The Book I’m Writing
Vol 22: The Arc of Innovation, Answering Impossible Questions, & Playing the Ultimate Game
If you could know the answer to any question, what would you want to know?
I feel like a lot of people would choose something about their life, like when they will die, if their family will be happy, or if they’ll find true love.
There’s nothing wrong with choosing those of course, they’re important questions after all. But as I thought about this, I drifted away from these choices.1
Part of life is figuring out the answers as you go along. It keeps it all interesting, because we never truly know what will happen. Life is meant to have ups and downs. If it was all the same then there wouldn't really be anything to write or reflect about. It wouldn't be a good story.
Part of writing a good story is having a suspension of disbelief. You quite literally need to be able to trick yourself into believing in a better future.
Why? Because, as the philosopher William Hirstein puts it, positive illusions keep us from yielding to despair: The truth is depressing. We are going to die, most likely after illness; all our friends will likewise die; we are tiny insignificant dots on a tiny planet. Perhaps with the advent of broad intelligence and foresight comes the need for . . . self-deception to keep depression and its consequent lethargy at bay. There needs to be a basic denial of our finitude and insignificance in the larger scene. It takes a certain amount of chutzpah just to get out of bed in the morning.
This quote comes from The Storytelling Animal, but it very much connects with Man’s Search For Meaning.
I've written about my own process of discerning What I’m Here For, and how I've made a new story for myself. I specifically talk about how I can’t really answer these tough questions right now, I just have to live life and see if I can find the answers along the way.
So that leaves me with a unique answer to the question posed at the beginning of this piece. Something I’ve been curious about for a while now. And that answer is in fact a different question, one that I've been digesting for almost two years now.
What To Read?
What is a book that you want to read, but doesn’t exist yet?
I saw this back in 2020, and it’s swirled around in my head ever since. Some days I’d wish for a playbook or field guide on how to get to where I want to go. But as I mentioned above, that’s antithetical to how life works.
That all changed when I read Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, which I discussed in last week’s post.2 Here was a book that expounds the history of science, and does it in a way that is inherently interesting. Why does science happen? How does it evolve? Can we understand all the ways it works?
Kuhn wrote a book about the science of science.
And that’s when I realized what I wanted to read: The science of technology. How do random ideas become real things like tools and companies, and how do these innovations change society? How does technology spawn, develop, and grow? What are the patterns to all of this?
It combines everything I love: the idea of societal and scientific progress, history, frontier technologies, human psychology and evolution, and more — and then it tries to tie it all together by Connecting the Dots. It seems like the ultimate exploration of what makes our species special.
And instead of just waiting for someone else to solve this puzzle, I thought, why don't I write it instead?
The Flow of Technology
I'm writing my own personal story via Embers, but I'm also writing a story. Or rather a collection of them. Each detailing how and why technology emerges, and what it does once it appears.
I currently call it The Flow of Technology, which isn’t particularly creative or catchy, but for now it does a decent job of illustrating an important point: the process of an idea becoming technology is more a continuous wave than a collection of discrete events. There are natural ebbs and flows.3
It doesn’t stop there, thought. Once a technology reaches critical mass, it changes everything else too. The Internet didn’t stop at disrupting the news — it’s changing education, healthcare, and politics too. Most big technologies change our behavior, which in turn changes everything else. It’s one of the reasons why this is such an ambitious project. There’s not a definitive point where technology ends.
But this is all pretty nebulous, an example is in order.
Engines of Change
Perhaps nothing exhibits the range of topics I will be exploring more than the automobile. It’s one of the richest examples I can provide, in part because it’s a highly mature technology, and also because it’s rapidly changing right now.
The actual technology behind cars seems commonplace now, but it’s the accumulation of hundreds, probably thousands, of separate advancements that have all converged together.
And as is so often the case, these advancements often occurred at different points in time. Seatbelts were added ~80 years after cars reached critical mass, illustrating the Truthism that very often we fail to adequately prepare for the downstream impacts new technologies create.
But cars also illustrate another equally important Truthism: that today’s technologies solve yesterday’s problems, just as tomorrow’s technologies will solve the problems we’re creating today.
