Yet only at midnight on December 31 do we all collectively marvel that we are flying through space and time on a planet so big that the party in Tokyo is long over by the time the ball drops in Times Square. New York is always chasing the future.
I came across a copy of Steve Johnson's How We Got to Now: Six Innovations That Made the Modern World last summer at Powell's, a gem of a bookstore near the University of Chicago known for its vast collection of used, remaindered and antiquarian treasures. Powell's is a dangerous, wondrous place with books so tightly packed together on long skinny shelves that stretch from floor to high ceiling that they seem to serve a structural purpose. It is a store built of books—and most are bargains. I browse under a cash-only rule or I'd never be able to carry out all the gems that beckon.
The book sat in a stack by my favorite reading chair for months until, in a nice parallel to its premise, the time was right. Johnson's long arc, connect-the-dots storytelling provides reason to the rhyme of innovation, though tempered with a measure of caution. "Eurekas" are not inevitable but more (or less likely), depending. They do not happen in a vacuum, either. The lone genius is a myth.
Also, intentions and implications are two very different things. Who would have predicted that the popularization of the printing press would lead to the near extinction of sperm whales? Commercial whaling came of age in the pursuit of oil in found in massive chambers above the orcas' brains. The oil made a superior candle which made reading at night easier. These "spermaceti" candles were so prized that George Washington is said to have paid the equivalent of $15,000 for a year's supply. Imagine how many LEDs that would buy—and power—today.
Inevitably the "now" of Johnson's book, published in 2014, is no longer the cutting edge. The chapter on sound, for example, which begins with the acoustical qualities of prehistoric caves and ends with radar and ultrasound imaging, misses the rise of Alexa and Suri, bluetooth speakers, Spotify, podcasts and the unnerving fakery of Lyrebird software. In a blink, now is then.
The future is informed by the past, but unpredictable. For every daisy on the innovation daisy chain, likely there are many other would-be daisies that didn't quite make it. The more knowledge, open and freely available, and the more connection, the better the odds for daisies. Ignorance isn't bliss. It's the Dark Ages.
The challenge for each of us, more urgent than ever with so many tipping points poised to tip, is to know as much as we can, to tap into Johnson's "network of ideas" to mix, match and leverage for better.
So what are you waiting for? It's a new year!