Best-selling author Steven Johnson hosts six-part documentary How We Got to Now, a series about everyday innovations and how they interlaced with history to form our modern-day lives. The last episode, "Sound," airs this Wednesday, Nov. 12, at 10 p.m. EST on PBS.
After ushering us through a few centuries, here are six ways Steven got to where he is now, as he wrote to us in an email.
What childhood toy or activity was your absolute favorite?
Steven Johnson: I had a serious obsession for three or four years with the whole extended genre of dice-based sports simulations (APBA, Strat-o-Matic). I fell into an increasingly weird rabbit hole of "indie" baseball simulations that were allegedly more statistically accurate than the mainstream games.
I went back and bought a few of them on eBay when I was writing Everything Bad Is Good For You (which opens with a little reverie about this part of my childhood). They were effectively just an entire binder full of numbers; nothing remotely resembling a game in any their visual cues: no cards, or tokens, or illustrated boards to play on.
This was the late-'70s, early-'80s — just far enough into the digital age to have the computers design the games, but not far enough for me to actually have a computer of my own. Eventually I started designing my own games, which I'm convinced taught me more about simulations, statistics, and probability than anything I learned in school.
What evolutionary adaptation do you most admire in any creature?
SJ: For the "Sound" episode, I went swimming with dolphins at an aquarium near our house in California. Everyone loves dolphins, I know, but spending time with them up close was such a revelation. It's not just the ultrasound (which is what we were there to discuss); it's not just the language use, which is truly amazing. But dolphins also apparently have a limbic system — the emotional seat of the brain, to simplify — that seems at least as advanced as ours, but that also seems different from ours.
I love this idea because it suggests that a dolphin (and other organisms) might experience states that are recognizably emotional by human standards, but that don't match any of the standard categories of human emotion. What might those be? What part of the emotional spectrum are we missing, and because it's missing can't imagine?
What music album changed your life?
SJ: That's just so hard to say — there are so many. I still try to listen to music with some of the reverence that I did as a teenager or college student; I try to end every night at home sitting in front of speakers listening to something — sometimes old, sometimes new — for a few minutes, usually with a glass of wine. It's the best thinking time.
But what one album changed my life? Well, I guess I'd say this: John Lennon died when I was twelve — just hitting puberty—and somehow I had never really listened to the Beatles as a child (my parents missed the sixties by like three years.) So his death sent me off on a Beatles discovery mission, which at the age of 12 or 13 is one of those life experiences I wish everyone on the planet could have. That was the point — really thanks to Lennon's death — at which I began to think of myself as someone who was going to create things, and before long I was thinking of myself as a writer. And that has pretty much been my primary identity ever since.
Looking at this chronology now, I'm beginning to think that if John Lennon hadn't died, I would have become a baseball statistician. Nate Silver will breathe a great sigh of relief at this news.
What SkyMall product have you secretly considered purchasing?
SJ: I don't know the catalog well enough to say, but I'm glad you asked about this, because I have been meaning to complain to someone about the fact that SkyMall is basically my kids' favorite publication. They get on a plane, and they're all like, "Oh, I love this magazine!"
I find this very alarming.
What place that you visited during filming was the wildest or most surprising to you?
SJ: Well, the "Sound" episode is airing this week, so I'm tempted to say that the location that opens that episode — the Arcy-sur-Cure caves in Burgundy, France — should be at the top of the list. They're filled with early Paleolithic art, and apparently all the paintings are precisely positioned in the most acoustically resonant parts of the cave complex.
The premise is that the early humans or Neanderthals who painted these images would gather in front of them and chant, using the natural "wall of sound" from the cave reverberations to enhance the sound of their voices. So we brought the whole crew deep into the caves, and I chanted for like an hour with a 70-year-old French ethnomusicologist.
The funny thing is, as we were shooting down there, we thought we were getting the best footage of the whole series; we came back to the production offices boasting about the whole sequence. And then editors got hold of the footage and they were basically like, "You filmed Steven singing in a dark room for 60 minutes. No one wants to see that." But in the end, I think they figured out a way to make the TV version convey something of the original experience…
What innovation could you not imagine your own life without?
SJ: Writing, of course. But also typing. I think I would have been a terrible writer had I been forced to scratch it all out by hand.