “hmm I wonder if the door is around the corner”. Sure enough it was. So the owner was there and I told him “you need a sign on the other door clearly saying where you are because we almost didn’t come to this door and went home”. And he says “oh I don’t think it’s a problem nobody has said that and most people find us”. Sure, except for the people that go home that you never hear from. (This is a typical response I’ve found by the way, denial that there is an issue.)[1] Back in the day (as I’ve mentioned dozens of times) I would run marketing pieces by the stupidest person in the office. I would say “what do you think” I would hand it to them and then seconds later grab it and say “what is the message” or something like that. If they didn’t get it right away I considered the design and wording a failure.

          8. Kirsten Lambertsen

            OMG, I’m so guilty of ALL of this. LOL.

          9. kirklove

            me too 😉

          10. LE

            I realize its not your job to manage product Jim but I have to be honest about this. Its broken and has been for a whileI don’t think that Jim knows enough to know that whatever they are feeding him as far as why this is happening doesn’t stick. This isn’t a matter of getting a bigger boat.Two possibilities:a) There is a fundamental architectural problem in the way the system has changed and now operates apparently. That’s tough to fix.b) They are clueless as to your point: “someone posts something to the internet the expectation is that it posts immediately. Any time you don’t meet that expectation, you have failed them.””a” is fixable “b” is not.As someone who posts here quite a bit this really annoys me. I had a point to make this am and even shot some pictures in Starbucks to illustrate the point but it definitely killed my buzz when I thought I would not get immediate gratification from posting the picture and the fact that people would read what I said but wouldn’t have the visual feedback.

          11. Barry Nolan

            It’s software. So everything is fixable

    3. obscurelyfamous

      Digging into this. The image piece is not working well

  6. jason wright

    from the outside looking in is so different from the inside looking out, don’t you think?

  7. jb

    Just bought book on Audible

    1. Rohan

      Ha. Same here. 🙂

  8. vruz

    UPDATED: See update at the bottomThis reminds me of a series I saw as a kid. I think it was narrated by Isaac Asimov, explaining the relations of various inventions and how innovations cascaded on top of one another, often by mere accident.For example, I remember a part of one episode where he (presumably Asimov) tells the story of why the Apollo rockets were the size they were (the series must have been aired sometime in the 1970s).Rockets are the size they are because they have to be transported by cargo or train from labs to their launchpad. This means that they travel in horizontal position and they have pass through tunnels, and below the arcades of old bridges.And why is the size of the room below bridges that size? Because of the width of the roads and train tracks. And why is the width of the old roads that size? Because of the width of carts, pulled by animals. Which goes back to the ancient Roman Twelve Table rules, which standarised the width of roads all over the Roman empire (8 ft) so that any cart could travel to any other point of the empire unimpeded.…Of course, there was a whole lot more, from dynamite to molten lead, to the glass spaceship windows are made of.Every innovation is linked to a number of other primitive ones, many times in unexpected ways.—==== UPDATE: ====—Fellow user Mac retrieved this from the memory banks of our collective minds…The host wasn’t Asimov, it was James Burke, and the TV series was “Connections”, originally produced in the UK and aired in the US by PBS.”Created, written and presented by science historian James Burke”…Asimov wrote a different, unrelated series. I was very little at the time, memory plays funny tricks on you!

    1. fredwilson

      We need more of this kind of programming

      1. JimHirshfield

        Better discovery of the programming.

      2. Steve Lincoln

        And more writers like Stephen Jay Gould and Lewis Thomas (sadly both gone). They got me interested in studying science.

      3. SubstrateUndertow

        If only everything could be available as a global/universally searchable/accessible video jukebox !Oh wait. . . . wait. . . . wait. . . waiting. . . for Gadot

    2. Ana Milicevic

      If you happen to remember what it is, please post it. I’m still looking for a wildlife series I watched as a kid — it was translated as ‘Survival’ (very appropriate) and I could never quite peg what it was originally.

      1. vruz

        Fellow user Mac retrieved this from the memory banks of our collective minds…The host wasn’t Asimov, it was James Burke.…Asimov wrote a different, unrelated series. I was very little at the time, memory plays funny tricks on you.

    3. Kirsten Lambertsen

      Wasn’t that “Connections” hosted by James Burke? That’s what I thought of immediately when I read this post. There was also “Connections 2.” Really good stuff. Done with enough wit to get my interest as a little kid.

      1. vruz

        It was James Burke, see the update above, I was typing just as people were commenting :-)Cheers.

