Episode 112: Unintended Consequences with Steven Johnson

Steven Johnson: Another reason why it’s a story worth telling and teaching is that it’s important to point to these things where we are capable as a species on some level of solving problems that are, you know, deeply entrenched in everyday life, and the routines and technology and infrastructure of everyday life. I mean, just think of all the, like, gas stations around the world who were selling leaded gasoline. I think it took us too long, but it’s also good to remind ourselves that sometimes we create unintended consequences and negative externalities and then correct them.

Aaron Naparstek: Welcome to The War on Cars. I’m Aaron Naparstek. This year, 2023, is the 100th anniversary of the invention of leaded gasoline. When you rank all of the many different ways that the automobile has harmed human health and the environment over the course of the last hundred years, the effects of leaded gasoline have to be pretty close to the top of the list.

Aaron: For centuries now, going back at least as far as the Roman Empire, humanity has known that lead is a dangerous neurotoxin. Ingesting or inhaling even tiny amounts of lead is extremely damaging to the human brain and body—especially the developing brains and bodies of young children. Scientists were well aware of these dangers in the 1920s, but adding tetraethyl lead to gasoline made internal combustion engines work better. And leaded gasoline made it possible to turn the automobile into a mass market product.

Aaron: Our guest on the podcast today is Steven Johnson. Steven is the bestselling author of 13 books at the intersection of science, technology and personal experience. His most recent is called Extra Life: A Short History of Living Longer. He also hosts the American Innovations podcast. Steven recently wrote an article for the New York Times Magazine called “The Man Who Broke the World.” In it, he tells the story of Thomas Midgley Jr, one of the great American inventors of the early 20th century.

Aaron: Not only did Midgley make the discoveries that led to the development of leaded gasoline, he also discovered the chemical compound that led to the invention of Freon—the substance that made refrigeration and aerosol sprays possible. But as with leaded gas, the chlorofluorocarbons that make up Freon had an almost unbelievably destructive impact on the global environment. By the 1980s, it was clear that Medley’s second big invention, chlorofluorocarbons, were burning holes in the ozone layer of the Earth’s atmosphere and literally threatening life on the planet. Thomas Midgley Jr. had almost godlike powers of invention. He made possible mass motoring, refrigeration and modern American life. But his inventions came with unimaginably destructive unintended consequences. So here to tell us a bit more about Thomas Midgley Jr., and to mark the 100th anniversary of the invention of leaded gas is author Steven Johnson.

Aaron: Steven Johnson, Welcome to The War on Cars.

Steven Johnson: Thank you, Aaron. It’s great to be here.

Aaron: Thanks for coming. So, you know, I’ve been looking for an excuse to get you on the podcast for ages now, and you finally obliged us by writing this fantastic article for the New York Times Magazine a few months ago titled “The Man Who Broke the World.”

Steven Johnson: I’ve been waiting for an invitation to be on this podcast, so I’m glad you finally, like …

Aaron: Really? [laughs]

Steven Johnson: [laughs]

Aaron: Okay. Well, I’m glad we finally made it happen. So in this article, Steven, you tell the story of Thomas Midgley Jr., an early-20th century inventor who was responsible for creating two incredibly valuable world-changing innovations that also both turned out to be wildly destructive—leaded gasoline and Freon.

Steven Johnson: Yep. One guy.

Aaron: One guy in basically the span of a decade. This essay you wrote, it’s fundamentally about the unintended consequences of new technology. And if you think about it, in many ways, that’s also what our podcast is about—the automobile and all of its unintended consequences. So for example, if you had told Americans a century ago that this nifty new technology for personal mobility, the car, would kill over 50,000 Americans per year by the middle of the 20th century, that it would lead us to decimate our own cities, towns and villages and cover our best farmland in asphalt and sprawl, that, you know, it would contribute substantially to the melting of polar ice caps and the disruption of the global climate system, like, you know, that would be hard to believe.

Steven Johnson: Yes. Yeah, I’d be like, “Sign me up. That sounds fantastic.”

Aaron: Right. I think a lot of people would be like, “Stick with trains and horses. We’re good.” And yet, even with that pretty impressive list of negative externalities, you can plausibly make the argument that the most destructive thing that mass motoring ever did to humanity and the environment was the result of leaded gasoline. What was the purpose of leaded gasoline? Why was it needed? Why was it considered such a great innovation for its time?

