This year the world celebrated the 200th birthday of Charles Darwin to honor his theory’s impact upon our science and culture. Overlooked in the celebrations was Alfred Wallace, who also came up with the same theory of evolution, at approximately the same time. Weirdly, both Wallace and Darwin found the theory of natural selection after reading the same book on population growth by Thomas Malthus. Darwin did not publish his revelation until provoked by Wallace’s parallel discovery. Had Darwin died at sea on his famous voyage (a not uncommon fate at that time) prior to publication, or been killed by his many illnesses during his quite years in London, we would be celebrating the birthday of Wallace as the sole genius behind the theory. Wallace was a naturalist living in Southeast Asia, and he endured many serious tropical illnesses. Indeed he was suffering a debilitating jungle fever during the time he was reading Malthus. If poor Wallace, too, had succumbed to his Indonesian infection, and Darwin gone, it is clear from other naturalist’s notebooks that someone else, perhaps Jean-Baptiste Lamarck, would have arrived at the theory of evolution by natural selection, even if they never read Malthus. Some think Malthus himself was close to recognizing the idea. None of them would have written up the theory in the same way, or used the same arguments, or cited the same evidence, but one way or the other today we would be celebrating the 150th anniversary of the mechanics of natural evolution.
What seems to be an odd coincidence is repeated many times in technical invention as well as scientific discovery. Alexander Bell and Elisha Gray both applied to patent the telephone on the same day, Feb 14, 1876. This improbable simultaneity (Gray applied 3 hours before Bell) led to mutual accusations of espionage, plagiarism, bribery, and fraud. Gray was ill-advised by his patent attorney to drop his claim for priority because his attorney said the telephone “was not worth serious attention.” But whether the winning inventor’s dynasty became Ma Bell, or Ma Gray, either way we would have telephones strung across our countryside, because while Bell got the master patent, at least three other tinkerers beside Gray had made working models of phones years before. In fact Antonio Meucci had patented his “teletrofono” more than a decade earlier in 1860, using the same principles as Bell and Gray, but because of his poor English, poverty, and lack of business acumen, he was unable to renew his patent in 1874. And not far behind them all was the inimitable Thomas Edison, who inexplicably didn’t win the telephone race, but invented the microphone for it the next year.
The procession of technological discoveries is inevitable. When the conditions are right — when the necessary web of supporting technology needed for every invention is established — then the next adjacent technological step will emerge as if on cue. If inventor X does not produce it, inventor Y will. The invention of the microphone, the laser, the transistor, the steam turbine, the waterwheel, and the discoveries of oxygen, DNA, and Boolean logic, were all inevitable in roughly the period they appeared. However the particular form of the microphone, its exact circuit, or the specific design of the laser, or the particular materials of the transistor, or the dimensions of the steam turbine, or the peculiar notation of the formula, or the specifics of any invention are not inevitable. Rather they will vary quite widely due to the personality of their finder, the resources at hand, the culture of society they are born into, the economics funding the discovery, and the influence of luck and chance. An incandescent light bulb based on a coil of carbonized bamboo filament heated within a vacuum bulb is not inevitable, but “the electric incandescent light bulb” is. The concept of “the electric incandescent light bulb” abstracted from all the details that can vary while still producing the result — luminance from electricity, for instance — is ordained by the technium’s trajectory. We know this because “the electric incandescent light bulb” was invented, re-invented, co-invented, or “first invented” dozens of times. In their book “Edison’s Electric Light: Biography of an Invention”, Robert Friedel and Paul Israel list 23 inventors of incandescent bulbs prior to Edison. It might be fairer to say that Edison was the very last “first” inventor of the electric light.
Three independently invented electric light bulbs: Edison’s, Swan’s, and Maxim’s.
Any claim of inevitability is difficult to prove. Convincing proof requires re-running a progression more than once and showing that the outcome is the same each time. That no matter what perturbations thrown at the system, it yields an identical result. To claim that the large-scale trajectory of the technium is inevitable would mean demonstrating that if we re-ran history, the same abstracted inventions would arise again, and in roughly the same relative order. Without a time machine, there’ll be no indisputable proof, but we do have three types of evidence that suggest that the paths of technologies are inevitable. They are 1) that quantifiable trajectories of progress don’t waver despite attempts to shift them (see my Moore’s Law); 2) that in ancient times when transcontinental communication was slow or null, we find independent timelines of technology in different continents converging upon a set order; and 3) the fact that most inventions and discoveries have been made independently by more than one person.
This last claim is important. If discoveries were inevitable we would expect the people making them to be interchangeable, if not almost random. We would expect multiple instances of the same discovery occurring to more than one person, as if the invention just had to happen. And this is what we find.
