How to Fly a Horse: The Secret History of Creation, Invention, and Discovery

How to Fly a Horse: The Secret History of Creation, Invention, and Discovery

by Kevin Ashton


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To create is human. Technology pioneer Kevin Ashton has experienced firsthand the all-consuming challenge of creating something new. Now, in a tour-de-force narrative twenty years in the making, Ashton demystifies the sacred act, leading us on a journey through humanity’s greatest creations to uncover the surprising truth behind who creates and how they do it. From the crystallographer’s laboratory where the secrets of DNA were first revealed by a long forgotten woman, to the Ohio bicycle shop where the Wright brothers set out to “fly a horse,” Ashton showcases the seemingly unremarkable individuals, gradual steps, multiple failures, and countless ordinary and usually uncredited acts that lead to our most astounding breakthroughs. Drawing on examples from Mozart to the Muppets, Archimedes to Apple, Kandinsky to a can of Coke, How to Fly a Horse is essential reading for would-be creators and innovators, and also a passionate and immensely rewarding exploration of how “new” comes to be.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780804170062
Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Publication date: 09/15/2015
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 336
Sales rank: 261,251
Product dimensions: 5.16(w) x 8.00(h) x 0.80(d)

About the Author

Kevin Ashton led pioneering work on RFID (radio frequency identification) networks, for which he coined the term “the Internet of Things,” and cofounded the Auto-ID Center at MIT. His writing about innovation and technology has appeared in Quartz, Medium, The Atlantic, and The New York Times.

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Excerpted from "How to Fly a Horse"
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Copyright © 2015 Kevin Ashton.
Excerpted by permission of Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group.
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Table of Contents

Preface: The Myth xiii

Chapter 1 Creating is Ordinary 1

Chapter 2 Thinking is like Walking 26

Chapter 3 Expect Adversity 60

Chapter 4 How we See 91

Chapter 5 Where Credit is Due 118

Chapter 6 Chains of Consequence 140

Chapter 7 The gas in Your Tank 163

Chapter 8 Creating Organizations 193

Chapter 9 Good-Bye, Genius 232

Acknowledgments 241

Notes 247

Bibliography 279

Index 301



When we think about “the future” we think mainly of two things: what technology we will create, and what its consequences will be. We are inclined to see technology as unpredictable, and consequences as easy to predict, but it is the other way around. When it comes to technology, the future is as easy to see as it is hard to believe. Consequences, on the other hand, are chaotic.

Technology first: what is our easy-to-see, hard-to-believe future? Computing is the most predictable technology ever developed. For more than fifty years, computing has followed three laws. Moore's Law, which says microprocessors halve in size every two years; Metcalfe's Law, which says the value of a network is the number of users squared; and Koomey's Law, which says the energy of a computation halves every eighteen months. In short, computers keep getting smaller, more networked, and more energy efficient. Whatever you may read (“the end of Moore's law” has been predicted almost every year for decades) these trends will continue for the rest of your life. Computers will become microscopic, will always be connected to the Internet, many will run without batteries. What are these computers for? That's the hard-to-believe part. They are not for people to use. They are autonomous devices: sensors that automatically gather information about the world and controllers for mechanisms that change the world. This is what I once called “the Internet of Things,” a nervous system for the network that constantly monitors, measures, and reacts to the world around us. One practical, almost-here example is the self-driving car. These exist today—new cars from Tesla can come and pick you up, Google's prototypes have driven almost a million miles on public roads—and soon they will be everywhere. The big limit is not technical, but legal: we need new laws to govern these devices. Then they will proliferate like cell phones. Expect self-driving features in most new cars by 2020 and cars without steering wheels between 2025—2030, varying by country. What's the point? They will be safer, faster, more fuel efficient, and you'll be able to get things done, or take a nap, while you move from place to place.

Another easy-to-see hard-to-believe prediction: in the next hundred years we will discover life on other planets. We may even discover that that the universe is full of life. This does not mean we will be visiting aliens, or that we will find aliens with advanced technology, or even any technology at all. We will discover life using probes and radio telescopes, enabled in part by that ever more powerful, ever more energy efficient computing technology, and the aliens may be more like exotic plants, or bacteria, or deep sea creatures than terrestrial mammals.

What's hard to see are consequences. The one thing we can say for sure is that the most commonly predicted consequence is wrong: none of this will result in the end of the world. Ever improving technology will assure that both our planet and our species continue to thrive. Apocalyptic visions are a permanent feature of human civilization. Thousands of years ago the end of the world was nigh because of pestilence and famine sent by angry gods; hundreds of years ago it was because of rapidly growing population; tens of years ago it was because of nuclear war; today it is because of climate change. Climate change is real, dangerous, and it will have catastrophic and deadly effects, but it will not wipe us out. We will find ways to adapt to it and eventually mitigate it, using new technology, just as we did with the ozone layer, with war, disease, with famine. And then we will discover other dangerous problems we must to solve.

Beyond that, all we can say is that the consequences will be largely positive. Despite all those previous apocalyptic threats —which were all real, and all deadly—we have a huge and growing population; life expectancy and quality of life is increasing all over the world; deaths from war, violence, and famine are in rapid decline; and, in the last few centuries, advances in technology led to the sudden rise of literacy and education. In 1800, one-third of all Europeans could read, in 1850 one-half of all Europeans could read, and in 1900 almost all Europeans could read; in 1919, only a few thousand people in the UK received undergraduate degrees; in 2010, 350,000 people graduated. The consequences of these changes include better, more just societies, with greater equality for women, people with dark skin, disabilities, and “different” sexual orientations and gender identities. We are far from perfect, but we are much better than we were, and even our awareness of how much better we can become is evidence of progress.

Terrible things will happen too; they always do. But no matter how awful they are, they will be a small minority of the consequences we face. We will continue to make our world and ourselves better. It may not be fashionable, especially among “intellectuals,” but the easiest-to-see, hardest-to-believe prediction of them all is this: our future shines bright.

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