How Steven Johnson Got To Now

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?
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?
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.

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