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How the Invention of Glass Championed Art, Self-Expression, and the Selfie

howwegottnowWhat compels us as humans to participate in and enjoy or disdain various forms of art? Why do we have a visceral urge to express ourselves through dance, speech, music, or photography? And why do we possess an equally visceral urge to pass judgments on these forms of art?

When you think about what makes humans so special—aside from opposable thumbs, language, and the intrinsic duality of good and evil—it’s the deep-seated desire to tell stories about who we are, in whatever medium it takes.

All of this, it turns out, was inspired by the invention of glass.

In How We Got to Now, author Steven Johnson beautifully captures and shares the inventions and innovations that fundamentally shifted the trajectory of our species. Innovations in glass, sound, time, light, cleanliness—the things that we take for granted—are the things that have changed our world, and in turn, the way we lead our lives. He calls it the hummingbird effect—”an innovation, or cluster of innovations, in one field ends up triggering changes that seem to belong to a different domain altogether.” Like our actions, these inventions send ripples into other adjacent or seemingly unrelated domains, inspiring new advancements in thinking and innovating.

Today, we’ll take a look at how glass, in particular, has influenced and shaped our world and our culture. Johnson explains the origins:

Roughly 26 million years ago, something happened over the sands of the Libyan Desert, the bleak, impossibly dry landscape that marks the eastern edge of the Sahara. We don’t know exactly what it was, but we do know that it was hot. Grains of silica melted and fused under an intense heat that must have been at least a thousand degrees. . . . When those superheated grains of sand cooled down below their melting point, a vast stretch of the Libyan Desert was coated with a layer of what we now call glass.

At some point, humans began to work with glass, and they found ways to use the substance as ornamentation. One of the earlier discoveries of the shaping of glass, mentioned by Johnson, was the way it ended up as a centerpiece of a brooch, carved into the shape of a scarab beetle. If you’re thinking of the ancient Egyptians and all the images of their ornaments and gorgeous jewelry, you’re surely connecting the dots.


Photo cred: https://pt.wikipedia.org/wiki/Steven_Johnson

Over time, however, the use of glass transitioned from simply the self-serving act of adorning oneself to appear more beautiful into a more economic role. Johnson details this change:

Glass first made the transition from ornament to advanced technology during the height of the Roman Empire, when glassmakers figured out ways to make the material sturdier and less cloudy than naturally forming glass like that of King Tut’s scarab. Glass windows were built during this period for the first time, laying the groundwork for the shimmering glass towers that now populate city skylines around the world. . . . It wasn’t until the next millennium, and the fall of another great empire, that glass became what it is today: one of the most versatile and transformative materials in all of human culture.

The fall of Constantinople in 1204 sent glassmakers from Turkey across the Mediterranean to settle in Venice. Venice, at the time, was a thriving city of commerce, and glassblowing was a skill that created new luxury goods that supplemented existing arts and crafts. But glassblowing came at a cost.

Silicon dioxide melts at 1,000 degrees, and Venice was a city made of wood. Mistakes are vital for innovation, but these mistakes burned down entire neighborhoods. After 85 years, the government sent glassmakers into exile to protect the public, but also to retain and champion the craft of glassblowing. Glassmakers went across the Venetian Lagoon to the island of Murano, where inadvertently, the small community of creatives turned into a hub of innovation where information and knowledge of the craft spread quickly.

During this period, Murano became known as the Isle of Glass, and Angelo Barovier, one of Murano’s glassmakers, experimented with different chemical compositions. According to Johnson, he took seaweed (rich in potassium oxide and manganese), burned it to ashes, and then added it into molten glass. When the glass cooled, its composition changed, and the cloud that was once trapped inside vanished. Barovier compared the clarity of the stone to quartz and called it cristallo. As Johnson said, “This was the birth of modern glass.”

The morphing continues; from silica-covered dessert to ornament to windowpane, on to the development of eyeglasses, which affected humans at the most personal level yet.

No one is sure exactly when or where it happened, but somewhere around this time in Northern Italy, glassmakers came up with an innovation that would change the way we see the world, or at least clarify it: shaping glass into small disks that bulge in the center, placing each one in a frame, and joining the frames together at the top, creating the world’s first spectacles. Those early spectacles were called roidi da ogli, meaning “disks for the eyes.