Steven Johnson: Yeah, it was originally developed to combat one almost kind of existential problem for the automobile platform, and also to enhance some other features, and the problem was engine knock.

[ARCHIVE CLIP: It was discovered that a rare compound of lead mixed in proper proportions with gasoline made an ideal anti-knock tool. Horsepower increased, speed picked up and the knock was gone. No man can look at the amazing record of accomplishment here in this research division without confidence that these men are going ahead with an eye to the future, looking for new facts and principles which will make things better and make life easier for all of us.]

Steven Johnson: Early automobiles were prone to this kind of violent, extremely inefficient in terms of power generation, flaw, which was engine knocking. The car would kind of seize and jerk, and it was very hard to, you know, pass somebody on a two-lane road. You couldn’t reliably assume that your car would have the—you know, the energy at its disposal that you hoped for. And so driving was kind of unpleasant and also more dangerous because of this. And so you just didn’t have the same kind of power efficiencies that we expect in a modern automobile.

Steven Johnson: And it was an interesting period because they really weren’t sure what was causing knock, and they knew that it was keeping people from buying automobiles. And it seemed like maybe it was gonna be just a kind of a ceiling on this transportation technology, that they would never be able to solve it and people wouldn’t buy cars. And so it was a major—along with the electric starter, which was an innovation that had come from Charles Kettering, who’s a big figure in this piece as well, it was one of the two or three main limiting factors. You know, you needed availability of gas stations, you needed to solve engine knock, you needed to get an electric starter, and then you could—then maybe this automobile thing would take off.

Steven Johnson: And so this is kind of the late teens, a little more than a hundred years ago, and basically it turned out through a series of somewhat random experiments that if you added a very small amount of lead to gasoline, you miraculously ended engine knock, and in fact increase the—you know, the power efficiency of these engines so that it was more pleasant to drive, it was safer to drive, and it just improved the experience altogether.

Aaron: And to put this in context, you write that this invention, it may have even been as important as the Ford Model T assembly line. Like, this really made mass motoring possible.

Steven Johnson: Yeah. In a sense, the Model T assembly line made the cars affordable, but they still weren’t really that great an experience as a mode of transportation because of engine knock and because of the electric starter. Those were the two big things that really changed that into something that ordinary consumers might want to use, particularly women. The electric starter was a big thing for female adoption of the cars, which was a huge part of the story of the 1920s. And so, you know, it was a real kind of threshold for the kind of American craze for the automobile was solving this problem and solving it through the introduction of lead. And that, again, as you said in describing the beginning of this piece, like, that seemed at the time to be a wonderful case of kind of American ingenuity and innovation that, you know, in this R&D lab, in, you know, Dayton, Ohio, there’s some brilliant chemist kind of comes up with this solution, and it solves an urgent need and unlocks all this amazing entrepreneurial and economic activity, and the whole country gets changed because of this technology. It just happens, unfortunately, that lead is an incredible neurotoxin.

Aaron: [laughs] Right.

Steven Johnson: And the kind of low levels of it seeping into particularly urban crowded areas where there are lots of automobiles is probably, you know, at the very top of the list of human-caused health problems of the 20th century.

Aaron: Well, let’s just pause on that real quick. So what did lead do to human beings and the environment?

Steven Johnson: Everybody knew in the 1920s as leaded gasoline was being introduced, that lead was a toxin. It was—you know, this is an ancient kind of story. People had been poisoned by lead forever. What was disputed at the time was whether lead in very small quantities, i.e., the amount of lead that would be emitted from, you know, the exhaust of a leaded gas-powered car would be enough to affect human beings. And it turns out that with enough cars and enough crowded areas with enough density of cars, and with enough children around, that seemingly small quantities of lead can just be incredibly disastrous. I mean, the impact on IQ scores, for instance.

[ARCHIVE CLIP: And this study shows that lead from gasoline lowered the IQ of about a half the US population. In fact, for people born in the ’60s and ’70s, the IQ loss was estimated to be up to six points, for some more than seven. Glad I don’t have a car any more. What more can you tell us?]

[ARCHIVE CLIP: Yeah. All right, so first of all, let me say that these are just estimates, okay? Nothing concrete here.]

