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Beyond the moment of invention
Derek Thompson has a feature in The Atlantic this week on “Why the Age of American Progress Ended”—thoughtful and worth reading. Some comments and reactions.
One of the ideas explored in the article is that what matters for progress is not just the moment of invention, but what happens after that. I generally agree. Some ways I think this is true:
The first iteration of an invention is generally just good enough to be practical, but far below optimal: there are decades of incremental improvements that get it to what we know today. Edison’s light bulb was not as bright or long-lasting as today’s bulbs.
Often there is a whole system that needs to be built up around the invention. It wasn’t enough to invent the light bulb, you also needed the generators and the power grid.
Such a system not only has to be invented, it has to be scaled. Scaling up from a prototype to a large, efficient, reliable system is its own challenge. Again with the power grid, it was a big challenge to figure out how to efficiently serve large regions, do load balancing, etc. With railroads, there was a challenge in figuring out how to manage a schedule with many trains and routes. With the telegraph and later the telephone, a system had to be invented to route messages and calls.
Merely working is not enough for wide distribution: other characteristics really matter, like cost, efficiency, and reliability. People underrate these—especially reliability, which can be a huge barrier to adoption.
An invention that works and is practical, cheap and reliable still doesn’t automatically sell. You have to convince people to change the way they do things, and that is tough. Sometimes you have to help people imagine uses for things: when the telegraph was first invented, they would demonstrate it by playing chess long-distance, and people would come watch this happen, but still not imagine what they personally would use a telegraph for.
Often regulations and legal frameworks have to be updated. E.g., containerization: the ICC regulated rates and they set rates based on the type of cargo; with containers you want to charge based on volume and weight alone, and this clashed with the regulatory framework. This kind of thing happens all the time.
Even after an invention is widely available, it can take further decades for all the implications to be worked out and for it to fundamentally change the way people do things. Electricity didn’t cause factories to be reorganized until the ’20s or ’30s. Containerization didn’t immediately change the way supply chains were organized.
And then, social or regulatory barriers can block distribution. In addition to the ones discussed above, another major one is pushback from labor when jobs are going to be automated (many historical examples).
A lack of good institutions in poor countries can also block distribution, which is why the world is so unevenly wealthy today.
On another note, I thought this paragraph near the end of the piece was spot-on:
When you add the anti-science bias of the Republican Party to the anti-build skepticism of liberal urbanites and the environmentalist left, the U.S. seems to have accidentally assembled a kind of bipartisan coalition against some of the most important drivers of human progress. To correct this, we need more than improvements in our laws and rules; we need a new culture of progress.
Original post: https://rootsofprogress.org/beyond-the-moment-of-invention
Announcing our incoming CEO
A few months ago we announced a major expansion of our activities, from supporting just my work to supporting a broader network of progress writers. Along with that, we launched a search for a CEO to lead the new organization we are building for this program. I’m very happy to announce that we have found a CEO: Heike Larson.
Heike and I have known each other personally for many years, and during that time I’ve always been impressed by her energy and her clear, structured thinking. She has been following my work for a long time, and shares my passion for human progress. She also has excellent qualifications, including 15 years of VP-level experience in sales, marketing, and strategy roles in a variety of industries, from education to aircraft manufacturing. In her most recent role at edtech startup Mystery Science, she led the content team that created five-minute “Mystery Doug” videos made to inspire elementary-age kids to become the next generation of problem solvers (with topics including phones, traffic lights, plastic, and bicycles). Those who have worked with her remark on her enormous drive and her extreme skills in process and organization. I’m excited for her to start!
Heike is transitioning out of her current role at Mystery Science and will start full-time in January. Her first priority will be launching the “career accelerator” fellowship program for progress writers described in our previous announcement, and the teambuilding and fundraising necessary to make that a success. She will take on all management and program responsibilities; I will remain President and intellectual leader of the organization: I’ll be the spokesman, will contribute to talent selection and development, and will devote the majority of my time to research, writing, and speaking—in particular, writing my book on progress.
This is a new era for us, the start of a serious effort to create a thriving progress movement. Please help me welcome Heike to The Roots of Progress!
Original post: https://rootsofprogress.org/incoming-ceo-heike-larson
Links and tweets
The Progress Forum
Are Technologies Inevitable? (Matt Clancy)
Comparing process improvement in manufacturing and construction: Duco vs Drywall (Brian Potter)
A new mRNA vaccine against all known influenza virus subtypes (via @ScottEHensley)
Waymo One is opening to the public in San Francisco (via @Waymo)
AI plays Diplomacy (via @ml_perception). See Zvi Mowshowitz’s take
Kevin Esvelt on how to prevent the next pandemic. In the inaugural issue of the new Asterisk Magazine
Guinea worm disease is close to being eradicated (via @redouad)
Concrete visions/narratives for technology over the next 20-30 years?) (@nabeelqu)
Examples of path-dependency in technology? (@_brianpotter)
Who should Milan Cvitkovic meet in London or Oxford? (@MWCvitkovic)
Anyone know about the early history of semiconductor research?
Who would you like to see speak at Peter Diamandis’s Abundance360 Summit? (@PeterDiamandis)
Suggested reading on the issue of preindustrial child abandonment?
What’s the most interesting thing/person/event in the world right now? (@pmarca)
The spirit of applied science, on the eve of the era of synthetic chemistry
Questions that arose when converting wood-burning houses to coal
If you like privacy, be glad you were born after indoor plumbing
The rapid transformation from containerization took everyone by surprise
Top athletes don’t see what they do as sacrificial at all. They like it (@mbateman)
Applying a theory to make predictions is not a matter of naive “extrapolation”
Tweets & retweets
When you make it harder to exit something, you make it harder to enter
Americans are an amazing people, but perfectionist (@yashevde)
A potential US rail strike would cause major supply chain disruptions (@typesfast)
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"To correct this, we need more than improvements in our laws and rules; we need a new culture of progress."
Rules, regulations, and laws build up like free radicals in the body, calcifying the system until progress is too painful that it is no longer attempted. The problem is that government is asymmetric, it is equipped only to create laws, not to review them or undo them. We need circular government that removes rules and regs when they do not fulfill their stated purpose so that the system doesn't calcify.
Great stuff, and congrats to Heike, looking forward to her work on this important topic! 💚 🥃