Surprise!

By Postrel, Virginia | Review - Institute of Public Affairs, September 2000 | Go to article overview

Surprise!


Postrel, Virginia, Review - Institute of Public Affairs


Uncertainty is an essential ingredient of progress

FROM the late nineteenth century through the middle of the twentieth, futurists imagined electric lighting, but no electric guitars; supersonic jets, but no hang gliders; laser weapons, but no laser surgery or compact discs; giant computer databases, but no Palm Pilots or video games; nuclear power, but no nuclear medicine; government surveillance cameras, but no baby monitors.

These stunted visions-produced by social critics and science-fiction writers-are neither random nor isolated. Optimists and pessimists alike conceived of the future-our present-as a uniform society, a flattened, unnuanced world designed by a few smart men. They didn't imagine the quirky products of creativity applied to small-scale, personal problems and passions. They didn't factor in the power of vanity, self-expression, chance, novelty or fun. Theirs was a future without surprise.

The infatuation with predictability has been deeply imprinted on modem times. From the communist regimes to corporate giants, we came up in an age of central design, planning and control. The leading futurists, the science-fiction writers, long depicted progress as the product of elites. In his book Paris in the Twentieth Centurywritten in 1863, but not published until 1996-science-fiction master Jules Verne wrote of `an age when everything was centralized, thought as well as mechanical power'.

The unplanned outcomes that emerge from obsessive tinkering, competitive one-upmanship, incremental improvement and unarticulated longings have no place in a rigidly planned world. As it turns out, however, they define the world in which we live-and they will define our future. For as we're now discovering, the future, in fact, is made of surprise.

Even the science-fiction writers nowadays recognize the inevitability of surprise. They `see themselves more as conceptual gardeners, planting for fruitful growth, rather than engineers designing eternal, gray social machines,' writes Gregory Benford, the author of such popular science fiction as Timescape and Cosm. `Their views of that future are often playful, seeking to achieve an almost impressionistic effect, imagining small scattered details ... that imply more than they can say'.

Small, scattered details aren't just writing techniques. They're also fuel for social and economic propulsion. Important things happen out of sight, often tapping occluded desires. Culrural critics, on the Right and Left, still argue over where `the sixties' came from, as if someone designed them. Cigar-and-martini bars, The Blair Witch Project and green-and-purple nail polish from Urban Decay, an upstart cosmetics company in California, all took the world by surpriseunpredicted and unpredictable. So, less fleetingly, did the Web.

Technology pundits searched in Silicon Valley for a challenge to Washington State's Microsoft Corporation, but never expected the alternative: the free Linux computer operating system, created by hobbyists dispersed around the world who, for fun and hacker prestige, work incessantly to improve it. Linux keeps getting better because thousands of Linux hackers think it's cool to look for bugs. It's an `open source' system, whose code is available to anyone who wants to see it. Linux welcomes ideas and improvements from people anywhere.

`Incessant search by many minds,' wrote the late political scientist Aaron Wildavsky, `produces more [and more valuable] knowledge than the attempt to program the paths to discovery by a single one'. Professor Wildavsky, who taught at the University of California, Berkeley, could have been writing about Linux. But the open systems Professor Wildavsky had in mind were social: science, democracy, markets. These competitive systems encourage scattered knowledge to emerge. They allow for serendipity and thus for surprise.

Surprise drives progress because innovation depends on the sort of knowledge no one can gather in a central place. …

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