How do you make calls about new or future technology? Which ideas are worth pursuing? What frameworks can you apply for thinking about this?
I ask my friend Tim, who lays down his theory for predicting advances in technology, and whether we’ll accept or reject something new.
Tim has read a lot of classical philosophy, and also once started a company back in the 90s to make 3D printers (ZCorp), so I really enjoy asking his perspective on the philosophy of creating technology.
This blog post is largely based on an email conversation from back in 2010 that, with Tim’s permission, I am quoting here.
In short: good technology makes us more omniscient, omnipotent, and omnipresent. Bad technology detracts from those things.
Who wrote the frameworks around omniscience, omnipotence, omnipresence, etc.?
That was Thomas Aquinas, which is easiest in secondary source form (wikipedia etc.) I probably read it in excerpts or summaries by others.
Aquinas also collected arguments “proofs” of the existence of God, some of which don’t make sense anymore and some are often recycled for “intelligent design” and other proselytizing.
Aquinas seems to have been trying to pin down “what God is” or “what qualities define God”. In this sense, good technology could also be seen as “that which makes us more godlike.” (which I’m going to call dated language, but probably the best thought framework Aquinas had access to.)
That Technology Strives Godlike thinking is useful to predict cultural trends within a worldview that doesn’t acknowledge limits.
“The Singularity” is a good example of such a striving, but a general singularity is a very long way from happening for a lot of reasons, all based in practicalities. If energy, materials, and garbage dumps were costless and infinite, the singularity would be jumping out at us everywhere.
It’s useful to think about real situations when old limits are removed by some new material or technology and physics or economics are no longer the limiting factors.
How did you know to work on 3D printers back then? What changed while you were working on them?
In the case of 3D printing, improvements in CAD and the spread of CAD set the hard market limits of 3D printing as a business, which meant for us, not a limit to early growth at all.
How much did the frameworks for foresight, or for systems thinking, consciously factor into making 3D printers?
Very much in choosing major directions/abandoning distractions. Very little in actually making it work. That was mostly close observation and a willingness to use existing/free stuff.
Nassim Taleb and “Psychology of Selling” are good on risk assessment. Take cheap risks and don’t take any with actual downside consequences.
One of the two qualities of inventorship that currently fascinate me most right now is “systems thinking”. The ability to see how whole systems work together.
I think you’ve identified our new technology “God”.
That’s very important, our new shared religion/culture of “sustainability” acknowledges limits. No one takes seriously the old plan to move to other planets after we trash this one. That’s a big change.
A few think they’ll go to heaven, but most of them want their kids to have a viable planet to live on.
What can I do to improve my abilities in thinking about systems?
The system dynamics people at MIT, Sterman especially, are good to learn from. I have an old manuscript of his that catalogs quirks of behavioral economics and does a better narrative of Easter Island than Jared Diamond. I don’t know if it was published or if that stuff stayed in.
Watch out for astrology – I’ve seen a couple of SD folks go manic with a nearly identical system mania with horoscope connections.
They’re also not so good with politics, so it’s hard for them to get their insights into policy.
Anything I should read that you’d recommend?
I’m reading codecheck.com building code summaries which are beautiful and clear. Makes the code look like pretty reasonable building instructions. Memorize that and know exactly what’s going on in a construction site.