Steven Johnson: And famously, there’s some wonderful sort of experiments where this scientist, Clair Patterson, was trying to—in the ’50s was trying to do all these experiments calculating the age of the Earth. And part of that involved a very sensitive lead analysis or analysis that involved the detection of lead in rocks and other objects. And when he started building his lab, he found that it was very difficult to do these experiments accurately because there seemed to be lead everywhere in his lab.

Aaron: [laughs]

Steven Johnson: And he was like, “What is going on? This is very strange.” And so finally he built this kind of clean room that eliminated all the lead, and he was able to actually accurately date the age of the Earth based on this experiment, so he made a major breakthrough in science in that way. But from this kind of accidental discovery, he realized that there was just way more kind of small quantities of lead distributed everywhere in modern society. And he went off in this other separate investigation to show how much lead had accumulated, starting really with industrialization, but then just taking off completely with the rise in the automobile in the ’30s and ’40s in the United States.

Steven Johnson: And subsequently over time, a number of people fought to prove that it was causing extremely damaging problems, particularly in inner-city areas, particularly among marginalized communities, because there was, you know, more density of automobiles in cities. And a number of people have attributed the decline of crime in the ’90s from us outlawing lead cars in the ’70s. You know, there have been a number of attempts to explain why crime dropped so precipitously in the mid-’90s, you know, across the country and particularly in big cities like New York. And it just—if you can just think about this logically, but there have been a number of studies that looked at this more rigorously, the kids who were potentially criminals in late adolescence or early twenties in the middle of the ’90s were the kids who were the first generation that grew up without leaded gasoline-based cars, you know, as prominent on the roads. And so we think that there’s at least some kind of causal relationship between the decline of violent crime and finally eliminating this problem or beginning to eliminate this problem.

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Aaron: So your article goes well beyond just, you know, cars and lead. How did you—how did you get to Thomas Midgley? What got you interested in this story to begin with?

Steven Johnson: So in a lot of my books—you know, I’ve written about a lot of different topics, but generally, you know, the overarching theme is kind of innovation and how innovation happens. And increasingly, over the last six or seven years, I’ve written more and more about the unintended consequences of innovation. Sometimes in a positive way, right? Sometimes people invent things and it turns out that they unlock doors of possibility that make it easier for people to do other things that have positive effects on society.

Steven Johnson: But I’ve also grown, you know, increasingly interested as I grow older and more cynical, with, you know, innovations that end up, you know, creating unintended harms. And also with the question of thinking about our new inventions on longer time scales, right? So not just thinking about, like, what problem is this solving right now, and maybe what would be the negative side effects right now, and trying to stretch instead our kind of mental imagination, our time scale so that we think, “Well, okay, what happens if this gets adopted by, you know, a mass market? What might be the downstream consequences 50 years from now or 100 years from now?”

Steven Johnson: And so just as in, you know, in this podcast, right, and so much of your work, the idea of, like, okay, we’re inventing these automobiles, but how might that affect, say, the design of cities 50 years from now if this becomes a mainstream technology, right? Almost no one was having that conversation in 1920, right? It was just like, “Oh, I could get from X to Y faster.”

Aaron: Right.

Steven Johnson: “You know, that would be nice. That’s great.” And so, you know, one of the things as we—as the pace of technology advances, I think it’s important for us to develop those kind of cognitive muscles to imagine the downstream consequences of what we invent and what we put in the world, because the things we’re inventing are increasingly powerful. So I was kind of interested in exploring that theme, and I—like many things I’ve written about, I’d kind of stumbled across Midgley’s story a couple of times in a couple of different contexts. It was kind of like a cocktail party story that I would tell. Like, I would be like, “You know, here’s a crazy story.”

Aaron: “Can you believe this guy?”

Steven Johnson: I mean, because you think about it, you could say, like, the—you know, the argument about Midgley is that on some level, like, no single person had a, you know, more disastrous effect on the planet than Midgley did in the 20th century because, you know—and I don’t know if we’ve alluded to this yet, but Freon and the CFCs that were in Freon, and we can get into this more detail, eventually caused the—triggered the hole in the ozone layer.

[ARCHIVE CLIP: Time lapse satellite pictures have confirmed the annual appearance of the massive hole, shown in red and purple at the center. One theory for the appearance of the hole in the ozone layer is that it’s a natural phenomenon caused by the Antarctic’s climate and the solar cycle. Wind pods carried by the research aircraft were preprogrammed to collect meteorological data to test this idea, but the most popular theory is that man-made chemicals—chlorofluorocarbons, known as CFCs—are causing the problem.]

