Thoughts in Between

by Matt Clifford

TiB 153: The big risk of UK ARPA; where innovation comes from; the printing press vs the internet; and more...

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Can the UK's new "ARPA" succeed?

The UK Government announced the Advanced Research and Invention Agency (ARIA), its take on (D)ARPA. We’ve discussed this topic several times before (see TiB 21, TiB 100 and TiB 126) and last year I wrote a piece for Wired on what it might take for such an organisation to succeed. Right now, details are scarce; the closest thing to a mission statement is that ARIA will focus on “high-risk, high-reward research” and turn “transformational ideas into new technologies, discoveries, products and services”.

The key question is, is ARIA’s implicit model of the problem it needs to solve radical enough? “We need more high-risk research" isn't sufficient. If it were so simple, you could tweak existing models and get most of what you want without any need for a new organisation. The optimistic take is that ARIA’s vagueness comes from a need to disguise the audacity - or rudeness - of its underlying critique of the status quo: modern science is sclerotic (see TiB 92 and TiB 103) and if we want a fundamental acceleration in the rate of technological progress, we need to explore radically different models.

What might that look like? A transformational ARIA needs to be willing to take meta-risk (i.e. the risk that the model itself, not just the underlying projects, might fail); thesis-driven (though not necessarily following Government-set “missions”, pace Mariana Mazzucato); and willing to fund based on non-consensus decision making (i.e. as few veto points as possible). Ideally it would even provide a glimpse of an alternative model of a scientific career (see TiB 147 on “Fund People Not Projects”). All that’s possible, but it’s a narrow and challenging path. More to come on this, no doubt.

Podcast: Innovation as contagious

In TiB 149, I wrote about the work of Anton Howes, one of the leading historians of innovation. This week I was delighted to have Anton on the latest episode of the Thoughts in Between podcast. We discuss his work and the fascinating history of the emergence of invention and innovation. I highly recommend Anton’s newsletter on related topics and his book on the Royal Society of Arts.

As I noted before, one of Anton’s key insights is that innovation is not natural, so in this conversation I ask Anton where it comes from. His answer is perhaps surprising: Anton argues that invention is contagious. He cites the fact that over 80 percent of early inventors (Anton compiled a dataset of over 1,500 of them as part of his PhD) have prior contact with another inventor. As a result, we observe tiny villages where there’s an extraordinary eruption of invention in the eighteenth century, because the “improving mentality” seems to have spread from person to person.

Other topics we discuss include:

… and much more. I hope you enjoy this conversation.

From manuscript culture to Twitter culture

Last week we discussed the impact of “information revolutions” (e.g. the printing press, the internet) on the evolution of culture. A couple of you asked follow up questions, so I wanted to give a brief account of how this played out 500 years ago and some of the early impact today. (A lot of this is drawn from Diarmaid MacCulloch’s superb Reformation, one of the top five books I read last decade)

In an information revolution, a new medium displaces an old one - one around which a thicket of cultural practices and norms has built up. For example, before the printing press, the dominant medium was the laboriously copied manuscript. Manuscript cultures must privilege protecting knowledge; printing cultures privilege disseminating it. There’s also a displacement of time and talent: the people formerly allocated to copying are suddenly freed up to create. This self-perpetuates: if there’s more to read, the value and prestige of literacy increases. Bit by bit, a culture is transformed. 

The internet’s cultural impact is as profound, above all in privileging speed of response to stimulus. Ben Thompson's excellent recent essay, Mistakes and Memes, touches on this. He points to Zeynep Tufekci’s Twitter and Tear Gas, which argues that the internet enabled a new kind of protest movement: fast but fragile, they have to succeed quickly or not at all. This, alas, also explains the growing power of political shamelessness: if you can ride out the first wave of outrage, you're surprisingly resilient. It’s a big cultural change, and another example of the internet as a variance amplifying institution.

Quick links

  1. A titanic effort? A surprisingly engaging interactive demonstration of how icebergs float.
  2. I, for one, etc... Great Q&A thread on the most impressive recent advances towards artificial general intelligence.
  3. ... welcome our new pianist overlords. Incredible demo of generating video of piano playing from audio.
  4. Only connect. What the world looks like entirely through the lens of its railways.
  5. But for us. People's beliefs about moral decline are false and self-serving.

What do you think?

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Until next week,

Matt Clifford

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