Steven Johnson, one of my favorite science authors, just published a new book:
It’s about what he calls “hummingbird effects” in the history of technology. He coined this term as a play on the “butterfly effect,” in which very small events can lead to totally unpredictable, chaotic effects in ways that are virtually impossible to trace back to their source. In contrast, a “hummingbird” is a historical connection between completely different domains that is easy to see in retrospect, but is not expected by anyone. The name comes from the evolution of hummingbirds, which came about only when plants began producing nectar to attract pollinating insects. Without this development, it is very unlikely that an avian species would evolve the special characteristic abilties of what he know as hummingbirds.
Some other examples:
*Chlorination of water leads to swimming as a hobby leads to changes in women’s fashion.
*Accurate clocks are developed to calculate the longitude of ships, which leads to the synchronized factories of the industrial revolution
*Microphones lead to organized political rallies which allows for the possibility of fascism
*The invention of the laser creates bar code scanners which allows for the dominance of big box retail stores
*And last, my favorite, the invention of air conditioning leads to the settling of the “sun belt” states of Florida, Texas, and Arizona, vastly influencing American politics.
PBS has a six-part miniseries going on now.