One great challenge in parenting is finding worthwhile educational videos. My kids prefer the zany antics of Phineas and Ferb to most anything with a wiff of being educational. That’s why I’m delighted to have found a great series that combines education with engaging entertainment for the whole family. How We Got to Now is a project from the talented Steven Johnson. His excellent book, Where Good Ideas Come From, was invaluable for a talk I gave a couple of years ago at the invitation of Cambridge Consultants on creativity and innovation. More recently, he wrote another fascinating and insightful book, How We Got to Now: Six Innovations That Made the Modern World. Johnson’s treatment is reminiscent of James Burke’s Connections (also made into a great PBS series on invention and innovation). Johnson manages to group a wide class of innovations into six categories: clean, time, glass, light, cold, and sound. Despite this seeming simplicity, he does a remarkable job tracing broad currents of innovation through all their complexities, following eddies and back currents, as well as heart-pounding and dramatic shooting through rapids and over falls. Johnson highlights the unsung heroes who brought profound innovations into the world – and the chain reactions of their ideas that have come to impact every aspect of our modern lives. Johnson likes to focus on what he calls ordinary people doing extraordinary things – but this is a bit of a misnomer. Johnson’s “ordinary” people may have ordinary, modest, common, and everyday talents, but their passion and enthusiasm for pursuing their goals sets them apart from the truly ordinary. On one level Johnson’s presentation is about the history of innovation and technology. But on a deeper level it is a powerful and inspirational message to get out into the world, follow your passion, innovate, and accomplish something worthwhile.
Johnson’s show, How We Got To Now, comes in six 53-minute long episodes available from PBS, as well as on Netflix and elsewhere. I highly recommend this for family viewing.