      2. SubstrateUndertow

        I seem to remember at some point he put out a teaser implying that his next series would explore the unifying fabric of history as pure information patterns.I was looking forward to that but it never seemed to materialize or did I some how miss it ?

        1. vruz

          I haven’t heard about this project, if you find out more please let us know!

          1. SubstrateUndertow

            I just kind of assumed that he gave up on that idea because it is a linguistic/meme chicken or egg problem to effectively frame such abstractions for mass consumption ?

          2. vruz

            I don’t know. It’s possible that such abstractions can be made accessible through limited metaphors within a narrow scope.Part of the key to a successful project of that nature lies in finding a sort of Rosetta Stone of concepts that can be borrowed from unrelated disciplines.Say for example, explaining the chain of events that lead to the genius of the painter Peter Paul Rubens doing intelligence and diplomatic work in the courts of France, Spain and England, how that changed history, and what role his painting played in it. (spoiler: a lot)Nodal bridges.I can’t know why Burke felt unhappy about it, but “can’t be done” must probably not be it.

          3. SubstrateUndertow

            I’m sure it can be done !I’ve been thinking on that since 1979 when I first readGödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid by Douglas R. Hofstadterand remixed it with the much more tediously concrete complementary work of James G. Miller’s Living Systemsboth book, to my way of thinking, were and effort to articulate, the magic, the abstract reusable organizing-dynamics common to all complex, self-organizing, adaptive/living systems. I meant that Burke may have felt that the visceral-social-meme ground-work was not yet in place to effectively accommodate the conveyance of such abstracted information-dynamic reusables into a widely shareable set of new mass-culture narratives, metaphors and lexicons.With our immersion into a mobile network-culture and its central platform theme of abstracted discarnate-relationship assemblage that mass-culture ground work is much further along, much more visceral to us all now.Still translating our new viscerally-shared mass-culture of reusable social-organizing-dynamics from an array of enjoyable, hidden-ground, social-networking experiential instances into a shared reusable set of formally abstracted mass-culture perceptual building blocks for framing/collaborating around this new world of information dynamics is a daunting challenge.To my way of being a nut case fanatic, this is job 1 !Not meeting that challenge is like showing up to a organic gun fight with a linear knife.The very essence of social evolution is now transitioning into self-refferencial cognitive feedback loops and echoes of organic social interdependency. Without developing a toolset for collective “Organic Process Literacy” we will likely be consumed by the volatility of our own organically accelerating social tools.Sorry for going all nut-case fanatic on you here :-0I’ll finish by reposting a rant I posted here a year or two ago. – – – – – – – WHY – – – – – – -Organic Process Literacythe meta-substrate of all historyhistory’s universal organizing principle is”the network organizing principle”orchestrated webs of Synchronicitythis is the organizing dynamic that is nowmorphing society into organic convergencethis is the meta-substrate undertow-gradientthis is the coalescing teleological black-holethis is the ultimate life-creating strange-attractorthis is the magic that animates the emergent singularityexperienced as biological consciousness cognition volition egothis is the essencethis is the ghost in our machine”out of chaos comes order”complexity is inherently self-selectingcomplexity is inherently self-organizationcomplexity animates the strange-attractor that drives the life-forcethe strange-attractor that breath life into an inanimate universethe strange-attractor that animates all living systemsthat strange-attractor rides in on the coattails of complexityand complexity’s magicrides in on the coattails of “the network organizing principle”orchestrated webs of Process Synchronizing Interplaythis is our Zeitgeistthis is the spirit of OUR timeswhere is our global organic-networking metaphorwhere is the organic-networking lexicon for the rest of usto lubricate our perceptual / conceptual paradigm shiftfromorganic-network-dynamics as hidden groundtoorganic-network-dynamics as foreground figurein our collective mind’s eyeto get us all on the same pagewith nature’s / god’s magic ingredientthe substrate – the network – the platformendlessly recombinant extensibilityfuelling up the warp drive”universe as nested novelty engine” “everything is onethe moon the stars the sun”network dynamics are the creative accelerantall the way up the reality stackthat accelerant’s tipping point is about to go supernova spilling over and subsuming all human cultureyou can’t make plastic or computer chipsworking with an alchemy based metaphortalking the language of – earth – wind – fire – waterhow are we to – drive – steer – brakethis emerging organic social network dynamictrapped inside a 20th century linear metaphor @ hull speedthis thing is quickly becoming a runaway freight trainwe need to jump the shark and put on the metaphoric brakeswe need to pull a linguistic strange loop and collaboratively forgea new self-referential global organic-metaphor / lexiconreframing – ourselves – our social structures – and our worldas ubiquitous instances of a universal network-organizating templatemastering and maintaining organic inertia-dampening safety valvesover vital social / political / economic networking functionsis an existential challengeto our democraciesmaybe even to our long term survivalwe are all at the Mad Hatter’s tea partyspinning our wheelsspeaking in tongueswe are hobbled by obsolete linguistic memesthat sabotage our collective ability to realistically frameour emerging organically interdependent social realitieswe need a new global organic-networking metaphora magic little lexiconcapable of injecting the very heart and soulof Organic Process Literacythat magic-Mojo at the core of all living systems into every day language and culturein shortOrganic Process Literacyis a roadmapan essential thorny mysterious investigative roadmapinto the core fabric of ourselves and our social structuresviewed as generic instantiations of organic living systemsOrganic Process Literacyis a pilgrimageinto an infinitely self-referentialself-selecting and self-reenforcing universeof life-giving strange-attractor networking-vortexesall riding in on the coattails of organic network complexitycomplexity that itself emanates from the underlying”network organizing principle”self-organizing webs of Synchronizedlife-generating adaptive feedback-interplay_____________________________________On the road to better communityOrganic Process Literacyis just a memes to an enda new media ecologya modern, simplified, broadly accessibleOrganic Meta-Modelling for the Rest of Us MoronsORGANIC CLASS CONSCIOUSNESStrip the switch MEME US All UP SCOTTY !

