Imagination & the distribution of development

John Ohno
4 min readOct 21, 2019

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…

John Ohno

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