Aaron: So Steven, not long after Midgley invented leaded gasoline, he and his boss, Charles Kettering, turned their attention to the problem of refrigeration. And refrigerators existed in the early 20th century, but they didn’t work very well, and they were actually pretty dangerous. So what was the problem with refrigeration at that time, and what was Midgley trying to solve?

Steven Johnson: Yeah, and this obsession actually goes back to the book and the TV series I did, How We Got to Now, which had a whole episode and chapter on making things cold. Like, human beings had been innovating to make things hot for, like, since the invention of fire, you know? But it turns out that, like, really nobody did anything in terms of coming up with novel ways to make things cold until really the 19th century. And, you know, in the middle of the 19th century, one of the largest businesses in the United States was the ice trade, where people would, like, chop up frozen lakes in the Northeast or in Canada and ship those blocks of ice all around—literally all around the world. And amazingly, if you have a big enough block of ice, it won’t melt on its way to Brazil or something like that.

Steven Johnson: So in the second half of the 19th century, people started thinking, well, we can do mechanical cold in a sense. And you saw first that happening on kind of an industrial scale, and then in Brooklyn, actually, Carrier invents the first air conditioning unit, initially also for industrial use at the beginning of the 20th century. And then starting around the teens and the ’20s, people start thinking about home refrigerators and then home air conditioning units. And that, you know, talk about unintended consequences too, you know, the air conditioner just redrew the map of the United States. I mean, as soon as you had home air conditioning, like, literally millions of—the single biggest migration of human beings in the history of the United States happens as everybody moves to Arizona and everybody moves to South Florida and everybody moves to Texas, and that redraws the political map, you know? So, you know …

Aaron: Right. So you could even draw a line from air conditioners to, like, Ronald Reagan.

Steven Johnson: Yeah. Yeah, absolutely. Absolutely. I mean, there’s a clear—the Sun Belt coalition that got Reagan elected was absolutely dependent on the invention of air conditioning. Now Reagan might have been elected through some other means, but he would have had to have built a different constituency if air conditioning hadn’t been around. So, you know, it’s hard to predict these things. So—but back to your question. So refrigerators in the ’20s are starting to become this thing, but they were—they used as a refrigerant things like ammonia and methyl chloride, which were either kind of deadly gasses that if they leaked could just kill people en masse, or they were very explosive. There were a number of ammonia refrigerant explosions that killed people.

Steven Johnson: And so there was this, you know, search for a safe refrigerant. And once again, Kettering went to Midgley, who had, you know, three or four years before this, solved the engine knock problem with leaded gasoline and said, “Hey, you know, Midge,” as he called him, “I got a new problem for you to solve. We need a safe refrigerant.” And Midgley very quickly came up with—much more quickly actually than he had with leaded gasoline, came up with the solution of CFCs, which was branded as Freon.

Aaron: So chlorofluorocarbons.

Steven Johnson: Thank you for saying that, because I can never quite remember how to say it.

Aaron: Yeah.

Steven Johnson: And that was initially a—you know, a big hit, and a kind of uncompromised hit. So, you know, one of the things that’s worth pointing out about lead, in addition to the fact that they knew lead in large quantities was a toxin, they had enormous problems initially manufacturing leaded gasoline. So they’d opened a—where they started manufacturing ethyl, which is what they called leaded gasoline, the brand they gave it, in the DuPont Deepwater plant, which is right at that point where—on the Jersey side, where as you’re getting off the turnpike and you’re going south towards DC, you have a bridge there?

Aaron: Mm-hmm.

Steven Johnson: To the left of that is where Deepwater was, which is now one of the most toxic sites in America.

Aaron: Right. It’s—you can actually smell it as you drive by on the New Jersey Turnpike.

Steven Johnson: It’s a disastrous place. Anyway, they started manufacturing ethyl there, and almost immediately the employees at the plant started going insane. They called that plant “The House of Butterflies” because people would hallucinate being swarmed with, like, insects and stuff like that. A number of them committed suicide.

Aaron: Incredible.

Steven Johnson: I mean, it was just like mass death instantly at the plant. And so they were like—you know …

Aaron: There might be a problem with the lead.

