Steven Johnson’s Invention of Air

Steven Johnson writes about topics I care about in a way that engages me. Of his seven books, I’ve read four. He is one of the most perceptive writers on the intersection of technology and innovation, and dabbles successfully in other areas like history, neuroscience, and pop culture. The most common critique of Johnson is that his theories are too sweeping. Maybe so, but we need at least a few polymaths who dare to make big, bold connections to provoke thought.

6a00d8345166f269e200e54fff28b28833-150wi I attended a short lecture by Johnson a few days ago in San Francisco about his new book Where Good Ideas Come From. He came off as affable, witty, and curious. When the podium microphone went dead he was given a handheld mic as a replacement. Without missing a beat he grabbed the handheld mic and pretended to do a stand-up routine: “What’s the deal with those airplane peanut bags? You can never get the bags open!” Charming and funny. His writing doesn’t have quite the same levity. Still, both oral and written he tackles serious topics, generates original ideas, and communicates them with a confident narrative style.

I recently finished The Invention of Air, his wonderful account of Joseph Priestley (and Priestley’s friends like Benjamin Franklin) and all that we can learn from them about innovation. If you’re interested in the Founding Fathers and entrepreneurship, this is a great book. It’s more focused than some of his other books in that there’s one central character — Priestley. You’ll still get a flavor of Johnson’s multidisciplinary interests.

Below are my highlights from Kindle (formatting my own). Here are Justin Wehr’s notes from the book.


He launched himself into a rapid and turbulent river of experiments, developing a style of investigation that would shape the rest of his career—more exploratory than systematic, shuffling through countless variations of materials and equipment and test subjects. Priestley was never one for the grand hypothesis; he rarely designed experiments specifically to test a general theory. The closest thing to a general theory in his work would ultimately lead to his greatest intellectual mistake.

Looking backward over the history of electricity enabled him both to appreciate how science had become an engine of progress and improvement and to project forward into the future, to imagine that ascending line, its trajectory continuing through the coming centuries. This is one of the origin points for a distinctly modern view of the world—call it progressive futurism.

Intellectual historians have long wrestled with the strangeness of this kind of streak. The thinker plods along, publishing erratically, making incremental progress, and then, suddenly—the flood-gates open and a thousand interesting ideas seem to pour out.

…unlike free throws, ideas are clearly cumulative in nature; solving one problem often gives you a new set of conceptual tools that help you solve the next problem that presents itself.

Human cultures have a long track record of collective hot streaks, where clusters of innovations seem to burst into flame after centuries of darkness. (We have names like “Renaissance” precisely to mark exactly how extreme the transformation is.) Priestley was a key participant in one of these cultural-phase transitions, what was described self-consciously at the time, by Kant and others, as the Enlightenment, a term that embraces both the widening of political and religious possibility in eighteenth-century Europe and the extensive application of the scientific method to problems that had previously been shrouded in darkness.

What Marx did grasp, more clearly than any thinker before him, was that the proper interpretative scale for understanding change and progress is larger and deeper than that of the individual human life, yet at the same time is grounded in the material world. You couldn’t attribute change exclusively to exceptional people, and you couldn’t attribute it to some external and nebulous spirit, the way Hegel had done.

Marx identified three new primary macro processes that deserved to be included in the narrative: the class struggle, the evolution of capital itself, and technological innovations. They were all, for different reasons, enormously valuable contributions to the project of making sense of historical change. And they were all fundamentally correct, at least in their contention that class identity, capital, and technological acceleration would be prime movers in the coming centuries, and that each one had an independent life, outside the direct control of human decision-makers.

While Kuhn’s system placed the scientist squarely at the center of intellectual change, it made an essential break from the folklore of individual genius that Priestley had himself questioned two centuries before. Kuhn demonstrated convincingly that science was not a straightforward pursuit of universal truth, the genius suddenly discovering new facts about the world by sheer force of intellect. Instead, innovations in science came out of a complicated play among insight, empirical study, and the conventions of a given paradigm.

Necessity may be the mother of invention, but most of the great inventors were blessed with something else: leisure time.

Different societies at different moments in history have varying patterns of circulation: compare the cloistered, stagnant information pools of the European Dark Ages to the hyper-linked, open-sourced connectivity of the Internet. You can see in Priestley’s letters to the electricians where he and his friends fell on the circulation spectrum: every detail of every experiment relayed in the most generous, exhaustive form imaginable. The idea of proprietary secrets, of withholding information for personal gain, was unimaginable in that group.

