#55: An era of uncertainty creates combinatorial possibilities
Reasons to throw off your security blanket and play in the space of all possibilities
Charles Babbage, born in the late 18th century, was an English polymath. A mathematician, a philosopher, inventor, and a mechanical engineer, he is know as the father of the computer.
Babbage invented the Difference Engine, an automatic mechanical calculator (pictured above) and later, its successor, the Analytical Engine, (pictured below) the first general purpose Turing-complete computer.
The Difference Engine and the Analytical Engine were both mechanical computers. Modern, electronic computers, would not be invented for another two centuries.
Why did it take almost two centuries for the modern electronic computer to be invented?
Before I share the answer, I want to discuss a concept called the “space of all possibilities.”
You can think of the space of possibilities like this:
Imagine you are at the shore of a lake. The lake is covered by a dense fog. There are stepping stones in the lake, but you don’t know which combination of stepping stones will get you to the other side of the lake.
You don’t know the path.
You don’t have a map. And without a map, you don’t know the territory.
So, what do you do?
You start to explore the space of all possibilities.
Jumping from stone to stone, you, intuitively, make your way through the lake.
As you make your way through the lake, others start to join, too. More and more people start hopping from stone to stone, following their intuition, as they, too, don’t have a map.
The hops of people who start earlier begin to influence the hops of people who start later, causing ripples in the lake. Some of the stepping stones move positions.
Isn’t this starting to sound a lot like life? We’re all here making our way around, causing ripples in our local environments, and influencing the people around us, on a micro and eventually a macro level.
Now is a good time to return to Babbage. So, what happened in the two centuries between when Babbage created the mechanical computer and when others invented the modern electronic computer?
The vacuum tube.
A vacuum tube is a device that controls electric current flow, and we had to invent it before we could invent the electronic computer.
Babbage could have not predicted that the vacuum tube would be the key to electronic computers because all that he could see was the immediate stepping stones in front of him.
The immediate stepping stones are all that our vision is capable of seeing.
So when we hear success stories like that of Steve Jobs, Jeff Bezos, Larry Page, Elon Musk, Moses and Jesus [they were visionaries too], we falsely assume that great things happen when one person has a grand vision.
And everyone else just follows.
This narrative does a disservice to the combinatorial possibilities available to all of us in the space of all possibilities.
This means we don’t have to follow someone else’s vision and the path they have laid out for us with objectives, goals, and metrics.
As Ken Stanley and Joel Lehman, computer science professors at UCF, whose research focuses on artificial intelligence networks, write in their book Why Greatness Cannot be Planned: The Myth of the Objective:
But before we do, it’s important that you know that we aren’t pessimists. It may sound like this book is going in a cynical direction, but that isn’t really true. In fact, we believe that human achievement has no limits. It’s just that we’re going to highlight a different path to achievement, without the need for objectives. There’s a lot our culture has sacrificed in the name of objectives, and we’re going to take it back. They’ve stolen our freedom to explore creatively and blocked us from serendipitous discovery. They ignore the value of following a path for its own uniqueness, rather than for where it may lead. The chapters ahead will show that great discoveries are lurking just beyond our fingertips, if only we can let go of the security blanket of the objective.
We’re living in an era of uncertainty, and this is making many people cling to their security blankets - to objectives, to metrics, to a laid out path. This certainly has value in the structure of our current systems, but just because things are this way now, doesn’t mean they will always remain this way.
Life is in perpetual change and uncertainty is the perfect playground for combinatorial possibilities.
This post was inspired by Olly’s thoughtful writing.