The Next Minsky Moment

“China’s economy has entered a state of new normal.”

– Premier Li Keqiang, 2015

“Success breeds a disregard of the possibility of failure.”

– Hyman Minsky

Hollywood thrives on tropes. Most things that are possible to portray on film have been portrayed at some point in the last century. Today’s producers mostly just rearrange those tropes – and that’s OK.

Much of what we think is new and different is actually one variation or another on ancient themes. My favorite book genre, science fiction, has many archetypal tropes that can be traced back to Greek mythology, which itself must have grown out of tales that must have been told for millennia. Thus it’s little wonder that the “zeitgeist” of our time seems to produce a lot of zombie movies or asteroid movies or bad-alien movies. These and many other tropes just “get in the air” and take on a life of their own.

It’s not just storytelling; it’s inventions, too. You must take a minute to read this quote from Matt Ridley’s critically important book, The Evolution of Everything:

Suppose Thomas Edison had died of an electric shock before thinking up the light bulb. Would history have been radically different? Of course not. Somebody else would have come up with the idea. Others did. Where I live, we tend to call the Newcastle hero Joseph Swan the inventor of the incandescent bulb, and we are not wrong. He demonstrated his version slightly before Edison, and they settled their dispute by forming a joint company. In Russia, they credit Alexander Lodygin. In fact there are no fewer than twenty-three people who deserve the credit for inventing some version of the incandescent bulb before Edison, according to a history of the invention written by Robert Friedel, Paul Israel, and Bernard Finn. Though it may not seem obvious to many of us, it was utterly inevitable once electricity became commonplace that light bulbs would be invented when they were. For all his brilliance, Edison was wholly dispensable and unnecessary. Consider the fact that Elisha Gray and Alexander Graham Bell filed for a patent on the telephone on the very same day. If one of them had been trampled by a horse en route to the patent office, history would have been much the same.

I am going to argue that invention is an evolutionary phenomenon. The way I was taught, technology was invented by god-like geniuses who stumbled upon ideas that changed the world. The steam engine, light bulb, jet engine, atom bomb, transistor – they came about because of Stephenson, Edison, Whittle, Oppenheimer, Shockley. These were the creators. We not only credit inventors with changing the world; we shower them with prizes and patents.

But do they really deserve it? Grateful as I am to Sergey Brin for the search engine, and to Steve Jobs for my MacBook, and to Brahmagupta (via Al Khwarizmi and Fibonacci) for zero, do I really think that if they had not been born, the search engine, the user-friendly laptop, and zero would not by now exist? Just as the light bulb was ‘ripe’ for discovery in 1870, so the search engine was ‘ripe’ for discovery in 1990. By the time Google came along in 1996, there were already lots of search engines: Archie, Veronica, Excite, Infoseek, Altavista, Galaxy, Webcrawler, Yahoo, Lycos, Looksmart . . . to name just the most prominent. Perhaps none was at the time as good as Google, but they would have got better. The truth is, almost all discoveries and inventions occur to different people simultaneously, and result in furious disputes between rivals who accuse each other of intellectual theft.

In the early days of electricity, Park Benjamin, author of The Age of Electricity, observed that ‘not an electrical invention of any importance has been made but that the honour of its origin has been claimed by more than one person.

This phenomenon is so common that it must be telling us something about the inevitability of invention. As Kevin Kelly documents in his book What Technology Wants, we know of six different inventors of the thermometer, three of the hypodermic needle, four of vaccination, four of decimal fractions, five of the electric telegraph, four of photography, three of logarithms, five of the steamboat, six of the electric railroad. This is either redundancy on a grand scale, or a mighty coincidence. It was inevitable that these things would be invented or discovered just about when they were. The history of inventions, writes the historian Alfred Kroeber, is ‘one endless chain of parallel instances’.