Steven Johnson: Yeah. Midgley himself got lead poisoning from messing around with it, and he was like, “Well, I guess I’m gonna go off to play some golf in Florida and get over this little bout of lead poisoning I got from the job.” So there was—you know, there was plenty of evidence that they just ignored, whereas the CFCs, you know, were setting in motion a chain of kind of chemical reactions that would not really—you know, that were not visible to the naked eye in any way, and they were slowly kind of unfurling in the upper atmosphere. And what makes the CFC story so much challenging, I think, for us in thinking about the lessons of this, is that the problem, the unintended consequence, the negative, unintended consequence of CFCs was fundamentally, you know, not understandable to science for another 30 years.

Aaron: Well, and it’s such an extraordinary unintended consequence. So we should just explain that. What did chlorofluorocarbons do to Earth’s atmosphere?

Steven Johnson: Yeah, it has—it has no natural kind of sink in the Earth, and so they slowly accumulate. And part of what happened is, in addition to Freon, they began to realize that CFCs could be used as an aerosol propellant in spray cans. And so between Freon and—in refrigeration and then aerosols, we just started emitting all these CFCs, and they basically have nowhere to go and they’re not naturally kind of dissolved by anything else, and so they end up accumulating in the upper atmosphere, in the stratosphere. And eventually, through a set of chemical reactions that I couldn’t possibly explain to you, they end up depleting the ozone, which is a major force protecting us from ultraviolet rays of the sun.

Aaron: So 50 years of chlorofluorocarbons, or however many decades it was, end up putting actual holes in the ozone layer of the Earth’s atmosphere above—above the poles.

Steven Johnson: Yeah.

Aaron: Actually above the north and south poles of the planet. I mean, it’s just like, yeah, so how could anyone have imagined that outcome?

Steven Johnson: Yeah, I got my refrigerator—first off, like, nobody really knew anything about the stratosphere at that point in 1928, so it wasn’t like you’d be like, “Well, I’ve got my refrigerator here. I hope it isn’t damaging the ozone layer.” Nobody even knew what the ozone layer was, right? You know, so it was a strange logical leap to make in the first place, but it was an impossible leap to make in 1928 or 1929. And I think, you know, we can get into this more but, like, that is one of those things that keeps me up at night is like, what are we doing now that will not be understandable to science until 2060 or something like that?

Aaron: Okay, well, let’s get into it. So Thomas Midgley, this incredible inventor, poisons us with lead and burns two holes in the Earth’s atmosphere with two inventions that he created in the span of 10 years. It’s just—and I had never heard of this guy. So it was like a kind of a phenomenally shocking story.

Steven Johnson: Yeah.

Aaron: Yeah, so why now? Why—why do you want to write about this now? What are you thinking about bigger picture?

Steven Johnson: Yeah. I mean, just rewind for a second to what you just said, that this story was new to you. Like, so much of what I write about are, like, these are things that should be taught in, you know, high school history classes, right?

Aaron: It would be such a good class, too, by the way.

Steven Johnson: Well, it’s a great multidisciplinary class, right? I mean, because it’s about chemistry and industrial engineering and innovation theory and the history of cities and the history of technology. I mean, there’s so many things in it that—and health obviously a huge part of it. And it’s got great detective stories in it too, of people solving these mysteries of why people were getting sick. Public health generally is something that is completely ignored, when it’s maybe one of the most important things that keeps modern society working, particularly in big cities, right?

Steven Johnson: So I’m always trying to find things that I feel like are enormously important to understanding the world that we live in that are just chronically underrepresented in our—both what we teach in classrooms and in the general conversation. I mean, this is one of these funny things visually where, like, I went to the Times Magazine and was like, “Hey, I’ve got a story about a chemist who’s been dead for 80 years.” [laughs]

Aaron: They’re like, “Hmm.” Tough sell.

Steven Johnson: But, you know, it turned out that—apparently it was one of the top most-read stories of the month in the whole New York Times. And I think because—I think to finally get back to your question, like, I think we are living in times where people are aware that there are complicated and potentially powerful new developments happening in science and technology, and that we should be getting better about thinking about the downstream effects of what we—what we invent and what we put out in the world.

