How writer-turned-presenter Steven Johnson got to “Now”

How We Got to Now presenter Steven Johnson (pictured) talks to realscreen about transitioning from author to TV host and being a scientific maverick in the field.
October 28, 2014

Parking somewhere along the intersection of science, technology and history, you’ll find How We Got to Now, a six-part miniseries from Nutopia for PBS and the BBC that examines how the wild and weird fascinations that inspired historical mavericks and amateur inventors have shaped our world.

The choice of presenter for the series is also inspired: Steven Johnson (pictured above), best-selling author (Where Good Ideas Come From, Everything Bad is Good for You) and media theorist.

Distributed internationally by BBC Worldwide , the series breaks down the ideas that forged history into six themes – Cold, Time, Light, Clean, Glass and Sound – while largely eschewing such pillars of educational content as archival footage or talking heads. Johnson, for his part, throws himself into his role with considerable vigor, whether it’s by lowering himself into a San Francisco sewer, or skiing in a man-made winter landscape in the midst of the Dubai desert. Fittingly next up is work on How We Get to Next, a multimedia examination of innovations taking us into the future, co-created by Johnson.

You also wrote a companion book for this project while shooting the episodes. Do you ever sleep? 

The idea of writing the book while doing the show seems daunting to people when they hear it, but it was actually really nice, because I would write at night after shooting, which would be tiring, but I’d never have the blank page problem, because we had all this great material from the scripts and stories which we worked on collaboratively. So I always knew what the “next thing” was.

Was there any difficulty in making the transition from writing to presenting?

Hitting the tone of storytelling and humor and all the stuff that was important to the show was something I’d already been working on for 10 years as a public speaker. The learning curve, which has been really fun, is not so much about performance but more about how to take these ideas and present them in a television format, figuring out how to tell these stories.

You can have a great story about someone who invents something and their lives, but what really makes it interesting is the chain reaction that it sets off, which inspires something hundreds of years later.

Unlike other series dealing with historical subject matter, you don’t use a lot of archive, reenactment or talking heads here.

While there are no historical reenactments, we do have a scene at the beginning of the “Cold” episode where we are telling the story of Frederic Tudor, who basically started the ice trade by taking chunks of frozen lakes from New England and shipping them off to Bombay or Cuba.

His epiphany, as a well-to-do Bostonian, was in going to the American South and walking around dressed up in his fancy gear, and thinking, “It’s incredibly hot down here!”So we have a scene where I’m in full 19th century regalia being carted around by horse and carriage. So even when we go in that direction, it’s a little more playful.

It seems it was a little easier to be an amateur scientist in those days. Is it harder to be a maverick today?

One of the things that defines a lot of the people in this show, that makes them mavericks, is that they don’t fit within existing categories very neatly, and through the merging of all these different fields of interest, something interesting happens. That’s the area where it’s trickier now, because we’ve built up these fiefdoms of expertise.

The reason why there were so many “gentlemen scientists” in the 18th century is we only had the scientific method for a century or two, so there was a lot to discover. You could be Benjamin Franklin and have your home lab. Now you have to spend years at grad schools to reach the kinds of pinnacles where you can make new discoveries. That’s working against the mavericks, in a way.

  • This feature first appeared in the current September/October 2014 issue of realscreen magazine. Not a subscriber? Click here for more information.
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