Invention as crystallisation, not inspiration

People set themselves curious challenges. Doogie Hooner’s is to explain everything through flowcharts, and his book doing precisely that is published today. One of the tasks he sets himself is to explain the internet to a nineteenth century street urchin.  A small extract from the resulting flow chart is shown below, click on it to see the full thing.

It’s nicely done, and it’s probably not giving too much of the plot away to say that the urchin doesn’t end up a great deal the wiser.  It is next to impossible to understand the internet in 1835 because it is next to impossible to understand the predecessor concepts. The things you need to understand in order to understand the internet don’t exist yet. Or to put it the other way round, the internet could be invented when it was because the conditions for its existence were already in place. And that in turn is one of the reasons why words like ‘invented’ don’t seem terribly useful when talking about things like the internet: the internet emerged when it did at the point when it was a small step on from all the things which existed already.

That can be a local effect as well as a global one. I had a fascinating conversation a couple of weeks ago, discussing whether a particular innovation could take root in a particular organisation. The conclusion was that it couldn’t, not because the innovation wasn’t there for the taking, but because the way that organisation thought about the relevant problem would not allow it to see the innovation as a potential solution. William Gibson’s famous dictum, ‘The future is here. It’s just not evenly distributed yet,’ is in part a consequence of that too. The future emerges at times and in places where the conditions exist to support it.

That’s not to argue for some crude form of historical determinism. Our specific presents and futures are the result of specific people doing specific things. It is, though, to make the point that invention and innovation are much more the crystallisation of current possibilities in new arrangements than they ever are the plucking from nowhere of what had hitherto been unknown.

Comments

  1. We have had the quote from William Gibson on our website since 2003.
    We have been trying all that time to get broadband to an area of the UK where telcos deem it to be uneconomic. We have been lobbying councils and government, who turn round to us and say ‘99% of the country is connected’ we turn round and say ‘oh no it isn’t, the telcos are telling porkies’.
    We want to use the internet, we want our kids to innovate and use it for work and play, we want to be able to upload photographs, use skype to talk to friends and family and all sorts of other stuff. We know the future is just around the corner, but we know it can’t happen until EVERYONE has a connection. A third of the population has a connection Not Fit For Purpose, and many stuck on dial up. Despite the telco hype. More than half of the UK land mass doesn’t have decent mobile signal either.
    The finalthirdfirst isn’t just in rural areas. Anyone further than 3km from an exchange is in the final third. Anyone further than 300metres from a cabinet will soon join them.
    There is no way next generation internet access can be delivered over copper. That was laid for a victorian phone network that has served us well. The future is fibre to the home. Aye. But it isn’t here yet.
    The solution is digital village pumps. Get the fibre to the rurals at not geographic prices and they will distribute it. They will go where the telcos fear to tread. I also think all ducts, poles and wayleaves should be handed over to any company willing to deliver a service if the incumbent won’t.
    And convicts should make components for fibre instead of sewing mailbags.

    chris.

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