Aaron: Right. So Steven, if there’s a bright side to this whole story, it’s that leaded gasoline was eventually phased out in the United States, and is now basically banned all around the world. And in 1987, the international community came together under the auspices of the United Nations to ratify the Montreal Protocol, which phased out the use of chlorofluorocarbons and all these other substances that were found to be destroying the ozone layer. So what do you think we can learn from these successful efforts to solve the enormous problems that Midgley’s inventions created?

Steven Johnson: You know, that’s another reason why I think it was an important story to write. Although I didn’t get into the details of the Montreal Protocol, it’s just a couple of paragraphs in the piece, but it may be the high watermark of kind of global collaboration in solving a pressing human health problem, up there with smallpox eradication.

[NEWS CLIP: From ABC, this is World News Tonight with Peter Jennings. And now the ozone layer. The Environmental Protection Agency formalized a plan today that this country and 23 others agreed to in Montreal in September. The plan to freeze the production and use of the chemicals believed to be damaging the ozone layer, which protects us from the sun’s dangerous rays. In Washington, here’s ABC’s Bettina Gregory.]

[NEWS CLIP: In the next 10 years, coolants in air conditioners and refrigerators will have to change. So will foam insulation, chemicals used to produce computer chips and even Styrofoam fast food containers. That’s because they contain or are manufactured with chlorofluorocarbons—CFCs for short. As these chemicals rise into the air, they destroy the ozone layer, which protects us from the sun’s harmful ultraviolet rays. The result? A dramatic increase in skin cancer, cataracts and other diseases.]

Steven Johnson: I guess I would say that, you know, you could look at it cynically—and I do look at it cynically a lot—and say, like, there was less of a political constituency and less of a talk radio right wing opinion machine that was developed enough to kind of make the pro-CFC argument or something like that. But on the other hand, by that point there were actual alternatives on the table that were not disasters to kind of swap in, and so it was a little bit easier to say, like, “Hey, we should shift to unleaded gas and drop the CFCs in our, you know, hairspray,” versus, “Hey, we should stop emitting carbon.”

Aaron: Right.

Steven Johnson: You know, it’s a harder move to make society-wise.

Aaron: It’s harder, though at the same time, we actually do have all the technology handy now and it’s really working.

Steven Johnson: We do now. We do now. No. No, I agree. And I mean, I think that’s—that’s maybe the most significant development globally in the world over the last five or 10 years is that there’s no longer like, “Well, we hope we can develop some kind of renewable energy source that will allow us to continue living this lifestyle we have.” It’s like, actually now, like, we can do it. It’s just do we have the will to do it, and do we have the …?

Aaron: Right.

Steven Johnson: But I think, you know, 10 or 15 years ago, maybe that was more of an open question. So I think that’s one of the reasons why there was less resistance to it, but I also just think that another reason why it’s a story worth telling and teaching is that it’s important to point to these things where we are capable as a species on some level of solving problems that are, you know, deeply entrenched in everyday life, and the routines and technology and infrastructure of everyday life. I mean, just think of all the, like, gas stations around the world that were selling leaded gasoline. I think it took us too long, but it’s also good to remind ourselves that sometimes we create unintended consequences and negative externalities and then correct them down the line. It is possible to do that.

Aaron: You know, one of the things you note in your piece is that it’s increasingly possible for individuals or small groups to create scientific breakthroughs, whether they be in chemistry or biotech or material science, that can set off some really enormous potential consequences that reverberate on a global scale. Artificial intelligence, you know, CRISPR, you know, the gene-editing technology, geoengineering, somebody could just shoot off a bunch of sulfur into the atmosphere to stop, you know, climate change. So where—you know, what do you—what concerns you the most in terms of these, like, potential technological interventions and their consequences?

Steven Johnson: I have a running kind of email and text thread where we share our doomsday scenarios, among other things. And, you know, there’s sometimes this debate about—that we’ve had about, you know, what is it—what is it that’s ultimately threatening us? You know, is it capitalism that’s threatening us or, you know, is it potentially artificial intelligence that’s threatening us? And I keep coming back to this sense that, like, the thing that is really threatening us on some level is science.

Aaron: Hmm.

Steven Johnson: And I say that as someone who is a great believer in the power of science, whatever. But one of the things that science does over time is that it slowly makes it easier for smaller and smaller groups of people to have bigger and bigger effects on the world. And so, you know, on some level you can say that Midgley is the emblem of that, as we’ve already kind of said. But Midgley actually needed a lot of help, right? He could invent that thing in a lab, but he needed an entire infrastructure to manufacture, you know, refrigerators and aerosol cans and gas-powered—leaded gas-powered cars and all that stuff. So he really—he was a one man, you know, natural disaster, but he had a lot of—he needed an entire, like industrial system.

