Every now and then in life you find yourself in a situation where you have to pause for a second and ask yourself: what unlikely sequence of events has led me to this point? I had one of those moments a few weeks ago, when I found myself standing in front of a television film crew, 300 feet above the city of Dubai, harnessed to the sloping roof of a giant indoor ski slope, wearing a parka in 110 degree heat.
I was there for the very first shot of a television series I’ve been working on, quietly, behind the scenes, for two years now. It’s been killing me not being able to post anything about it here or on Twitter, but as of this morning, the cat is finally out of the bag. Just a few minutes ago at the Television Critics Association Press Tour, PBS announced a new six-part series that will air in the fall of 2014: How We Got To Now with Steven Johnson.
The show builds on many of themes in the innovation history trilogy of The Ghost Map, The Invention Of Air, and Where Good Ideas Come From, but is based on new material with a completely different structure. Each hour-long episode takes one facet of modern life that we mostly take for granted -- artificial cold, clean drinking water, the lenses in your spectacles -- and tells the 500-year story of how that innovation came into being: the hobbyists and amateurs and entrepreneurs and collaborative networks that collectively made the modern world possible. It’s also the story of the unintended consequences of these inventions: air conditioning and refrigeration didn’t just make it possible to build ski slopes in the desert; they also triggered arguably the largest migration of human beings in the history of the species -- to cities like Dubai or Phoenix that would otherwise be virtually uninhabitable.
We’re trying to weave together many historical strands in the series, but at the same time make it more dynamic and visually arresting (and funny.) There will be no historical re-enactments, no solemn voiceovers with archival photographs, no talking head interviews with historians. We’ve got some amazing visual FX (somewhat inspired by the animated video we did for Good Ideas), and we’ll have sequences all around the world in visually stunning locations. I’m the host and storyteller and tour guide; I’ll be the one descending into the sewers or staring through the telescope at the top of Mauna Kea. Or looking totally ridiculous dressed up as a 19th-century gentleman in a carriage in Savannah.
We have put together an amazing team for the series. The UK studio Nutopia (responsible for hit shows like America: The Story Of Us) is producing, led by the brilliant Jane Root, former controller of BBC2 and president of Discovery Networks. Jane’s brought in a team of other award-winning producers and directors to create the episodes. The series itself is being funded by both PBS/CPB, and the BBC, and will be distributed worldwide by BBC International. I’m co-authoring the episodes, and I’ll be writing a book to accompany the series for my longtime publisher Riverhead.
I’ll have much more information about airtimes around the world next year as we get closer to the finish line. In the meantime, I’ll be tweeting updates from the shoots at @stevenbjohnson and @howwegottonow. Stay tuned -- I think this is going to be a lot of fun...