What Are The Words?

Late last evening, I finished Steven Johnson’s book How We Got To Now: The Innovations That Made The Modern World. (The book was based on a 2014 television series that was, as I understand it, broadcast on both PBS and the BBC).

In the book, Johnson examines the history of six foundations of the modern world: glass, refrigeration, sound technology, sanitation, the measurement of time, and light. Along the way, many of Johnson’s insights and the historical nuggets he mined made me pause in thought, especially the idea that many inventions come along only when there is not only the technological skill to make them but a need for them.

The most interesting of those pairings – ability and need – was the invention of corrective lenses and the widespread demand for eyeglasses, which followed by very few years Gutenberg’s invention of moveable type and the proliferation of reading material in Europe. With popular reading material available, more people were reading, and they were discovering that their vision needed correcting. The demand for eyeglasses increased greatly enough to make the manufacturing of lenses a major industry. (And soon enough, there were other uses for those lenses as well, like telescopes and microscopes.)

There are connections like that – sometimes several – in all six of the main sections of the book, juxtapositions that made me stop reading and just think for a few moments. And there was one other moment that gave me pause.

In the chapter on light, Johnson links Georges Claude, the French scientist who discovered the luminescent qualities of isolated neon gas, to the book Learning From Las Vegas, a 1972 work on postmodern art and architecture by Yale professors (and married partners) Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown. Johnson explores several steps in the link, and acknowledges that none of those steps would have happened without electricity.

Johnson then writes, “but just about everything needed electricity in the 1960s: The moon landing, the Velvet Underground, the ‘I Have A Dream’ speech . . .”

And I put down the book and thought, if I were to use three examples to stand for the technology, the pop culture and the wider zeitgeist of America in the 1960s, could I do better than that? How long, I wondered, did he and perhaps his collaborators on the television series work at getting the right combination of three items?

In the essay on President John Kennedy’s assassination that I recently reposted here, I spent many more words than that to describe the times we now call the Sixties. Then, I called the years before Dallas “a time of Father Knows Best and the New York Yankees,” a description that still pleases me.

After pondering Johnson’s succinct characterization of the 1960s and recalling my description of the era that came before, I began to wonder how one would characterize the other decades, the other eras of American life in three brief examples. I played around with a few, but I’ll let them be today, as they need work. But if readers want to throw out some brief characterizations of any American decade/era, they’re welcome to do so.

And since we’re talking about words, here’s David Crosby’s “Song With No Words (Tree With No Leaves).” It’s from his 1971 album If I Could Only Remember My Name.

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