Friday, October 7, 2011

communism's greatest triumph

[Stolen from MR] Neil Stephenson says "A grizzled NASA veteran once told me that the Apollo Moon landings were communism’s greatest achievement."

Well that's amusing, but the rest of Stephenson's essay is what I actually wanted to talk about. He lament's that Big Things aren't getting done anymore, advocating for large centrally-planned projects such as the Apollo missions, but then uses a very bizarre(-ly misguided) metaphor with island evolution to place the blame for this on the modern ease of information access:

In his recent book Adapt: Why Success Always Starts with Failure, Tim Harford outlines Charles Darwin’s discovery of a vast array of distinct species in the Galapagos Islands—a state of affairs that contrasts with the picture seen on large continents, where evolutionary experiments tend to get pulled back toward a sort of ecological consensus by interbreeding. “Galapagan isolation” vs. the “nervous corporate hierarchy” is the contrast staked out by Harford in assessing the ability of an organization to innovate.
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.
There are so many things wrong with this...

First of all,  the process he describes can only lead to innovation stagnation if the story ends where he stops telling it. In reality, while it may be true that innovators who don't do due diligence may write off good ideas too quickly when they see something similar has already been tried, they write them off and (eventually) proceed to something else even more novel.

Secondly, if there is a downside to innovation from easy information, I would bet it's the opposite of the phenomenon described by Stephenson: if anything, easy information will trap minds within boxes that have already been exhausted, not cause minds to write off profitable boxes that weren't fully exploited.

Thirdly, the metaphor itself is fundamentally flawed. Galapagan isolation leads to amazing biodiversity because isolated populations diverge genetically and each face dissimilar sets of predators/environmental challenges that natural selection has to overcome. Many many different equilibria, consisting of different sets of species coexisting in their own unique ecosystems, develop on each island. There is no process even vaguely similar to the business meeting described above; ecosystems don't set out with the goal of coming up with a new, better solutions to life, take a look around to see if anyone has done something similar, and then write off trying out a leopard when they see there's already a cheetah.

This isn't a superficial flaw either; a truer metaphor would point against the thing Stephenson advocates for: large, centrally planned Big Things. Continental evolution doesn't produce the same variety of solutions because every `idea' is filtered through the same, huge elimination system. Island settings allow for a decentralized, diversified approach to evolution, like a hundred start-up aerospace companies instead of one big NASA.

Maybe I'm overly optimistic, but I'd rather live in a politically-impotent world with a thousand struggling startups than the cold war. I'll put my money with the crazy think-different geniuses before government bureaucracy any day.

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