You can’t underestimate the impact that the Club of Honest Whigs had on Priestley’s subsequent streak, precisely because he was able to plug in to an existing network of relationships and collaborations that the coffeehouse environment facilitated.

But there was a higher purpose that drove Priestley to document his techniques in such meticulous detail: the information network. Priestley’s whole model of progress was built on the premise that ideas had to move, to circulate, for them to turn into better ideas.

That is one of the defining characteristics of what it means to be an organism: a system of cells and organs that are explicitly devoted to ensuring the survival of the larger group to which they belong.

Priestley had begun supplementing Shelburne’s annuity by building a collection of “subscribers” who supported his work with annual contributions. The eighteenth-century concept of subscribing is one without an exact modern equivalent, falling somewhere between a magazine subscription and a charitable donation to a museum or park or university. The donation came with perks—Priestley’s subscribers were sent first editions of all his writing—but the money contributed generally exceeded by a wide margin the market value of the publications. It was nice to be first in line to read Priestley’s latest, of course, but one subscribed because Priestley himself was a cause worth supporting. For Priestley, subscription was a way of diversifying the patronage system; rather than tying his fortune to the whims of a single aristocrat, Priestley was assembling a broader support network to keep his ideas alive.

The sense of gravitas that attended Priestley’s emigration seems somehow fitting to us now, not just because of his individual accomplishments, but also because Priestley was inaugurating what would become one of the most honorable traditions of the American experience. He was the first great scientist-exile to seek safe harbor in America after being persecuted for his religious and political beliefs at home. Albert Einstein, Edward Teller, Xiao Qiang—they would all follow in Priestley’s footsteps.

To choose between Jefferson and Adams in 1798 was, in effect, to choose between the two emerging political parties to which each man had become attached: the largely agrarian Republicans, led by Jefferson and Madison, opponents of centralized political and economic power; or the urban, centralized Federalists, led by Alexander Hamilton and, somewhat fitfully, by Adams. Given the geopolitics of the day, it was also a choice between France and England, with Jefferson and his group still enthralled by the French Revolution and Hamilton aligned with London’s economic power.

More important, though, the values that Priestley brought to his intellectual explorations have never been more essential than they are today. The necessity of open information networks—like ones he cultivated with the Honest Whigs and the Lunar Society, and with the popular tone of his scientific publications—has become a defining creed of the Internet age. That is in part because the flow of information differs from the flow of energy in one crucial respect: there is a finite supply of energy, which means that tapping it is invariably a zero-sum game.

the spread of information does not come with the same cost, particularly in the age of global networks. An idea that flows through a society does not grow less useful as it circulates; most of the time, the opposite occurs: the idea improves, as its circulation attracts the “attention of the Ingenious,” as Franklin put it. Jefferson saw the same phenomenon, and interpreted it as yet another part of nature’s rational system: “That ideas should freely spread from one to another over the globe,” he wrote in an 1813 letter discussing a patent dispute, “for the moral and mutual instruction of man, and improvement of his condition, seems to have been peculiarly and benevolently designed by nature, when she made them, like fire, expansible over all space, without lessening their density at any point, and like the air in which we breathe, move, and have our physical being, incapable of confinement or exclusive appropriation.”

Some great minds become great by turning the rubble of an exploded paradigm into something consistent and meaningful. Others become great by laying the gunpowder, grain by grain. Every important revolution needs both kinds of minds to complete itself.

We have been debating what the founders stood for practically since the ink dried on Jefferson’s first draft of the Declaration.

Clearly one lesson is that Priestley—and his kindred spirits in London, Birmingham, Quincy, and Monticello—refused to compartmentalize science, faith, and politics.

The faith in science and progress necessitated one other core value that Priestley shared with Jefferson and Franklin, and that is the radical’s belief that progress inevitably undermines the institutions and belief systems of the past.

2 Responses to Steven Johnson’s Invention of Air

  1. Jake Adams says:

    Just ordered “Where Good Ideas Come From” yesterday. Hope its a good one.

  2. This was a good post. I’ve only read where good ideas come from, but this was a good reminder to look into his other books as well.

    Thanks

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