Consider this relevant excerpt from Tom Standage’s book A Brief History in Motion:
In particular, the accumulation of horse manure on the streets, and the associated stench, were impossible to miss. By the 1890s, about 300,000 horses were working on the streets of London, and more than 150,000 in New York City. Each of these horses produced an average of 10kg of manure a day, plus about a litre of urine. Collecting and removing thousands of tonnes of waste from stables and streets proved increasingly difficult…
Much of the early enthusiasm for the automobile stemmed from its promise to solve the problems associated with horse-drawn vehicles, including noise, traffic congestion and accidents. That cars failed on each of these counts was tolerated because they offered so many other benefits, including eliminating the pollution – most notably, horse manure – that had dogged urban thoroughfares for centuries.
Technologies solve old problems and often introduce new ones. In the case of the car, it solved a pretty shitty one.
Cars of course create a different type of pollution. And now we’re trying to solve that.
But not every problem is solved by physical technology — the mass production of the automobile is a true testament to this. We had to learn how to make assembly lines, and then we needed to figure out the best ways of organizing and creating them.
And yet, if it hadn’t been for changes in accounting systems, mass production wouldn’t have ever existed in the first place. Modern accounting unlocked innovation by providing a way to represent massive upfront capital expenditures that will pay for themselves and more, but over a long time horizon. Most people cite the railroads as the primary benefit, but capex also created the car.
Once all these things happened, only then did the car reach critical mass. And once it did, it changed everything. From where people live, to how we eat, to how much we sleep.
Henry Ford’s Model T created oil and gas companies, hotels, fast food chains, suburban shopping malls, and auto repair shops. The Model T added hundreds, if not thousands of jobs across and manufacturing facilities across the United States, and also spawned the vacation economy. The Model T created jobs that people still have now.
Of course, many of those jobs are now being threatened thanks to autonomous driving. Consider the psychological impact all of this has. I spoke extensively about it in What If Everyone Could Code:
As a society, we used to generally know how technology worked. People understood how cars drove, how planes flew, and how a light bulb glowed. Now, the intangible and complex aspects of tech escape our reach. Technical literacy vanished…
A few years ago, a colleague observed that the taxi driver was worried about losing their job to the Uber driver, and the Uber driver was worried about self-driving cars. It may be an oversimplification, but it resonated with me. People are anxious about their future, in large part because they feel like they aren’t in control. What can they do if they can’t get a job? Will automation replace them? What will their children do?
Herein lies the real problem: the future of automation is obvious and inevitable. For the truck driver, it’s in the rear-view mirror — and closing in.
This too, belongs in the book. Because fears of automation are nothing new. They’re intrinsically linked to the rise of new technologies.
And new technologies create new companies, which either create new industries or change them completely. The car industry itself is continuing to evolve before our eyes. In the early 20th Century, there were thousands of car companies. That dwindled down to a few, and now new ones are trying to Change the Calculus, while existing players are trying to innovate their way out of being disrupted. Cars changed the world, and they’re still changing it.
As Peter Zeihan likes to espouse: transportation is one of the hardest problems people solve. It’s no surprise to me that it also offers one of the richest examples of all the ways technology works.
As you can gather, this isn’t a simple thing to write about. Everything’s innately connected here, and each thread can be its own book. In the case of cars, there are many books about each of the points above. And I’m trying to write one that combines all of their ideas together. I think that encapsulates why this is so exciting to me.
When I published What I’m Here For, I included a paragraph about how I’ll almost certainly balk at parts (or all) of it down the line.
I was okay with that because I think that shows you’re growing, but recently I found a self reflection essay from junior year of high school, and all I can say is: wow it’s pretty brutal!
But something I found interesting was the fact that a lot of the general things that I am aspiring for were exhibited back then. The lack of eloquent articulation is equally resonant. And yet I find it comforting, to a degree, that underneath this bombastic naïveté, there are underlying currents that still stand true today.
One of the most notable was a fierce desire to leave a piece of art behind — a magnum opus of epic proportions — ideally as interesting and hopefully as impactful as the Great Epics we still read today.4 The essay ponders whether it’ll be a book or a movie, though it emphasized that the goal was to build something that would inspire others.
(I told you it was ridiculous!)
Today I’m taking a much different approach. I’m simply writing the book I’d want to read, about the industry I love.
