The Surprising History of New Ideas
By Steven Poole
342 pp. Scribner. $26.
Around 1900, a century before Tesla’s Model S, there were more than 30,000 electric cars registered in the United States. In London, passengers were being ferried around by a small fleet of electric taxis, nicknamed Hummingbirds for the distinctive whir of their engines. So begins “Rethink: The Surprising History of New Ideas,” the British journalist Steven Poole’s attack on what he calls a “Silicon Valley ideology”: the notion that every great innovation of today is a “flash of inspiration,” an invention of “something from nothing.” In an anecdote-rich tour through the centuries, Poole traces “new” ideas in mental health back to the Stoics; dates the invention of the e-cigarette to 1965; and tells us that the leech is now an F.D.A.-approved “medical device,” used for, among other things, preventing blood from pooling after reconstructive plastic surgery. We live in “an age of rediscovery,” Poole writes. “Old is the new new.”
Poole’s strategy is to categorize. He assembles chapters on ideas that should have died but won’t (“zombie ideas,” he calls them), on bad ideas that led to good ones (“steppingstones”) and so on. The method, though, yields little in the way of insight. A survey of ahead-of-their-time ideas, for example, leads to the underwhelming conclusion that the world would have been a better place if folks had figured things out sooner.
And Poole, perversely, finishes every chapter with a recapitulation, each a dispiriting reminder of how little his argument has progressed, delivered in the tone of Microsoft Word’s old AutoSummary function: “Many people died needlessly of cancer in the decades after the electronic cigarette had been invented, and before its eventual rediscovery, but the new version may be a revolution in public health. Similarly, the rejection of atomism for so long may well have delayed the development of lifesaving technologies, but at least now we enjoy its benefits in molecular pharmacology and other fields. And in future the embrace of edible insects could, according to its proponents, forestall major famines.”
Poole, a language columnist for The Guardian, is the author of five other books. He’s a brisk writer, and his prose can be charming: In a review of a book on eating meat, he writes, “If I ate only animals I killed myself, I would live on a rather uninspiring diet of clothes moths and the occasional mosquito.” Here, though, things never get moving because he shirks the basics of narrative writing: character, scene, emotional connection. I was eager to know Grace Hopper, an early software developer braving a man’s world, but Poole describes her only as a “rebel pioneer.” His field reports lean heavily on perfunctory stock settings (“dark, wintry afternoon,” “crisp spring afternoon,” “a light-filled studio”) and then devolve into pages of stultifying quotation.
The whole project has a slapdash, cynical vibe. On the first page, Poole introduces us to the Scottish chemist Robert Davidson and credits him with building, in 1837, “the first known electric car.” In fact, it was a locomotive. In lieu of transitions, he reaches for easy, but quite awkward, rhetorical questions. “But how exactly could the inheritance of acquired characteristics take place?” Two pages later: “But how exactly do we establish that inheritance of stress and depression can happen in humans?” A writer more wary of the familiar might have resisted the urge to remind us of the quote from Ecclesiastes, that there is “no new thing under the sun,” or of George Santayana’s admonition that those who do not know the past “are condemned to repeat it.” His sentences include generous helpings of phrases like “cutting-edge” and “high-tech” and other mainstays of weak-sauce hype. By the final pages, when, I kid you not, Poole riffs on humanity’s future in the stars, it becomes clear that “Rethink” will never answer its existential question: Yes, old ideas are rediscovered, but where, for readers living in a golden age of vinyl records and home pickling, is the surprise in that?