Park Benjamin, author of the Age of Electricity, observed in 1901 that “not an electrical invention of any importance has been made but that the honor of its origin has been claimed by more than one person.” Dig deep enough in the history of any type of discovery in any field and you’ll find more than one claimant for the first priority.
In fact you are likely to find many parents for each novelty. Sunspots were first discovered by four separate observers, including Galileo, in the same year, 1611. We know of six different inventors of the thermometer, and three of the hypodermic needle. Edward Jenner was preceded by four other scientists who all independently discovered the efficiency of vaccinations. Adrenalin was “first” isolated four times. Three different geniuses discovered (or invented) decimal fractions. The electric telegraph was re-invented by Henry, Morse, Cooke, Wheatstone, and Steinheil. The Frenchman Daguerre is famous for inventing photography, but three others (Niepce, Florence, and Talbot) also independently came upon the same process. The invention of logarithms is usually credit to two mathematicians, Napier and Brigs, but actually a third mathematician, Burgi, invented them three years earlier. Several inventors in both England and America simultaneously came up with the typewriter. The existence of the 8th planet, Neptune, was independently predicted by two scientists in the same year, 1846. The liquefaction of oxygen, the electrolysis of aluminum, and the stereochemistry of carbon, for just three examples in chemistry, were each independently discovered by more than one person, and in each case their simultaneous discovery occurred within a month or so.
Columbia University sociologists William Ogburn and Dorothy Thomas combed through scientist’s biographies, correspondence and notebooks to collect all the parallel discoveries and invention they could find between 1420 and 1901. They write, “The steamboat is claimed as the ‘exclusive’ discovery of Fulton, Jouffroy, Rumsey, Stevens and Symmington. At least six different men, Davidson, Jacobi, Lilly, Davenport, Page and Hall, claim to have made independently the application of electricity to the railroad. Given the railroad and electric motors, is not the electric railroad inevitable?”
The prevalence of ubiquitous simultaneous, independent, and equivalent discovery suggests so. If the direction of technological progress is inevitable, one new invention preparing the ground for the next, then individual human discoverers and inventors are replaceable conduits, and their individual success a matter of luck to some degree. We should see evidence for chance in the distribution of discovery. With that suspicion in mind psychologist Dean Simonton took Ogburn and Thomas’ catalog of simultaneous invention before 1900 and aggregated it with several other similar lists to map out the pattern of parallel discovery for 1,546 cases. Simonton plotted the number of discoveries found by 2 individuals compared to the number of discoveries found by 3 people, or 4 people, or 5, or 6 co-finders. The number of 6-person discoveries were of course fewer, but the exact ratio between these multiples produced a pattern known in statistics as a Poisson distribution. This is the pattern of events you see in mutations on a DNA chromosome, and other rare chance events in a large pool of possible agents. The Poisson curve suggested that the system of “who found what” was essentially random.
Yet talent is unequally distributed. Some innovators (like Edison, or Newton, or Kelvin) are simply better than others. But if genius is not jumping ahead of the inevitable, where do the “greats” fit in? Simonton discovered that the higher the prominence of a scientist (as determined by the number of pages their biography occupies in encyclopedias) the greater number of simultaneous discoveries they are involved with. Kelvin was involved in 30 sets of simultaneous discoveries. Great discovers not only contribute more than the average number of “next” steps, but are heavily involved in those steps that have greatest impact, which naturally are the areas of investigation that attract many other players, and so produce multiples. If discovery is a lottery, the great buy lots of tickets.
Simonton’s set of historical cases reveals that the number of duplicated innovations has been increasing with time – simultaneous discovery is happening more often. Over the centuries the velocity of ideas accelerated, speeding up co-discovery as well. The degree of synchronicity is also gaining. The gap between the first and last discovery in a concurrent multiple has been shrinking over the centuries. Long gone is the era when 10 years could elapse between the public announcement of an invention or discovery and the date the last researcher would hear about it.
Synchronicity is not just a phenomenon of the past, when communication was poor, but very much part of the present. Scientists at AT&T Bell Labs won a Nobel prize for inventing the transistor in 1948, but two German physicists independently invented a transistor two months later at a Westinghouse Laboratory in Paris. Conventional wisdom credits John von Neumann with the invention of a programmable binary computer during the last years of World War II, but the idea and a working punched-tape prototype were developed quite separately in Germany a few years earlier in 1941 by Konrad Zuse. In a verifiable case of modern parallelism, Zuse’s pioneering binary computer in wartime Germany went completely unnoticed by the US and UK until many decades later. The inkjet printer was invented twice; once in Japan in the labs of Canon, and once in the US at Hewlett-Packard, and the key patents were filed by each company within months of each other in 1977. “The whole history of inventions is one endless chain of parallel instances.” writes anthropologist Alfred Kroeber. “There may be those who see in these pulsing events only a meaningless play of capricious fortuitousness; but there will be others to whom they reveal a glimpse of a great and inspiring inevitability which rises as far above the accidents of personality.”
