Wednesday, May 5, 2010

It’s Always Been This Way

By James Paul Holloway
Arthur F. Thurnau Professor and Associate Dean, College of Engineering
James Holloway

Howard Aiken, the creator of the Harvard Mark 1 computer once observed, "Don't worry about people stealing your ideas. If your ideas are any good, you'll have to ram them down people's throats." Some of the earliest technological achievements of humanity are in food chemistry and agriculture, but you can easily imagine our ancestors sitting around the fire, mocking the innovators and remarking on how ridiculous it is to put good food on the fire, or to stop following the antelope and eat ground up grass seed. It’s hard to imagine now, but these critical ideas to human advancement could have been killed, or greatly delayed in their adoption… indeed, perhaps they were. Really good new ideas are inevitable, even if their swift adoption is not.

In the 18th century the problem of the day was longitude – it was important for a navigator to know a ship’s position on the vast oceans of the world. An accurate clock would solve this problem, but leading scientists of the day declared that it would be impossible to know time on board ship accurately – the rolling of the sea would spoil the function of a pendulum, as would changes in temperature and humidity. But John Harrison, a clockmaker, a designer, an engineer, had the vision and conviction to see that a clock could be designed for the purpose. He first designed a pendulum clock that could work at sea, and in another extrapolation of then current technology he went on to create spring-wound chronometers that also provided the necessary accuracy. He did what others called impossible or impractical or ridiculous.

Most barriers to progress are psychological inventions. We declare barriers, often with great conviction and sincerity, and when these self-declared boundaries are overcome we express admiration at the miraculous leap. Then we construct myths about the singular innovator who broke the barrier. Examples of these fictitious barriers abound: steam-ship travel across the Atlantic would never work; powered heavier-than-air flight was declared impossible; phone companies declared network communications too complex for consumer deployment.

But each of these barriers was overcome by teams that could generate creative ideas, connect those ideas to a vision and an understanding of the value of the idea, and a drive to realize it in the world. There are those who believe -- incorrectly -- that this creative process of innovation is mysterious, magical and unexplainable. And that, in turn, makes it scary to found our future on innovation. For who wants to rely on magic?

The question hints at a pessimism towards our ability to innovate to solve new problems. The question suggests we must choose between prudent prediction from present trends or the imaginative wishes of the unexpected. This choice is wrong: innovation is not wishing. Innovation is the core of human capabilities, and the humanistic path forward must be to increase our capacity to innovate.

We think our problems today are so vast and difficult – energy supplies and carriers, potable water and sanitation for billions, and sustained development. These problems daunt us. But problems of the past have also been large, often beyond our imagining. We look back and see the problems of the past solved and too easily discount the difficulty that our forebears faced in solving them. Our problems are large, but so were theirs.

In the past innovations were socially disruptive, and they will be today. Imagine the disruption caused to society in transitioning from nomadic to settled. Imagine taking on the responsibility to invest in one place and the horrible need to then defend it. Imagine the disruption of the industrial revolution and the resulting migration from agriculture to factory work in huge cities. The solutions to our big problems will be socially disruptive, too, in unexpected ways. And that’s a good thing.

In 200 years our ancestors will look back and see today’s problems and our solutions and deem them small, while the problems of our descendants will seem to them vast, difficult, perhaps even the source of despair. But pessimism is misplaced. Really good new ideas are inevitable. Counting on innovation isn’t optimism; counting on innovation is the humility of human experience, it’s always been this way.

1 comment:

arlie said...
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