Invented or Discovered? P1


If there is one thing to be gained by studying the past it seems to be a sense of humility. Under the shadow of great leaders and thinkers we appear no more than action figures perched on the shoulders of giants, lifting our skinny fists like antennas to Heaven. And under bound pages of great narrative arcs, we may be made to feel just droplets of ink, clinging to the quill of fate, powerless to alter our trajectory. Whether accepting influential people or inevitable patterns as the tides of change, our accomplishments are always superseded. As with so much other heavy thought, there might arise temptation to relinquish all agency and sink under the ultimate meaninglessness of our contributions. But despair is fallacious [A]; as with all else, our significance exists on a scale. As we lean away from nihilism and toward recognition of the fractal nature of our impact, we may find solace in the possibility of breaking the chains of discovery, finally cherishing our rightful label: inventors.

This is Invented or Discovered?: a series exploring the concept of inevitability. Part I takes the lens of history, addressing its fractal nature, relation to chemical kinetics, and the role we may play.

Fractal History

"History doesn't repeat itself, but it often rhymes." – Mark Twain

History might be considered fractal in two senses.

First, history is the sum of the actions of people. Many are small and frequent enough to be considered predictable patterns, but in each act there is some level of creation, discovery, or meaningful achievement. There are other acts that seem to irrevocably pivot our story, those which lie completely outside pattern because they follow no precedent. Yet language has a knack for summarizing the never before seen. No person, however influential, can escape the jaws of comparison. Both the rise of bread and of an empire are acts of creation embedded in a larger flow of events.

Second, it is cyclic. The states of the past present themselves such that they seem predictable. Many a sinusoid has been drawn to represent the seasons of history. But these periodic functions come in many sizes. We may see repetition on the scale of centuries or of weeks.

Focusing on the former, the shape of this flow of events looks something like a chemical kinetics graph.

Progress Kinetics

Chemical reactions proceed in a predictable fashion: they begin at rest, reach activation energy and enter the transition state, then finally react to completion.

Invention follows a similar process. At first, large efforts are required. Some risk-taking, pioneering person or group must fight to bring their new idea into creation, though immediate incentives don't exist. These are inventors, doing the uphill work of progress.

If they reach activation energy however, the story changes. The now negative slope means that there are immediate incentives to contribute to the technology.

Immediate you say? Well, not really. A more accurate depiction of chemical reactions consists of several transition states.

Imagine the kinetics graph of the invention of modern computers. In the beginning, activation energy was huge, so we shouldn't be surprised that the first computers received their lofty funding from war-motivated governments. However, once basic infrastructure was put into place, it began to make sense for slightly smaller players to innovate. Enter [B] Apple: though spawning from a suburban garage, they reached significant activation energy of their own, popularizing personal computing. Their curve can be imagined superimposed on top of a larger one, as seen above. Because of existing innovations in integrated circuits and software, less effort was required to make an advancement. In doing so, they created a platform on which millions of other, even smaller players were empowered to make their own additions, to achieve their own smaller activation energies, all together moving forward the realm of computers, software, and the internet. At the current stage of technology, activation energy required to contribute is so small that nearly anyone can do it—with the rise of no-code tools, programming knowledge is barely even necessary to run a 'tech' startup. This downhill progress, this continuous reduction of the effort required to reap the rewards of invention, is often called democratization.

In this fractal conception of progress, all actions are simultaneously uphill and downhill, invention and discovery; it depends only on which scale you use for context. We can take solace in knowing that our actions make a difference, yet we can also zoom out and view their inevitability as mere extensions to a larger narrative.

The importance of scale should not be underemphasized. To have the greatest impact is to overcome the greatest activation energy. If you are outracing hoards of competition you are likely engaging in discovery. Pure invention would not be simultaneously discovered because it would not lie on any downhill; it would aim not to win the game, but to build a new one.

Yet to be entirely uphill is probably impossible; language, being infinitely generative, can succinctly summarize any history in a way that may be extrapolated. Any progress could be considered just another inevitable foothill on the mountain of technology. This is one reason why study of history is so important. All prediction is derived from some model of the past. To invent, we must first discover.

Ahead of the Times

But what would happen if innovation failed, the inventor falling short of activation energy? Would all progress be lost? The example in this case is Charles Babbage and his oft cited analytical engine, an invention which was simply before its time due to the nonexistence of necessary infrastructure. Electricity was only beginning to be understood at the time, so making a practical computer would have required not only the conceptual leap to computation, but an entire leap forward in physics. His idea was so far ahead that it would hardly have been taken seriously; he may as well have been told to go fly a kite [C].

Babbage's eccentricity was probably not in vain—if nothing else, he contributed to the concept of computation—but it seems fundamentally wrong that more than a century passed before the first computer was built.

It should be possible to avoid such stalls in progress, and perhaps the first step is to be ambitious about building infrastructure for the future; otherwise, the best visionaries will continue to be ahead of their time [D].

It may be possible to incentivize such long term thinking by simply funding it, trusting that it will reach activation energy. Because while incentives to invention exist, they lie beyond activation energy—one must have the resources, vision, and patience to reach the peak. In tech, this is called venture capital. Those who believe early may reap the rewards of the downhill.

But even venture capital operates on somewhat short time scales, almost always less than 10 years. If greater ambitions are to be incentivized, greater patience is demanded, a patience of which would die without belief in the efficacy of bold projects. The second we choose to see innovation as magic rather than the product of hard work, investing won't make sense.

Steve Jobs was a titan largely because he made others believe in invention. He had 1) the long-term vision to see what incentives lay ahead, 2) an incredible technical cofounder capable of walking the talk, and 3) a charisma that bent the world's perception to his will, making the previously impossible seem a mere tomorrow's task. For more on how exceptional individuals can bend the arc of history, I point to Great Founder Theory.

If we are to overcome some of our greatest issues and achieve some of our greatest opportunities, we must believe in that which makes us human: the ability to invent.

Free Energy

As an anti-climatic ending, I'll consider extending the metaphor a bit further because there may actually be good analogs to endo- and exothermic reactions.

Exothermic reactions leave society with more free energy than they had before. While lots of work was put into the invention of computers, it seems fair to say that their advantages have already payed back that debt of time and effort.

If there are endothermic reactions, these are inventions better off uninvented. Examples might include products that drive forward a competitive arms race, yet don't improve the relative quality of life for anyone. Think 'Videophony' from Infinite Jest [E].


[A] Related to this is something I call the Go With The Flow Fallacy: This is the false idea that knowing you lacked free will would justify stopping all action, and adopting a more "go with the flow" attitude. It is wrong because even if you don't have free will, you have to think that you are displaying agency in order to do anything. Whether or not we have free will should have no effect on our actions.

[B] many, many years later (I'm obviously skipping a few steps)

[C] Pun intended

[D] Infrastructure is meta