Steven Johnson: But if you think about technologies that, unlike leaded gasoline or unlike CFCs, that replicate, right, they can make copies of themselves, whether that’s like nanobots or, you know, gene-based technologies or, you know, bioengineered viruses, then you get into a world where, like, you can imagine a future Midgley who literally does it on his own in a lab, and unleashes something that just makes copies of itself that does planetary-scale damage. And that is—you know, that seems like a path we are just inexorably on, that we are gonna get evermore powerful technologies and scientific breakthroughs that are deployable by ever smaller groups. So, for instance, one of the things—am I bumming you out?

Aaron: No, this is basically how most War on Cars editorial meetings go as well.

Steven Johnson: [laughs]

Aaron: Where it’s like, it just becomes like a litany of doomsday scenarios. So, you know, I’m very comfortable with it. Go on.

Steven Johnson: So the book I’m writing right now, it’s largely about the battle between the anarchists and the New York Police Department in the teens and the ’20s. And in many ways, it’s about the invention of dynamite because, you know, the whole anarchist movement in Europe and in the United States was sometimes wrongly characterized by anarchists blowing things up. And, you know, they were literally deeply embedded in the invention of dynamite. Like, it’s almost impossible—it’s a little like Reagan and air conditioning—like, had dynamite not been invented by Nobel in the mid-1860s, almost certainly the course of anarchism as a political movement would have developed in a different way. They were so …

Aaron: Wow!

Steven Johnson: You know, they were called the Dynamite Club and all that kind of stuff. And on some level what dynamite was was, you know, very much what we were just talking about. It’s for the first time an individual or small group of people could do devastating explosive damage with something concealed, you know, in their jacket. And that was just something you couldn’t—you know, if you wanted to—if you wanted to blow up Parliament, you needed, like, a lot of gunpowder to do that, but once you had dynamite, you could just have a stick of it and throw it in a cafe and kill 30 people.

Aaron: Right.

Steven Johnson: And so it enabled a new kind of—it really enabled the invention of terrorism. So these are all kind of long-term trends that I see developing, and I don’t really know what the right answer is, except that when we see potential technologies that have this capability for replication, that strikes me as the place where we want to be extremely heavy handed in the way that we regulate them, and the way—and the social norms we build around the deployment of those technologies. And those—those are the ones that really actually worry me, you know, more than AI, for instance.

Aaron: You write that there’s, you know, something unnervingly godlike in the sheer scale of the impact that Thomas Midgley had on humanity and our environment, and it occurred to me that there’s also something unnervingly religious in, like, the kind of faith and devotion that we have for technology and innovation, and this belief that we have that it’s going to constantly improve our lives. And one of the things that’s striking about the subject that we cover on this podcast is the way in which, you know, many of the best solutions for personal mobility—in cities, especially—are based on very old technologies. Like, these are like innovations from the 19th century. You know, the bicycle, the bus.

Steven Johnson: Yeah.

Aaron: The train, the streetcar. Like, we had it. We had it all, you know? By, like, 1890 it was pretty much all there. And, like, the new stuff that we invented in the 20th century has in many ways mostly disrupted urban life. Like, these older mobility technologies were sort of more based around our bodies, you know, around sort of like an ancient wisdom that, like, people can get around on two feet if you just give them, like, urban density and, you know, ways to move efficiently. I don’t know, is there, like, any way you can imagine a scenario where we begin to prioritize this kind of like older, deeper wisdom over the kind of newer, flashier innovation and technology?

Steven Johnson: Well, I think some of that is happening. I mean, I think—I do think that there has been a significant change—and we’ll see how long it lasts. But if you just look at the way people are writing about new technological innovations, particularly AI, you know, over the last three or four years, compared to the way that they wrote about early social media, you know, there was very little discussion in 2005 or 2006 about—you know, the discussion about social media was like, is it dumb? [laughs] You know?

Aaron: It was, “Is it dumb?” Or it was just like, “This is going to democratize.” And it was just very utopian.