The strict wartime secrecy surrounding nuclear reactors during World War II created a model laboratory for retrospectively illuminating technological inevitability. Independent teams of nuclear scientists around the world raced against each other to harness atomic energy. Because of the obvious strategic military advantage of this power, the teams were isolated as enemies, or kept ignorant as wary allies, or separated by “need to know” secrecy within the same country. In other words, the history of discovery ran in parallel. Each discrete team’s highly collaborative work was well documented, and progressed through multiple stages of technological development. Looking back researchers can trace parallel paths as the same discoveries were made. In particular, physicist Spenser Weart examined how six of these teams each independently discovered an essential formula for making a nuclear bomb. This equation, called the four-factor formula, allows engineers to calculate the critical mass necessary for a chain reaction. Working in parallel, but in isolation, the formula was simultaneously discovered in France, Germany, the Soviet Union and three teams in the United States. Japan came close but never quite reached it. This high degree of simultaneity — six simultaneous inventions — strongly suggests the formula was inevitable at this time.
However when Weart examined each team’s final formulation, he saw that the equations varied. Different countries used different mathematical notation to express it, emphasized different factors, varied in their assumptions and interpretation of results, and awarded the overall insight different status. In fact the equation was chiefly ignored as merely theoretical on four teams. In only two teams was the equation integrated into experimental work — and one of those was the team that succeeded in making a bomb.
The formula in its abstract from was inevitable. Indisputably, if it had not found by one, five others would find it. But the specific expression of the formula was not at all inevitable, and that evitable expression can make a significant difference. The political destiny of the country that put the formula to work is vastly different from those that failed to exploit the discovery. The particulars of how an inevitability is manifested is often more important to us than the inexorable.
Details matter. Although both the French and Americans independently invented the transistor at the same time, the French chose to invest their science funds in refining nuclear power (and now have a more climate-friendly energy system) rather than develop their analog telephone system. Envisioning no home market for transistors, Westinghouse closed the Paris lab that co-discovered the transistor. In contrast the US chose to modernize its phone system (and keep burning coal while outlawing nuclear plants) and invested heavily in semiconductor R&D.
Both Newton and Leibnitz are credited with inventing (or discovering) calculus, but in fact their figuring methods differed, and the two approaches were only harmonized over time. Priestly’s method of generating oxygen differed from Scheele’s; using different logic they uncovered the same inevitable next stage. The two astronomers who both correctly predicted the existence of Neptune (Adams and Leverrier) actually calculated different orbits for the planet. The two orbits just happen to coincide to the same point in 1846, so they found the same body by different means.
But aren’t these kinds of anecdotes mere statistical coincidences? Compared to the hundred thousand of thousands of inventions in the annals of discovery we should expect a few to happen at once, yes? The problem is most multiples are unreported. Sociologist Robert Merton says “all singleton discoveries are imminent multiples.” Many potential multiples are aborted. A typical notebook entry goes like this one found in the records of Mathematician Jacques Hadamard in 1949 “After having started a certain set of questions and seeing that several authors had begun to follow the same line, I happen to drop it and to investigate something else.” Or, a scientist will record their discoveries and inventions but never publish the work due to busyness, or their own unsatisfaction with the results. Only the notebooks of the great get a careful examination, so unless you are either Cavendish or Gauss (the notebooks of both reveal several unpublished multiples), your unreported ideas will never be counted. Further concurrent work is hidden by classified or state-secret work. Much is not disseminated because of fear of competitors, and until very recently, many examples of duplicated discoveries and inventions remain obscure because they were published in obscure languages. A few coexistent inventions are unrecognized because they are described in hard-to-decipher, impenetrable, mystifying language. And occasionally a discovery is so contrarians or politically incorrect that it is ignored.
Furthermore once a discovery has been revealed and entered into the repository of what is commonly known, all later investigations which arrive at the same results are reckoned as mere corroborations of the original — no matter how they are actually arrived. A century ago the failure of communication was in its slow speed; a researcher in Moscow or Japan might not hear about an invention for decades. Today the failure is due to volume. There is so much published, so fast, in so many areas, that it is very easy to miss what has already been done. Re-inventions arise independently all the time, sometimes in full innocence centuries later. But because their independence can’t be proven, these johhny-come-latelies are counted as confirmations and not as evidence of inevitability.
By far the strongest bits of evidence for ubiquitous simultaneity of invention are scientists’ own impressions. Most scientists consider getting scooped by another person working on the same ideas as the unfortunate and painful norm. In 1974 sociologist Warren Hagstrom surveyed 1,718 US academic research scientists, and asked them if their research had ever been anticipated by others. He found that 46% believed that their work had been anticipated “once or twice” and 16% claimed they were preempted three or more times. Jerry Gaston, another sociologist, surveyed 203 high energy physicists in the UK, and got similar results: 38% claimed to be anticipated once, and another 26% more than once.