The invention of glasses roughly coincided with the invention of the printing press, which streamlined the dissemination of information, and individual knowledge went from a splash to a wave. The power of magnification from glasses lead to the microscope and the telescope, which opened our minds to both the huge universe of the stars and planets as well as the microscopic universes within our reach. The ability to see more deeply into an object or space fascinated the human mind and opened a floodgate of ideas, insights, and questions. Microscopes and telescopes not only furthered our vision but also our ambition.

all kinds of glass

Even with all the amazing developments of glass over thousands and thousands of years, most fascinating to me is how glass ultimately championed art. Johnson says [emphasis mine],

At that exact moment that the glass lens was allowing us to extend our vision to the stars or microscopic cells, glass mirrors were allowing us to see ourselves for the first time. It set in motion a reorientation of society that was more subtle, but no less transformative, than the reorientation of our place in the universe that the telescope engendered. . . . Social conventions as well as property rights and other legal customs began to revolve around the individual rather than the older, more collective units: the family, the tribe, the city, the kingdom. People began writing about their interior lives with far more scrutiny. Hamlet ruminated onstage; the novel emerged as a dominant form of storytelling, probing the inner mental lives of its characters with an unrivaled depth. Entering a novel, particularly a first-person narrative, was a kind of conceptual parlor trick: it let you swim through the consciousness, the thoughts and emotions, of other people more effectively than any aesthetic form yet invented. The psychological novel, in a sense, is the kind of story you start wanting to hear once you begin spending meaningful hours of your life staring at yourself in the mirror.

This strange artifact that grew out of the Libyan Desert, transformed by the curiosities of the human mind, inspired us to introspect and pay attention to the inner world. Above all, it motivated us to communicate it. This fundamentally changed human behavior, and our modern world and all its quirky behaviors and attitudes is a reflection of that. Our social networks (and this blog) are all ways of communicating our inner lives to the rest of the world. Even by making novels a dominant form of storytelling, it shaped human nature and how we learn, empathize, and connect with one another.

But it didn’t end there. Glass made the Internet possible:

Today, the backbone of the global Internet is built out of fiber-optic cables. Roughly ten distinct cables traverse the Atlantic Ocean, carrying almost all the voice and data communications between the continents. Each of those cables contains a collection of separate fibers, surrounded by layers of steel and insulation to keep them watertight and protected from fishing trawlers, anchors, and even sharks. Each individual fiber is thinner than a piece of straw. It seems impossible, but the fact is that you can hold the entire collection of all the voice and data traffic traveling between North America and Europe in the palm of one hand. A thousand innovations came together to make that miracle possible: we had to invent the idea of digital data itself, and laser beams, and computers at both ends that could transmit and receive those beams of information—not to mention the ships that lay and repair the cables. But those strange bonds of silicon dioxide, once again, turn out to be central to the story. The World Wide Web is woven together out of threads of glass.

The advent of the Internet (with information going from a splash to a wave to a tsunami) also inspired newfound behaviors that went—literally—hand-in-hand with innate desires of self-expression and our ability to communicate it with our devices.

This brings us to the selfie.

Johnson connects the dots and offers a profound insight into why selfies have become our modern day self-portraiture:

It’s easy to make fun of our penchant for taking selfies, but in fact there is a long and storied tradition behind that form of self-expression. Some of the most revered works of art from the Renaissance and early modernism are self-portraits; from Dürer to Leonardo, to Rembrandt, all the way to van Gogh with his bandaged ear, painters have been obsessed with capturing detailed and varied images of themselves on the canvas. Rembrandt, for instance, painted around forty self-portraits over the course of his life. But the interesting thing about self-portraiture is that it effectively doesn’t exist as an artistic convention in Europe before 1400. People painted landscapes and royalty and religious scenes and a thousand other subjects. But they didn’t paint themselves. 

Today, the Internet and our social profiles are full of selfies, taken from all angles, with every expression, and from varying cultures. Selfies arise out of a multitude of motivations: to express happiness, sadness, insecurity, braggadocio, or to simply record memories. This behavior—which has quickly been correlated with narcissism—happens to be our modern day self-portraiture. Self-portraiture in the Renaissance didn’t only inspire a new art form, but a new way of communicating, both with our selves and with our communities. I wonder if the primal motivation of the artist facing a blank canvas is the same as a group of friends taking a selfie in Times Square?

While I’m sure there were people who disdained artists that suddenly took an interest in painting themselves, ours is a culture that is fascinated, for good or for ill, with this new habit. We look at glass everyday, and rarely do we think of or appreciate the transformative power that this reflection instilled in our species over thousands of years.

Now the question is, where will glass lead us next?

How We Got To Now is a book that makes me envious of Johnson’s ability to connect the dots, research ruthlessly, and provide gleaming insights into human history and its condition. If you thought the innovations in glass were fascinating, then you have to read the rest.