Innovators are tormented by their tendency to overlook new applications of old technologies. It took about 40 years for radios to become commonplace in cars. Scott Page points out that all of the parts required to create an engine existed for 20 years before someone created an engine. There were decades in which erasers and pencils existed separately but not together. Nassim Taleb notes that it took humans thousands of years to think of putting wheels on luggage—and it occurred 30 years after airports sold carts with wheels.
Generally, the longer a technology exists, the more difficult it is to apply in new ways.
Here’s a story from Diogenes Laertius’ Life of Pyrrho that I discovered in Montaigne I:14.
Pyrrho was aboard a ship during a bad storm. Those around him were terrified, so he directed their attention to a pig, who was “quite unconcerned with the storm.” Pyrrho told them to imitate the pig. Montaigne says: “Dare we conclude that the benefit of reason (which we praise so highly and on account of which we esteem ourselves to be lords and masters of all creation) was placed in us for our torment. What use is knowledge if, for its sake, we lose the calm and repose which we would enjoy without it and if it makes our condition worse than that of Pyrrho’s pig?”
(Montaigne point is “ills can only enter us through our judgment… it would seem to be in our power either to despise them or to deflect them towards the good.”)
I’m reminded of Nietzsche’s cattle who are similarly happy because they have no sense of history.
“Consider the cattle, grazing as they pass you by. They do not know what is meant by yesterday or today, they leap about, eat, rest, digest, leap about again, and so from morn till night and from day to day, fettered to the moment and its pleasure or displeasure, and thus neither melancholy nor bored.”
If you think you’ve experienced the worst possible harm and you’re still alive, you haven’t experienced the worst possible harm.
Seneca: “We should be anticipating not merely all that commonly happens but all that is conceivably capable of happening, if we do not want to be overwhelmed and struck numb by rare events as if they were unprecedented ones.”
Lucretius (paraphrased): “The fool believes that the tallest mountain in the world is the tallest mountain he has seen.” (Can we call this Lucretian underestimation?)
Animals slow down as they increase in size and speed up as they decrease in size. The animals with the slowest heart beats, metabolism, and breaths per minute are whales, elephants, hippos, etc (they also move slowly). The speedy mouse and hyper hummingbird are on the other end of the spectrum. There is also a correlation between size and life expectancy. Whales live longer than mice, which live longer than mosquitoes. However, the smallest stuff usually out lasts the big stuff in the long run. Mosquitoes (the species, not an individual mosquito) have been around way longer than elephants, and elephants will surely go extinct before mosquitoes.
Now let’s look at cities. Everything from crime to salaries to traffic increase with size, so unlike animals, size indicates speed. Here’s another difference: the larger a city is, the longer it will last—on average. Hiroshima and Nagasaki still exist after experiencing a nuclear explosion. Now go to Wikipedia and search ghost towns. Each share the same story: economic prosperity (golden rush, e.g.,) led to a small town (less than 100) until a flood, violence, or freak disaster killed the town forever. So in terms of longevity, big cities last longer than small ones, while big animals go extinct faster than small ones.
Also, fragility and size are correlated. Compare an elephant with a broken leg to a kitten or mouse with the same injury; the elephant is much worse off. Now compare a city that suffers an equivalent of a broken legal (e.g., natural or man-made disaster) to a small town that suffers something with similar destructive power; the small town is way worse off.
The one problem running throughout this is the false comparison between cities, species, and individual animals. Some more thought is required in this regard.
Imagine that you contract an illness and a doctor proscribes you an antibiotic with directions to take one pill for 10 days. You take the pill for the first few days, feel better, and then decide to stop taking the pill. Here’s what will happen next: the pill kills the weak bacteria but the strong ones remain, multiply and the illness comes back stronger. You’re worse off. This error occurs frequently, and it is not limited to medicine.
In many domains, humans tend to equate a marginal improvement with security in the long run, when such improvements only conceal more consequential harm down the road. For example, research demonstrates that drivers drive more aggressively when they are wearing a seat belt. Financial risk management similarly encourages us to take larger risks. The same thing occurs in education. A degree gives us some knowledge, but it also leads to overconfidence and what psychologist term the illusion of understanding—the idea that we equate familiarity with a topic with full knowledge of that topic, which can lead to larger errors.
The irony is as the world becomes more complex, this thinking mistake worsens. That is to say, as complexity increases, instead of critically examining the reality of a situation, we hire consultants, take more pills, or implement small changes that only deliver small positive gains. The result is often that we are worse off than an initial position, to which we respond by repeating the same mistake. This negative feedback loop is not inevitable—in some domains, like the airline industry, in which flying becomes safer after each accident, we see the opposite—but it is an unmistakable trend, visible across many domains.
Just like removing street signage causes drivers to think carefully (and fewer accidents), a difficult to read font forces us to think critically (and reduce errors). Disfluency + page 41 in the Laws of Subtraction.