Unlike scientific scholarship which places a huge emphasis on previous work and proper credit, inventors tend to plunge ahead without methodically researching the past. This means re-invention is the norm from the patent office’s viewpoint. When inventors file patents they need to cite previous related inventions. One third of inventors surveyed claimed they were unaware of prior claims while developing their own invention. They did not learn about the competing patents until preparing their application with the required “prior art.” More surprising, one third claimed to be unaware of the prior inventions cited in their own patent until notified by the survey takers. (This is entirely possible since patent citations can be added by the inventors patent attorney or even the patent office examiner.) Patent law scholar Mark Lemley states that in patent law “a large percent of priority disputes involve near-simultaneous invention.” One study of these near-simultaneous priority disputes by Adam Jaffe, at Brandeis University, showed that in 45% of the cases both parties could prove they had a “working model” of the invention within 6 months of each other, and in 70% of the cases within a year of each other. Jaffe writes “These results provide some support for the idea that simultaneous or near-simultaneous invention is a regular feature of innovation.”
Quite a few scientists and inventors, and many outside of science, are repulsed by the idea that the progress of technology is inevitable. It rubs them the wrong way because it contradicts a deeply and widely held belief that human choice is central to our humanity, and essential to a sustainable civilization. Admitting to “inevitable” anything feels like a cop-out, a surrender to invisible non-human forces beyond our reach. Such a false notion may lull us into abdicating our responsibility for shaping our own destiny. On the other hand, if technologies really are inevitable then we have only the illusion of choice, and we should smash all technologies to be free of this spell. I’ll address these central concerns later, but I want to note one curious fact about this belief. While many people claim to believe the notion of technological determinism is wrong (in both senses of that word), they don’t act that way. No matter what they rationally think about inevitability, in my experience ALL inventors and creators act as if their own invention and discovery is imminently simultaneous. Every creator, inventor, and discoverer that I have known is rushing their ideas into distribution before someone else does, or they are in a mad hurry to patent before their competition does, or they are dashing to finish their masterpiece before something similar shows up. Has there ever been an inventor in the last two hundred years who felt that no one else would ever come up with his idea (and who was right)?
Nathan Myrvold is a polymath and serial inventor who used to direct fast-paced research at Microsoft but wanted to accelerate the pace of innovation in other areas outside of the digital realm — such as surgery, metallurgy, or archeology — where innovation was often a second thought. Myrvold came up with an idea factory called Intellectual Ventures. Myrvold employs an interdisciplanrian team of very bright innovators to sit around and dream up patentable ideas. These eclectic one-or-two day gatherings will generate 1,000 patents per year. In April 2009, The New Yorker author Malcolm Gladwell profiled Myrvold’s company in the context of simultaneous invention to make the point that it does not take a bunch of geniuses to invent the next great thing. Once an idea is “in the air” its many manifestation are inevitable. You just need a sufficient number of smart, prolific people to start catching them. And of course a lot of patent lawyers to patent what you generate in bulk. Gladwell observes, “The genius is not a unique source of insight; he is merely an efficient source of insight.”
But if parallel invention is the norm, then Mryvold’s brilliant idea of creating a patent factory should have occurred to others at the same time. And of course it has. Years before the birth of Intellectual Ventures, internet entrepreneur Jay Walker launched Walker Digital Labs. Walker is famous for inventing Priceline, a “name your own price” reservation system for hotels and air flights. In his invention laboratory Walker set up an institutional process whereby interdisciplanrian teams of brainy experts sit around thinking up ideas that would be useful in the next 20 years or so — the time horizon of patents. They winnow the thousands of ideas they come up and refine a selection for eventual patenting. How many ideas do they abandon because they, or the patent office, find that the idea has been “anticipated” by someone else? “It depends on the area,” Walker says. “If it is a very crowded space where lots of innovation is happening, like e-commerce, and it is a ‘tool,’ probably 100% have been thought of before. We find the Patent Office rejects about two-thirds of challenged patents as ‘anticipated.’ Another space, say gaming inventions, about a third are either blocked by prior art or other inventors. But if the invention is a complex system, in an unusual space, there won’t be many others. Look, most invention is a matter of time….of when, not if.”
