It made perfect sense, the other day, to be talking with Steven Johnson about the 18th century while watching our voices be transformed into the jagged digital rise and fall of ProTools tracks: he's comfortable moving from century to century and making the connections between them. The past, to him, seems a kind of future--not that we could return to it, but we could reclaim parts of it to help us move forward. His first books, Interface Culture, Emergence, Mind Wide Open, and Everything Bad Is Good for You, were about the future, or rather that part of the future we were living in now, but in his next book, The Ghost Map, he started to dig into the past, finding in London's response to the outbreak of cholera in 1854 an early instance of modern information science. And now in his new book, The Invention of Air, he's dug a little further back, to the story of Joseph Priestley, a not-quite-forgotten figure who should nevertheless be better remembered: a friend and colleague of Benjamin Franklin with some of the same omnivorous interests: science, religion, and politics. We talked about why there were so many Renaissance men in the Enlightenment, whether we should care what presidential candidates think about evolution, and what the Carboniferous Age has to do with a mouse stuck in a jar with a sprig of mint. You can listen to the podcast below or, after the jump, read the full transcript.
For more from Steven Johnson, visit his own blog at stevenberlinjohnson.com, and check out his guest blogging stint at BoingBoing the past couple weeks (posts here, here, here, and here--my favorite is the anti-Candy Land post, which as a game-playing dad, I fully agree with). It's only fitting he sat in there, since BoingBoing, with its open-source ethic, wide-ranging interests, and friendly marriage of technology, ideas, and hands-on tinkering, seems the closest thing we have to the sort of coffee-house societies that proved so fertile for Priestley, Franklin, and their friends.
Amazon.com: Your book is not a biography in the usual sense but it does have a hero, I think you could say: Joseph Priestley, who is known to people these days, if at all, as the "Discoverer of Oxygen," which you point out he very well may not have been.
Steven Johnson: Right [laughter]
Amazon.com: So how would you describe him? Usually people describe him with a list.