— Cultural Sources of Newness

What does Thanksgiving Dinner have to do with research and newness?

Preparing a Thanksgiving dinner takes many hours, but most of the work is done by the turkey and the oven, leaving me free to read and write. Periodic trips away from my desk to baste, chop and stir give me time to think. The discovery of W. Brian Arthur’s chapter on “Does Technology Evolve” is reason enough to be thankful for today. The chapter grabbed me from the very first lines:

“In my career I have looked at very disparate subjects or areas of interest…. I’m getting to an age now where I can start to look back and think, What on earth was all that about? What was the common thread? I realize there is a common thread and it’s very deep inside me.” (p.219) What excited me about these lines is that I feel a kindred spirit in an academic whose life has involved disparate subjects, who is reflecting on the connections, and who expresses a deep personal connection to his research. The pages weave together ideas and passion. He bursts out time and again with expressions like “this is really what motivates me” when talking about something as potentially dry as “the unfolding or the development of systems or of patterns” (p. 219). The chapter traces the way he followed his instincts and the way a question led to a discovery to a question to a search to an insight to a question and onwards. “Lately this has become in turn an obsession with the evolution of technology.” (p. 220)

We academics write lots of proposals, reports and articles to explain our logic and the legitimacy of our work. Peer reviewers do not deal well with reasoning like “Something was in the air and I think for me this was just pure instinct” (p.220). Fortunately, Brian Arthur was not deterred and pursued his questioning. Looking back, he attributes his fascination for unfolding, for “how new structures arise and fall away and further ones arise” to some “deeper part of his personality” (p.221), and he takes the reader back to his childhood in Northern Ireland, which he characterizes as “a kind of fractured culture… it was also a very stable culture,” and he observes that his generation there “was known for writing and poetry.” (p. 221). He moved away and lived in different countries (including Berkeley and Austria, getting an endowed chair at Stanford when he was 37), and getting “rid of being Catholic” on the way—but did not know “what could I put my feet on” (p.222). Tao philosophy offered him the insight that “the world is always changing. The best thing you can do with your life is to go with whatever is happening, allow yourself to flow with it. I began to realize that all my research had the same theme” (p.223). His training in economics, a discipline in which “all those structures are first taken for granted, then economists look at how that unfolds. That wasn’t enough for me. I’m interested in how structures themselves change…. Economics was essentially saying, given the fixed structure, where is its natural place to arrive at equilibrium? That was anathema from my point of view” (p. 223).

We academics almost always feel behind in our reading in our fields, always carrying around books and articles from our colleagues that we should have read. By contrast Brian Arthur “started to read about the dynamics of enzyme chemistry, kind of an obscure thing” (p. 224)! He explains how two books he read in 1979 “had a huge effect on me” (p.224). The reading led him to seek out Ilya Prigogine, and to start seeing patterns—and to “remember that there was a huge set of questions that I had asked myself in graduate school while I was studying economics—not for a PhD but more as a hobby” (p. 225). For example, he had asked himself “What if there weren’t diminishing returns. What if there were increasing returns? If something gets better the more you make it?” (p.226). He describes some examples, like driving on the left or the right hand side of the road, and the QWERTY keyboard, which are lock-ins that probably happen “by chance, by small random events getting magnified by these positive feedbacks” (p. 227). Although “at the time, economics was aware of the problem” economics could not say anything beyond suggesting that the first firm got off to a good start. Brian Arthur wanted to say more, and “realized that you could treat such dynamics as probabilistic” (p.227) and he started to work with Russian probability theorists in the then-Soviet Union. It took him a year or two to get up to speed in the area of probabilistic mathematics.

This sounds highly theoretical and far removed from the real world, doesn’t it? That is what he was told at the time, and then: “I was talking about it in Santa Fe to some students and was walking to give my lecture and I had a complete epiphany… This applies to all of high-tech. I began to realize that all of high-tech operated according to increasing returns” (p. 228).

He kept thinking about processes of unfolding, concluding that it is not about stages that follow each other, but rather “systems that according to chance could fall into certain patterns and then the next pattern could fall on top of that,” establishing a lock-in with increasing returns, then “just when you think it is going to be forever, something else comes along” (p.230). The image that fascinated him with this view on the process was “that the economy had a kind of layer after layer after layer, like an archaeological site” whose formation one could watch within a lifetime (p.230).

He “became fascinated by another question. We take an awful lot of things in the world for granted” and what he started to challenge is the shared belief that “as technologies progress, they become more complicated” (p. 230). His obsession with a series of questions led him above all “to wonder, Was there a theory of evolution for technology?” and “How does something we call the economy arise out of technologies?” (p. 231).

Our research in the unit “Cultural Sources of Newness” poses similar questions, not just about new technologies, but about new ideas and processes in many domains. Although we have not all chosen to apply an evolutionary theory to our analysis, we are considering the role of combination, which Brian Arthur arrives at as one “leg” of his theory of evolution: “So the two legs of the theory of evolution that are in technology are not at all Darwinian. They are quite different. They are (1) that certain existing building blocks are combined and recombined, and (2) that every so often some of those technologies get used to capture novel, newly discovered phenomena, which are in turn encapsulated as further building blocks. Most new technologies that come into being are only useful for their own purpose and don’t form other building blocks. But occasionally, some do.” (p. 235)

What helped Brian Arthur develop his ideas, besides following his instincts, asking many questions, and combining concepts from disparate fields?  Looking back, he realizes that he “went underground” and he compares his approach to that of Andrew Wiles, who proved Fermat’s Last Theorem: “Wiles, I think out of instinct, as a very good Princeton mathematician, decided that he didn’t want his embryonic thoughts to be hammered by criticism. He needed space and time to think out his ideas; he needed to put things together and not be bothered and questioned all the time… I made no such resolution when I started to work on my own project around 1996. But it is essentially what happened.” (p. 233)

Looking at the developments in our academic community in the past few years, I wonder how we can learn from this scholar’s reflections over a life-time of creative and productive research. What if we allowed ourselves–and each other–to seek knowledge in diverse areas, rather than insisting on specialization and on mono-disciplinary career paths? And what if we took and gave each other the time to develop our embryonic ideas rather than submitting them to multiple evaluations every step of the way?

PS: In case you are wondering why I am pursuing these Thanksgiving thoughts and activities a day ahead of the official celebration:  the offsite meeting for the research unit happens to clash with Thanksgiving. Will we make space there not only to discuss theories such as the one encapsulated in this chapter, but also to nurture the kind of research spirit that Brian Arthur shares so generously in his personal reflection?