jml's notebook

Review: How to Invent Everything

Review: How to Invent Everything

From Ryan North, writer of The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl and probably a bunch of other stuff comes this book pretty squarely aimed at the “Christmas gifts for your know-it-all friends” market.

The book is framed as a manual for a stranded time traveller: the quickest way to repair your broken time machine is to rebuild civilisation from scratch, here’s how to do it. To that end, it comes with instructions on agriculture, medicine, mathematics, material science, the scientific method, and lots more.

I would definitely want this book if I were stranded in the distant past. It’s well researched, and entertainingly written, and it covers a lot of bases.

The book makes much of the fact that we could have invented lots of things much, much earlier than we did. All you need for a hot air balloon (it claims) is a basket, some fabric (silk works great), and a fire. And yet, it took us until the 19th century.

On the other hand, my personal circumstances made reading this book very frustrating, for two reasons.

The first is that I’d just read How to be a Tudor, in which the author speaks not only from research but from personal experience in actually living out Tudor practices. She frequently points out that things are a lot more complicated, precarious, or just plain difficult than they first appear. Lots that might appear simple is actually an advanced skill.

Second is that in doing management, it’s really easy to observe how a bunch of people who know what they are doing somehow fail to achieve the outcome they set out to achieve, with no obvious single root cause and no one worthy of blame. DRMacIver points out that “decision making in large groups of people as the fundamental problem of civilisation”. I’d go one step further and say coordinating groups of people is the fundamental problem of civilisation.

What this meant is that I ended up flipping through the pages going “I bet it’s not as simple as that” and “Yeah, but who do you get to mind the charcoal fire, and who’s bringing them lunch?” There’s a (very cool) tech tree at the back, but there’s no plan for what to get done in your first ninety days, or how many people you’d need to convince.

At a meta level, it’s even more frustrating that there’s no invention or discovery in the field of management that merits inclusion in the book. Logic rates a whole chapter, because it’s amazingly useful, a prerequisite for computers (which in turn are a prerequisite for video games), and because dropping first order predicate logic in a page or two can save two thousand years of wandering in the wilderness. But, with management, it’s entirely possible that we are just as bad at getting a group of people to work together toward a goal as we have ever been.

If you’re not in the same circumstances as I, and haven’t asked “Yes, but how do we actually execute on that?” in the last six months, then you might well enjoy this book.