Take uncertainty seriously: Neal Stephenson on innovation

Neal Stephenson, in his recent post on Wired’s Epicenter blog, makes a pretty good case for the link between risk and imaginative “big projects.” Failing to capitalize on this link, though, will mean we become suckers for safe and evolutionary improvements.

Most people who work in corporations or academia have witnessed something like the following: A number of engineers are sitting together in a room, bouncing ideas off each other. Out of the discussion emerges a new concept that seems promising. Then some laptop-wielding person in the corner, having performed a quick Google search, announces that this “new” idea is, in fact, an old one — or at least vaguely similar — and has already been tried. Either it failed, or it succeeded. If it failed, then no manager who wants to keep his or her job will approve spending money trying to revive it. If it succeeded, then it’s patented and entry to the market is presumed to be unattainable, since the first people who thought of it will have “first-mover advantage” and will have created “barriers to entry.” The number of seemingly promising ideas that have been crushed in this way must number in the millions.

What if that person in the corner hadn’t been able to do a Google search? It might have required weeks of library research to uncover evidence that the idea wasn’t entirely new — and after a long and toilsome slog through many books, tracking down many references, some relevant, some not. When the precedent was finally unearthed, it might not have seemed like such a direct precedent after all. There might be reasons why it would be worth taking a second crack at the idea, perhaps hybridizing it with innovations from other fields. Hence the virtues of Galapagan isolation.

If I read Stephenson right, uncertainty is the space between us and our future where our imagination gets to work. I’m reminded of a Kant’s First Critique seminar I did last spring: the prof advised that no matter how hard it is, we should always start our homework by reading Kant. If you hop to the secondary sources first – and these were absurdly helpful resources, sure – you’ve screwed yourself for the chance to saying something new. Stephenson’s on to something, and if it seems like it’s of import to people other than creatives and sci-fi writers, then you’re quite right. Setting the tone for what comes next is something you can rarely achieve when you’re constantly focused on what the people around you have done first, whether they’ve put their energy towards making phones or writing about Kant.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s