Steven Johnson: Yeah, it was utopian or—and the criticism was just like, it’s people sharing pictures of their sandwiches. And then the—and then the, you know, proponents of it were like, “No, it’s Arab Spring. Look at this stuff that’s happening.” And, you know, by the way, that stuff did happen, right? I mean, Black Lives Matter, Occupy Wall Street, MeToo, all these things were, you know, unimaginable without social media. So I’m actually slightly less, I don’t know, doctrinaire on the social media question. But the point was we weren’t having the conversation. Like, there was not a lot of deep thinking about, like, what would this do to—what would be the potential risk to democracy in a world where everybody was on social media?

Aaron: Right.

Steven Johnson: And that is the conversation. Whether you like it or not, like, that is the conversation we’re having about AI right now. And I think the conversation, if you think about it in terms of urban spaces, like, there has been—you know, and you’ve been a part of that in New York for sure, and other places with the work you’ve done, like, you know, there is much more of a—there is much more of a sense of, like, you know, high density, you know, pedestrian environments are a really great way to live, and we should figure out, you know, ways to undo the damage we’ve done to our cities.

Aaron: Right. How to make more of that.

Steven Johnson: I mean, like, you know, just look at what’s happened in Europe. Like, I mean, the transformation of, like, the Barcelonas and the Paris’s and, you know—or everybody learning from what Amsterdam and Copenhagen had done before, you know, we really have, to your point, like, gone backwards technologically in those spaces. So I think we’re capable of doing it. It’s not a very American thing to do. [laughs]

Aaron: Right. Okay. So Steven, I know you have to run, but before we finish, how did Thomas Midgley come to his end? Tell us the story of his death.

Steven Johnson: Yeah, there’s a—there’s a fascinating kind of tragic—and tragically fitting, perhaps—coda to his life, which is that in the early 1940s, he developed polio and was paralyzed from the waist down from this, unrelated, I think, to any of his adventures with lead. I think it was just a separate case of polio. And initially he responded to it with the kind of classic Midgley-esque brio. He invented a contraption to help him get in and out of his bed without anybody else’s assistance. And, you know, it’s kind of a series of levers and pulleys and things like that so he could get in and out and into his wheelchair and things like that. And everybody was like, “Look at plucky Tom Midgley. Like, you know, even faced with this adversity, he’s innovating as always.”

Steven Johnson: And then about four years after that, he was found dead, strangled to death by the contraption that he had invented.

Aaron: Wow.

Steven Johnson: And so it’s always been kind of seen as this allegory of the man who invented all these things that came back to destroy so much of the planet and people’s health killed in the end by the machine that he invented. The twist on it is that apparently the public story was that he’d been accidentally murdered by his machine, but almost certainly it was a suicide.

Aaron: Oh, okay.

Steven Johnson: So he—and it still has some kind of metaphoric value, I suppose, in the sense that the machine he invented was the means of his own demise.

Aaron: And the suicide could have been somewhat lead-induced. I mean, that is …

Steven Johnson: Yeah, it’s possible, but it’s kind of a morbid, perhaps fittingly morbid end to the life, the short, happy life, otherwise happy life of Thomas Midgley.

Aaron: Well, Steven Johnson, thank you so much for joining us here at The War on Cars. Really appreciate it.

Steven Johnson: Thank you. I’m just still angry that it took you so long, but I’m glad to have been here and I hope to come back soon.

Aaron: Come on back anytime. That’s it for this episode of The War on Cars. Thanks again to Steven Johnson for joining us. You can find more of his work at StevenBerlinJohnson.com. And I urge you to subscribe to his excellent Substack newsletter Adjacent Possible. We’ll put links in the show notes.

Aaron: Please support The War on Cars on Patreon. Go to TheWaronCars.org, click “Support Us” and enlist today. Starting at just $3 per month, you’ll get access to exclusive bonus content, we’ll send you stickers and a personal note.

Aaron: Special thanks as always to our top Patreon sponsors: Charley Gee of Human Powered Law in Portland, Oregon, Virginia Baker, Mark Hedlund and the Parking Reform Network.

Aaron: Also a special thanks to our friends at Cleverhood for sponsoring this episode. This episode was recorded by Josh Wilcox at the Brooklyn Podcasting Studio. It was produced and edited by me, Aaron Naparstek. Our theme music is by Nathaniel Goodyear. On behalf of my co-hosts Doug Gordon and Sarah Goodyear, this is The War on Cars.

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