          4. vruz

            I don’t know…. I don’t mind, I love to see your enthusiasm :-)Although I can barely understand half of it all.

          5. SubstrateUndertow

            Cheers !Thanks for your kind tolerance.In short I’m saying.He who controls the language controls the debate.We cannot have an effective debate around the organic complexities/interdependencies of our newly networked environment without first constructing a shared set of linguistic/conceptual memes capable of supporting such abstract visualizations.I’d really enjoy having the stuffing kidded out of that rant but everyone here is too busy/uninterested or too polite to engage in a constructive teardown.

          6. vruz

            I’m probably not the most sycophantic person around, I think most people would agree.I don’t think it’s a problem of sucking up to anybody, I think the problem is more that a constructive teardown would probably require more time and effort than most of us are willing/capable of investing in this particular task.Hermetic encoding of ideas deep within prose can be a good thing in art, but if you’re actually to change behaviours and make people consider your ideas seriously, it’s in your best interest to be the least cryptic you can be.Just my two cents.(and again, I love your enthusiasm)

  9. William Mougayar

    I like how he blends & connects these parts of history, science, society and technology. Very smart. And just discovered that Kindle can send you a sampler to your device. Cool! Decentralization of technology lives on.

    1. JimHirshfield

      In other news, how do you like your Spotify?

      1. William Mougayar

        I don’t use Spotify. Was this intended for me or Arnold?

          1. William Mougayar

            Ah, I didn’t “spot” that story. I downloaded, but it’s not letting me use my US ID. Says “I’m in a different country.” This tells me the accounts are siloed by country, due to licensing reasons probably.

          2. JimHirshfield

            You’re trying to login with a Facebook account?

          3. William Mougayar

            I tried both ways. No dice. Their contact form sends me to login again.

          4. William Mougayar

            I tried. It didn’t hit the spot yet.

    2. awaldstein

      My dad, the physics teacher was a pure example of the same thing.No wonder he was embraced by the community and the kids.

  10. pointsnfigures

    I am also interested in how things are borrowed. Taking inventions and processes from one silo and reapplying them in a similar fashion in another to create disruption. Then seeing what happens downstream from that disruption. “Unbundling” is interesting to watch as it goes from industry to industry.

  11. Mario Cantin

    Thanks for the tip, I didn’t even know who he was. #call me stupid.

  12. Ovidiu Schiopu

    Great story. Stimulates creative thinking. Thanks for sharing – schools should promote more of this kind of material!!! Welcome back 🙂

  13. pointsnfigures

    Here is a weird one. America has a farm to table movement that is growing. One off shoot,… Rustic hand made dinner dishes in restaurants. (apologize for WSJ link). Filters into demand for them at home, which benefits sites like Etsy.