Danny Hillis, another polymath and serial inventor is co-founder of an innovative prototype shop called Applied Minds, which is another idea factory. As you might guess from the name, they use smart people to invent stuff. Their corporate tag line is “the little Big Idea company.” Like Myrvold’s Intellectual Ventures, they generate tons of ideas in a very interdisciplinary areas: bioengineering, toys, computer vision, amusement rides, military control rooms, cancer diagnostics, and mapping tools. Some ideas they sell as unadorned patents, others they complete as physical machines or running software. I asked Hillis “what percent of your ideas do you find out later someone else had before you, or at the same time as you, or maybe even after you?” As a way of answering Hillis offered a metaphor. He views the bias toward simultaneity as a funnel. He says “there might be tens of thousands of people who conceive the possibility of the same invention at the same time. But less than one in ten of them imagines *how* it might be done. Of these who see how to do it, only one in ten will actually think through the practical details and specific solutions. Of these only one in ten will actually get the design to work for very long. And finally, usually only one of all those many thousands with the idea will get the invention to stick in the culture. We engage in all these levels of discovery, in the expected proportions.” In other words, in the conceptual stage, simultaneity is ubiquitous and inevitable, and your brilliant ideas will have lots parents. But there’s less parentage at each reducing stage. When you are trying to bring an idea to market, you may be alone, but by then you are a mere pinnacle of a large pyramid of others who “all had the same idea.”
(Click to bigify)
Any reasonable person would look at that pyramid and say, the likelihood of someone getting a light bulb to stick is 100%, although the likelihood of Edison being the inventor is, well, one in 10,000. Hillis also points out another consequence. Each stage of the incarnation can recruit new people. Those toiling in the later stages may not have been among the earliest pioneers of the idea. Given the magnitude of reduction, the numbers suggest that it is improbable that the first person to make an invention stick was also the first to think of the idea.
Another way to read this chart is to recognize that ideas start out abstract and become more specific over time (see my post Increasing Specialization). As universal ideas become more specific they become less inevitable, more conditional, and more responsive to human volition. Only the essence of an invention or discovery is inevitable. The specifics of how this essential core (the “chairness” of a chair) is manifested in practice (in plywood, or with rounded back) are likely to vary widely depending on the resources available to the inventors at hand. The more abstract the new idea remains, the more universal and simultaneous it will be shared (by tens of thousands). As it steadily becomes embodied stage by stage into the constraints of a very particular material form, it is shared by fewer people, and becomes less and less predictable. The final design of the first marketable light bulb, or transistor chip, or could not have been anticipated by anyone, but the concept was inevitable.
What about great geniuses like Einstein? Doesn’t he disprove the notion of inevitability? The conventional wisdom is that Einstein’s wildly creative ideas about the nature of the universe, first announced to world in 1905, were so out of the ordinary, so far ahead of his time, and so unique that if he had not been born we might not have a his theories of relativity even today, a century later. Einstein was a unique genius no doubt. But as always, others were working on the same problems. Hendrik Lorentz, a theoretical physicists who studied light wave, introduced a mathematical structure of space-time in July 1905, the same year as Einstein. In 1904 the French mathematician Henri Poincare pointed out that observers in different frames will have clocks which will “… mark what on may call the local time. … as demanded by the relativity principle the observer cannot know whether he is at rest or in absolute motion.” And the 1911 winner of the Nobel prize in physics Wilhelm Wien proposed to the Swedish committee that Lorentz and Einstein be jointly awarded a Nobel prize in 1912 for their work on special relativity. He told the committee “…While Lorentz must be considered as the first to have found the mathematical content of the relativity principle, Einstein succeeded in reducing it to a simple principle. One should therefore assess the merits of both investigators as being comparable…” (Neither won that year.) However, according to Walter Isaacson, who wrote a wonderful biography of Einstein’s ideas in “Einstein: His Life and Universe”, “Lorentz and Poincare never were able to make Einstein’s leap even after they read his paper. Lorentz still clung to the existence of the ether and its ‘at rest’ frame of reference. Until his death in 1912, Poincare never fully gave up the concept of the ether or the notion of absolute rest. In other words, Einstein made a conceptual leap that Poincare and Lorenz could not make even after Einstein explained it.” But Isaacson, a celebrator of Einstein’s special genius for the improbable insights of relativity admits that “someone else would have come up with it, but not for at least ten years or more.” So the greatest icon genius of the human race is able to leap ahead of the inevitable maybe 10 years. For the rest of humanity, the inevitable happens on schedule.
The technium’s trajectory is more fixed in certain realms than others. “Mathematics has more apparent inevitability than the physical sciences,” wrote Simonton, “and technological endeavors appear the most determined of all.” The realm of artistic inventions — those engendered by the technologies of song, writing, media, and so on — is the home of idiosyncratic creativity, the antithesis of the inevitable, but it also can’t fully escape the currents of destiny.
Shakespeare, like Einstein, is considered the paragon of inimitable genius: No one else could have written what he wrote. In the search for the historical person behind Shakespeare’s writing, some literary experts have creatively assigned the authorship of his works to three or four known contemporaries, such as Francis Bacon. These scholars make an entertaining case that each could have written these plays. The truth is these alternative candidates are extremely unlikely to be the author of Hamlet, but that fact that they are considered at all indicates that other writers at that time might have possessed a similar skill, and so Shakespeare was not unique in that regard. But would anyone have produced King Lear and Romeo and Juliet?
