Departments

New ideas

New ideas receive their most complex formulations first. This is most obvious in intellectual domains, where the work that introduces an idea never shows how simple it can be. The first draft, being new, is labored, and being new-fangled, is cautious.

This is less obvious, but still true, in other domains, like mechanics. A late mechanical clock, though compact, looks far more complex than a room-filling medieval clock. But the new idea is not the clock; it is the escapement. The painstaking blacksmith, evaluating materials, working and reworking them, test-fitting and adjusting and re-fitting—his efforts were more complex than the industrial procedures which allowed an escapement to be made by someone who had no idea what one was. Likewise the modern computer looks far more complex, though compact, than the room-filling Cold War computer. But the new idea was not the machine; it was the transistor, and now Shockley's circuit, which took days to build, is printed by the millions in fractions of seconds.

Of course, as an artifact, the industrial clock is far more complex than the medieval, and the post-industrial computer is far more complex than the industrial. But artifacts are not themselves ideas. Indeed the shortest definition of an idea is to distinguish it from the other kinds of constituent thought as the part that gets simpler over time.

Ideas seems to obey a kind of conservation principle, one of complexity. In order for an idea to stand on its own, it must be complex in itself. In order for an idea to be simple, it must be inside in a complex system. This is easy to understand for clocks and computers—as escapements and circuits get simpler, they get smaller and more fragile, and must be embedded in more complex, larger, more robust objects.

But this appearance is misleading. Consider guns: as the idea of propelling a projectile with expanding gas got simpler, guns did get smaller—a path runs from the gun that destroyed Byzantium's walls to the concealable pistol—but they also got bigger—guns have been built to launch payloads into space. Or consider the internal combustion engine, which powers motor scooters as well as container ships.

This conservation principle holds for all sizes of artifacts, and for all degrees of abstraction. Few people understood the phrase the electrodynamics of moving bodies; most people understand the phrase mass warps space. But the simpler formulation implies an entire profession whose job it is to define exactly what is meant by mass, by warps, and by space.

Let me suggest some practical consequencs.

1. By the time an idea has become simple enough to be generally understood it has usually ceased to be independently useful. Sometimes this is tautological: when everyone understands democracy, democracy already exists.

2. Few improvements are due to ideas; most are due to realizations. Someone realizes that step B could be eliminated by an alternative method of step C; someone has the idea that the entire process is wrongheaded. To equate realizations and ideas both neuters useful but limited realizations by turning them into abstractions, and suppresses ideas by simplifying them prematurely. Treating the elimination of step B as an idea is how we get the anti-ideas of management. Losing real ideas among false ones is how once-great company X is bankrupted by startup or foreign competitors whose ideas inevitably turn out to have been screened as babies from company X's torrential bathwater.

3. When an idea is new it may be unclear which part of the initial formulation is the idea. Often you must proceed with no more than a sense that your line of research contains a new idea somewhere in it. And even when the initial formulation is ready for use, use must sometimes be widespread and pratical before the idea stands out.

Consider guns again. A submachine gun is a sort of hybrid of the rifle and the pistol. It uses pistol rounds in a rifle-sized frame. Since the gun is relatively heavy and the rounds are relatively low-powered, a single man can control the recoil when the weapon is fired on automatic. (Assault rifles work the same way, using a special class of rounds intermediate between pistol and rifle.) But the first submachine gun—the Thompson, that is, the tommy gun—was not designed with this idea in mind.

One of its inventors had observed in his time on battleships that under the conditions of high pressure in the firing of a naval gun different metals would stick to one another. He called his observation (after himself) the Blish Principle of Metallic Adhesion and patented it as a way of dissipating recoil. In fact what makes recoil manageable is a heavier gun. But not only were the first Thompsons built with Blish's bits of brass in them, they continued to be built this way until the scale of wartime production eliminated the extra step. The gun had been in service for two decades before the idea behind it became clear.

But enough complications. Surely I have given this idea enough complexity to start on.