    1. LE

      America has a farm to table movement that is growing.Has to do with the obsessions of food and dining which is not entirely a good thing.Here is in part what has led to that:a) Better drugs and medicine that has allowed people to eat like pigs and not die. Women this morning waddles into the Starbucks and then orders a sugary drink and a cookie How many waddlers do you see each day? They are all over the place where I am (which is not a city but a suburb). This women has health problems and her “drugs” are now all over the place at the ready.b) Better packaging and marketing as a result of 80’s desktop publishing industry creating and reducing the cost of really attractive packaging that adds to people impulse buying food that they don’t need. Don’t underestimate this as a factor in obesity and over eating. Also food science adding to the tastiness for sure. Back in the day we only had a few tasty addictive snacks now there are thousands.c) More attractive retail like Whole Foods vs. the way supermarkets looked 30 to 40 years ago (remember those, I do..). A local market opened here that is a WF knock off (there is also a WF) and it’s totally uplifting to come in and shop there. You feel good and want to be there. Designed the same way as casinos are to get you to part with your dollars. Packaging and presentation matter creates emotion which gets you to buy buy buy. (Also things like Eataly in NYC another good example..) Food as entertainment.d) Using food as an addiction to lessen stress “emotional eating”.And so on. There are other reasons but “farm to table” didn’t happen in a vacuum just like nothing does.

    2. awaldstein

      Used to eat at Alice Water’s Chez Panisse before I even heard the word.I consider her one of the unsung change agents of everything that is happening in the food world today.Good link–thanks.

  14. mike

    Great post and really looking forward to the video.

  15. iggyfanlo

    Thanks so much for this recommendation… love great storytelling mixed with tech/history.. not enough of this content

  16. awaldstein

    Books are stacking up.Beach and a hammock are the only solution.

  17. Matt Candler

    Have loved Johnson’s stuff since starting 4.0; every entrepreneur reads Where Good Ideas Come From. Psyched for this one.

  18. LE

    There was a review of this in the print WSJ that I read last night. I thought “this is the type of book I would buy if I still bought books”. I used to buy a ton of print books but now there is so much to read online I don’t have the time or patience. I haven’t even read the Issacson Jobs book (which I got as a gift) and I really like reading that. [1]Here is the WSJ review:…(My title for this book of course would have been “The thing that leads to the thing”..)[1] Mean to say “all of the Issacson Jobs book”.

  19. bfeld

    Ordered. He’s such a wonderful writer / thinker.

    1. Steve Lincoln

      It’s part of a series, along with the “Creators,” etc. Bought it in the 90s. That reminds me to go back and re-read it with my kids.

  20. Mariah Lichtenstern

    You’ve hooked me in…

  21. Jorge M. Torres

    Today’s post reminds me of The Discoverers, the classic by Daniel J. Boorstin. Didn’t really appreciate it when it was assigned in high school, but I think I’ll pick it up again and re-read it.

  22. MacLane Wilkison

    Sounds like an interesting follow up to Carlota Perez’s Technological Revolutions and Financial Capital.

    1. fredwilson

      Yes. I read it when it came out and it influenced the creation of USV a year later. Our investment strategy is taken largely from that book. I interviewed her a few years back which was a highlight of my career

  23. aminTorres

    How come you did not announce this prior? did I miss it? 2 or 3 years ago when he came to your kid’s school to talk about his then new book where good Ideas come from I was able to make it to that, it was a ton of fun. I would have loved to come to this.

  24. denmeade

    Johnson is one of my favourite non-fiction writers. He has a wonderful way of pulling together threads from a number of different fields. I was asked recently (as part of an application to participate in an event) to name a book that inspired me… I chose Johnson’s ‘The Invention of Air’. Looking forward to reading his new book and watching the video.

  25. John Revay

    Thanks for posting.I saw Steve Johnson – pitch the book and the series on Jon Stewart / Daily show a few weeks ago. I then tried to find the day/time listing for the PBS show, I was not able to.I will tune in on Oct 15th and watch w/ my 10 yr old son.

  26. Matt Locke

    Thanks for posting this Fred – we’re running the sister site for this project – – and we’ll have the video of your talk with Steven up in the next day or so, as soon as get it from WYNC. Your readers might like to know we’re running a competition to win a copy of the book as well – deadline is Tuesday: http://www.howwegettonext.c

    1. fredwilson

      can you email me to let me know when it is up?i’m at fred at usv dot com

      1. Matt Locke

        Will do – we should have it up today or tomorrow, so we’ll email you when it’s live.