Imagination & the distribution of development

A popular idea is that ‘Japan is from the future’ — that technology there as a whole is more advanced. This is probably the inspiration for the much-overused Gibson quote “the future is here, but it is not fully distributed”. In reality, Japan has what TVTropes would call ‘schizo tech’: affordable personal robots are available and toilets have bidets and mp3 players, but offices still use fax machines instead of email and documents get distributed on paper by couriers.

Schizo tech is truth in television: every culture’s advancement levels look inconsistent and lopsided from the outside, because what you invest in is based on what you value & what is made easy to improve. More specific & accurate than ‘the future isn’t evenly distributed’ is ‘development in a field is proportional to the means of development’ — most importantly, the means of imagination (the prerequisites for accurately imagining potential practical solutions to problems).

The means of imagination include:

  • attention (you have to think about problems to solve them, usually),
  • incentives (need, profitability),
  • and path dependence (do the resources you already have make solving the problem easy, and does the way you talk & think about the resources make it easy to imagine that solution).

Sometimes these things come together: Japanese robotics tech was driven by a government program to fund research in robotics caused by a projected need to care for the aging population in their old age, and was paired with a new emphasis on STEM education in the 70s and 80s. Sometimes they don’t: startups that make sense in the bay area often don’t scale beyond it because the needs of very rich but time-starved developers are really strange.

One of the reason that ‘scenius’ (i.e., the particular creative culture of social groups) matters so much is that norms, values, and availability biases strongly affect the sense of the adjacent possible.

The intellectual trajectory of the 20th century largely came out of a handful of people who moved from Germany & Austria to New Jersey (“the Martians” of the Institute for Advanced Study — Godel, Von Neumann, Einstein) and their friends, who set into motion a new reevaluation of all the old 19th century certainties about the universe (the consistency of time and space across reference points, the solidity of the matter-energy distinction, the role of probability as a mere useful tool rather than an essential property of physical law, the completeness and consistency of mathematics)[1]. The technical trajectory of the 20th century largely came out of a couple communities of researchers in conversation with this tradition — the theoretical basis of computing developed by Church and Turing on the basis of Godel’s work and feeding it back to Von Neumann’s circle in their work on building computers to simulate hydrogen bombs[2], Bell Labs (through their internal Bell Technical Journal) combining IAS’s work on quantum mechanics with their own work on materials science to produce transistors and communications satellites[3], Xerox PARC in conversation both with Bell Labs and with revolutionary ideas about education and politics coming out of information theory & cybernetics by way of places like Dartmouth and University of Illinois[4]… There is a material basis for this as well, in the form of a consistent effort by the US government to pay very smart people to hang out in places like IAS or work on projects like PLATO and the ARPAnet, combined with increased funding for STEM in the immediate wake of Sputnik[5]. In other words, access to a variety of revolutionary ideas was combined with social connections and insulation from the need to make quick & shallow progress, and as a result, deep progress occurred.

This ability to imagine new practical solutions controls the shape of society. Our communications with each other today are biased by the communications media developed during this golden age from about 1910 to 1975 of radical uncertainty and radical intellectual community, and the priorities of these folks (often unexamined, and not always the same as our own) influence the kinds of thoughts we are capable of thinking, the kinds of possibilities we are capable of imagining, and therefore the kinds of futures we are capable of bringing about.

Expanding the means of imagination has historically been done at state or institutional scale: finding smart people from across the world, bringing them together, filling the lower floors of their pyramid of needs using large quantities of cash. The inability of Google & Apple to produce and maintain a PARC-like productivity demonstrates that time, absence of pressure, and influx of truly radical ideas are vital components of this alchemical marriage — merely putting smart people together in a building & keeping them fed will not create miracles, so long as they are expected to ship.

There’s one way to seize the means of imagination that doesn’t take big (i.e., centralized) resource allocation: access to information outside the usual bubble. New or previously-unknown theories & models (even if wrong), alternative models (even if prototype or design fiction), unexpected messages (even if random — ex., by cartomancy), and altered states or unusual constraints can stimulate the imagination by breaking the sense of the adjacent possible out of a strict path dependence with the kind of financial, time, and effort investment accessible to many individuals.

[1] See: Stranger Than We Can Imagine by John Higgs
[2] See: Turing’s Cathedral by George Dyson
[3] See: The Idea Factory by Jon Gertner
[4] See: Tools for Thought by Howard Rheingold and A People’s History of Computing in the United States by Joy Lisi Rankin
[5] See: The Friendly Orange Glow by Brian Dear

Note: this essay was originally called Imagination and the Distribution of Futurity until I realized that ‘futurity’ meant something else.

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Resident hypertext crank. Author of Big and Small Computing: Trajectories for the Future of Software.

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