In doing so, I’m looking to answer all the questions I have about technology. One key question I’m keen to explore is rather simple: what is the most important invention in human history?
This question, like most I’m asking, are impossible to answer, but pursuing these answers is ennobling.
Maybe it’s not possible to compress everything down to a neat and logical theory. There’s too much at play here, you could say. Much of this book observes how the Flow of Technology is largely dependent upon an extremely unpredictable variable: us.
The Ultimate Game
A phenomenal podcast I listened to in 2020 was Ric Elias’ appearance on Peter Attia’s The Drive.
What makes this podcast so poignant is that Ric knew he was going to die. That’s what happens when planes make emergency landings.
But Ric survived. Because he was one of the passengers on US Airways Flight 1549, the plane that famously landed intact on the Hudson.5
It’s a moving discussion, and towards the end, Ric talks about the work he’s done to figure out what drives competitive spirit. He discusses the different archetypes: there is the warrior, who competes against others, and there’s the fighter, who is motivated by fear.
The warrior ultimately ends their career early because they know they can’t win their last battle. They stop before they cannot beat their opponent. And the fighter eventually taps out from exhaustion. They can’t keep it going, because the fear of failure is too great.
But there’s another archetype Ric mentions, and it’s a competitive mindset I figured out my first year after athletics ended.
The third is a group that just loves to compete because they just love to get better, all the time. It’s a race against themselves.
One is a race against somebody, the other is a race against fear, and the other is a race against yourself.
I find people that have that energy have a better balance about it, and can run a longer race. If you see people like this, they’re driven by the game, by getting better.
— Ric Elias
There’s competition against others, against fear, and against yourself. And the happiest people fall into that latter camp. It very much follows the Becoming Better theme I have spent so much time writing about on Embers.
I’m innately competitive, and part of putting athletics behind you is finding new ways to compete every day.
I mention all this because games are great ways to get competitive, without making things too over the top. One of the best things you can do in life is find the game that you were meant to play. The thing that you will be the best at.
There are so many layers to this and it warrants its own Embers piece, but for the purpose of this one I’ll say that even though I don’t know if I’m the best at this game, it’s something I’m truly passionate about.
And that passion is essential, because I’m not going to publish this book for a while. There’s too much to consume and absorb for me to crank it out quickly. And I don’t want to anyways because I’m committed to trying to crack this code. I’m taking the long term view, and know that a little bit of work every day will give me the best chance of making it work.
Almost everything I do feeds into this book. Every thing I read, every conversation I have, every movie I see — it all feeds into this mental puzzle I’m putting together. Whether they cover technology, psychology, story, or philosophy, they all invariably give me something pertinent to think about.
My hope is that in aggregate all of these actions take me down a path where I can Put the Puzzle Pieces Together.
When I wrote that piece last week, The Flow of Technology was fully front of mind. Technology is who we are. To look at technology is to look at us. And writing about it is an endless form of exploration.
I see it as the ultimate study of humanity. Invention is something we innately do, and can’t be compelled to stop.
This is the ultimate puzzle I’m trying to solve, and as I work on it, I’ve realized it’s the game I've always wanted to play.
I also think of the common short stories about Death. The characters try to escape it, but they end up accelerating it / bringing it to reality.
Kuhn details how science as a discipline progresses over time — he is responsible for bringing the word paradigm into the modern lexicon.3
The book documents the history of science as a practice, and Kuhn proposes various phases that lead to new paradigm shifts. From Wikipedia:
Kuhn challenged the then prevailing view of progress in science in which scientific progress was viewed as "development-by-accumulation" of accepted facts and theories. Kuhn argued for an episodic model in which periods of conceptual continuity where there is cumulative progress, which Kuhn referred to as periods of "normal science", were interrupted by periods of revolutionary science. The discovery of "anomalies" during revolutions in science leads to new paradigms. New paradigms then ask new questions of old data, move beyond the mere "puzzle-solving" of the previous paradigm, change the rules of the game and the "map" directing new research.
If you have new title ideas, feel free to share — I fortunately have time to come up with a much better title.
The Odyssey remains one of my favorite books, probably because it brings the Ancient Greek world to life in a way that I cherished as a freshman in high school. Learning about allusions, symbolism, and weaving a web from my high school English teacher was formative.