Like most great artists, Shakespeare stole from others. He “borrowed” stories, phrases, and themes from earlier writers like Petrach. He recycled plots. He lifted “Romeo and Juliet” from Arthur Brooke’s epic poem “The Tragicall Historye of Romeus and Juliet.” We tend to assume this duplication is enlightened copying because we don’t have very good records from that era, but in more recent times we see that much of this artistic “copying” is similar to simultaneous invention: the same artistic idea “in the air” will come more than one person at once.
Hollywood movies have an unnerving habit of arriving in pairs: two movies that arrive in theaters simultaneously featuring a apocalyptic hit by asteroids (Deep Impact and Armageddon), or starring the hero as an ant (A Bug’s Life and Antz), or a harden cop and his reluctant dog counterpart (K9 and Turner & Hooch), or profiling the Zodiac serial killer? Is this similarity due to simultaneous genius or to greedy theft? One of the few reliable laws in the studio and publishing businesses is that a successful movie or novel will be immediately sued by someone who claims the winner stole their idea. Sometimes it was stolen, but just as many times two authors, two singers, two directors came up with similar works at the same time. Mark Dunn, a library clerk, wrote a play, “Frank’s Life,” that was performed in 1992 in a small theater in New York City. “Frank’s Life” is about a guy who was unaware his life was a reality TV program. In his suit against the producers of the 1998 movie The Truman Show, Dunn lists 149 similarities between his story and theirs — which is a movie about a guy who is unaware his life is a reality TV program. However The Truman Show producers claim they have a copyrighted dated script of the movie from 1991, a year before “Frank’s Life” was staged. It is not too hard to believe that the idea of a movie about an unwitting reality TV hero was inevitable.
Writing in The New Yorker, Tad Friend tackled the issue of synchronistic cinematic expression by suggesting that “the giddiest aspect of copyright suits is how often the studios try to prove that their story was so derivative that they couldn’t have stolen it from only one source.” The studios say: every part of this movie is a cliche stolen the plots/stories/themes/jokes that are in the air. Friend continues,
You might think that mankind’s collective imagination could churn up dozens of fictional way to track a tornado, but there seems to be only one. When Stephen Kessler sued Michael Crichton for “Twister,” he was upset because his script about tornado chasers, “Catch the Wind,” had placed a data-collection device called Toto II in the whirlwind’s path, just like “Twister”‘s data-collecting Dorothy. Not such a coincidence, the defense pointed out: years earlier two other writers had written a script called “Twister” involving a device called Toto.
Plots, themes, and puns may be inevitable once they are in the cultural atmosphere, but we yearn to encounter completely unexpected creations. Every now and then we believe a work of art must be truly original, not ordained. Its pattern, premise, and message originates with a distinctive human mind and shines as unique as they are. J.K. Rowling, author of the highly imaginative Harry Potter series launched in 1997 successfully rebuffed a law suit by an American author who published a series of children’s books in 1984 about Larry Potter, an orphaned boy wizard wearing glasses surrounded by Muggles. In 1990 Neil Gaiman wrote a comic book about a dark-haired English boy who finds out on his 12th birthday he is a wizard and is given an owl by a magical visitor. Or a 1991 story by Jane Yolen about Henry, a boy who attends a magical school for young wizards and must overthrow an evil wizard. Then there’s The Secret of Platform 13, published in 1994, which features a gateway on a railway platform to a magical underworld. There many good reasons to believe J.K. Rowling when she claims she read none of these (for instance very few of the Muggle books were printed and almost none were sold; teenage boy comics don’t appeal to a single mom), and many more reasons to accept the fact that these ideas arose in simultaneous spontaneous creation. Multiple invention happens all the time in the arts as well as technology, but no one bothers to catalog similarities until a lot of money or fame is involved.
If stories of boy wizards in magical schools with pet owls entering otherworlds through railway station platforms are inevitable, there must be true originals whose plots and details could not be anticipated. I thought of the delightfully fantastic novel The Life of Pi, about a boy who is lost at sea in a lifeboat that he shares with a tiger. I was sure that hadn’t been done before! But after doing some research, it had. Twenty years before “Life of Pi”, a Brazilian author had written a story (in Portuguese) about a Jewish zookeeper who crossed the Atlantic in a lifeboat with a panther. Even the most outlandish idea is never alone. Further digging revealed the author of Pi had once read a unenthusiastic review of the Brazilian book, so the far-fetched premise was not independently created. But was the Brazilian’s story copied, or emergent as well?
Just as in technology, the abstract core of an art form will crystallize into culture when the solvent is ready. It may appear more than once. But any particular species of creation will be flooded with unreplicable texture and personality. If Rowling did not write Harry Potter, someone else would have written a similar story in broad outlines, because so many have already produced parallel parts. But the Harry Potter books, the ones that exist in their exquisite peculiar details, could not have been written by anyone else than Rowling. “Distinctive discoveries, in this or that field of activity, [are] not directly contingent upon the personalities of the actual inventors that graced the period, but would be made without them,” writes Alfred Kroeber. Yet “it is highly unlikely that Beethoven put in Newton’s cradle would have worked out calculus, or the latter have given the symphony its final form.” It is not the particular genius of human individuals that is inevitable, but the unfolding genius of the technium.
Until rapid communication networks wrapped the globe in stunning instantaneity, progress in civilization unrolled chiefly as independent strands on different continents. Earth’s slippery continents, floating on tectonic plates, are giant islands on a vast ocean planet. Although connected in places, the continents are surrounded by seas which reduces interactions between them. This geography produces a laboratory for testing parallelism. From 50,000 years ago, at the birth of Sapiens, until 1,000 CE when sea travel and land communication ramped up, the sequence of inventions and discoveries on the four major continental land masses — Europe, Africa, Asia and the Americas — marched on as independent progressions. In prehistory the diffusion of innovations might travel a few miles a year, consuming generations to transverse a mountain range, and centuries to cross a country. An invention born in China might take a millennia to reach Europe, and it would never reached America. For thousands of years, discoveries in Africa trickled out very slowly to Asia and Europe. The American continents and Australia were cut off from the other continents by impassable oceans until the age of sailing ships. Any imported technology for America came over via a land bridge in a relatively short window between 20,000 and 10,000 BC, and almost none thereafter. Any migration to Australia was also via a geologically temporary land bridge that closed 30,000 years ago, with only marginal flow afterwards. Ideas primarily circulated within one land mass. The great cradle of institutional discovery two millennia ago — Egypt, Greece, and the Levant — sat right between continents, making the common boundaries in that crossover spot meaningless. Yet despite ever speedy conduits between adjacent areas, inventions still circulated slowly within one continental mass, and rarely crossed oceans.
Shooting a blow gun in the Amazon (left) and in Borneo (right).
The blowgun was invented twice, once in the Americas and once in the islands of Southeast Asia. It was unknown anywhere else outside of these two distant regions. Because of this abrupt separation, the birth of the blowgun is a prime example of convergent invention by two independent origins, propelled by convergent environments. For hunters constrained by a thick jungly understory with plentiful game overhead in the canopy, the blow dart made more sense than “costly” arrows which can easily get deflected and lost. The gun as devised by these two separate cultures is expectedly similar — a hollow tube, often carved in two halves, then bound together. In essence it is a bamboo or cane pipe, so it can’t be much simpler. What’s remarkable is a nearly identical set of inventions supporting the air pipe. Tribes in both the Americas and Asia use a similar kind of dart padded by a fibrous piston, they both coat the ends with a poison deadly to animals yet which does not taint the meat, both carry the darts in a quill to protect the poisoned tip from being accidentally pricked, and both employ a similarly peculiar stance when shooting. The longer the pipe the more accurate the trajectory, but the longer the pipe the more it wavers during the aim. So both in America and in Asia the hunters hold the pipe in a non-intuitive stance with both hands near the mouth, elbows out, and gyrate the shooting end of the pipe in small circles. On each small revolution the tip will briefly cover the target. Accuracy, then is a matter of the exquisite timing of when to blow. All this invention arose twice, like the same crystals found on two worlds.
In prehistory, these parallel paths are played out again and again. From the archeological record we know the Chinese enjoyed paper money centuries before Europe thought of it. Technicians in West Africa developed steel centuries before the Chinese. Native Americas independently domesticated native ruminants like llamas, their equivalent of cattle. More importantly, the record shows the same invention is reborn more than once. Bronze is discovered independently in each continent. Steel invented more than once. Archeologist John Rowe compiled a list of 60 parallel cultural innovations common to two civilization separated by 12,000 kilometers: the ancient Mediterranean and the high Andean cultures. Included on his list of parallel inventions are sling shots, boats of made of bundled reeds, circular bronze mirrors with handle, pointed plum bobs, and pebble counting boards , or what we call abacus. We see the same pattern as in individual recurrent inventors, and for the same reasons. Multiples are the norm.
Yet there is resistance to this idea. The notion that inventions, like individuals or snowflakes, must appear only once has an elegant appeal. This perspective assumes inventions require rare non-repeating genius, or are highly improbable. But the opposite is more common. Even the most sophisticated inventions happen again and again, where ever conditions are ripe for them. Anthropologists Laurie Godfrey and John Cole says “the ubiquity of many [common] ‘traits’ is a strong argument that cultural evolution followed similar trajectories in various parts of the world.”
Proving the absence of anything is difficult, but proving the absence of knowledge in pre-history is particularly challenging since, by definition, knowledge was not recorded. Can we say for sure whether goats were domesticated in China in ignorance of nomadic shepherds slowly drifting from Africa, or because of them? Hard physical evidence for (or against) the independent, equivalent, simultaneous origins of ancient inventions is slim. But we do have some hints. The wheel was invented in 3000 BCE but not invented (or re-invented) in the Americas. Archeologists can find no wheeled carts (except in toys), no spinning potter’s wheel, no rotating millstones. The absence of the wheel can be considered evidence of an independent origin for much technology in the New World, for if, as some believe, all key innovations were imported from the old world, why not the wheel? Why didn’t the Native Americans upgrade the hoe into a plow, as the rest of the world did if they simply borrowed everything?
With little evidence, but much creativity, a few minority theories claim Mesoamerican civilizations maintained substantial transoceanic trade with China (called the Shang-Olmec hypothesis). Other speculations suggest extended cultural exchange between Maya and west Africa. Or Aztec with Egypt (those pyramids in the jungle!), or even Maya with the Vikings. Most historians discount these possibilities and similar theories about deep on-going relations between Australia and South America, or Africa and China before 1400. Beyond some superficial similarities in a few art forms, there is no empirical archeological or recorded evidence of sustained transoceanic contact in the ancient world. Even if a few isolated ships from China or Africa might have reached, say, the shores of the new world pre-Columbian, these occasional landings would not be sufficient to kindle the many parallels we find. It is highly improbable that the sewed-and-pitched bark canoe of the northern Australia aborigines came from the same source as the sewed-and-pitched bark canoe of the American Algonquin. So we have to accept they are examples of convergent invention, and arose independently as part of parallel tracks.
When viewed along continental tracks, a familiar sequence of inventions plays out. To a rough approximation, each isolated progression around the world maintains a remarkably similar general order. Stone flakes yield to control of fire, then to cleavers, and ball weapons. Next, ochre pigments, human burials, fishing gear, light projectiles, holes in stones, sewing, and figurine sculptures. The order is fairly uniform. Knife points always follow fire, human burials always follow knifepoints, the arch precedes welding. A lot of the ordering is “natural” mechanics. You obviously need to be able to master blades before you make an ax. And textiles always follow sewing, since threads are needed for any kind of fabric. But many other sequences don’t have a simple casual logic. There is no obvious reason why the first rock art always precedes the first sewing technology, yet it does each time. Metalwork does not have to follow claywork (pottery), but it always does.
Geographer Neil Roberts examined the parallel paths of domestication of crops and animals on four continents. Because the potential biological raw material on each continent varies so greatly (a theme explored in full by Jared Diamond in “Guns, Germs, and Steel”) only a few native species of crops or animals are first tamed on more than one land mass. But contrary to earlier assumptions, agriculture and animal husbandry were not invented once and then diffused around the world. Rather, as Roberts states, “Bio-archeological evidence taken overall indicates that global diffusion of domesticates was rare prior to the last 500 years. Farming systems based on the three great grain crops — wheat, rice, and maze — have independent centers of origin.” The current consensus is that agriculture was invented six times. Agriculture is actually a series of inventions, a string of domestications. Of the crops and animals domesticated in more than one region, the order of taming is similar. For instance, on different continents humans domesticated dogs before camels, and grains before root crops. This repetition may be due to the inherent propensity of domestication in each species; nonetheless the order of unfolding remains uniform.
Archeologist John Troeng cataloged 53 prehistoric innovations beyond agriculture that independently originated not just twice, but three times in three distinct separate regions of the globe: Africa, Western Eurasia, and East Asia/Australia. Twenty two of the inventions were also discovered by inhabitants of the Americas, meaning these innovations spontaneously erupted on four continents. The four regions are sufficiently separated that Troeng reasonably accepts any invention in them is an independent parallel discovery. As technology invariably does, one invention prepares the ground for the next, and the technium in every corner evolves in a seemingly predetermined sequence. When I analyzed the degree to which the four sequences of these 53 inventions paralleled each other I found they correlated to an identical sequence by coefficiency of 0.93 for the three regions, and 0.85 for all four regions. That degree of overlap is significant given the incomplete records and the loose dating inherent in prehistory. In essence, the direction of technological development is the same anytime it happens.
To confirm this direction, research librarian Michelle McGinnis and I also compiled a list of the dates which pre-industrial inventions, such as the loom, sundial, vault, magnet first appeared on each of the five major continents: Africa, Americas, Europe, Asia, and Australia. Some of these novelties arrived during eras when communication and travel were more frequent than in pre-historic times, so the independence of each invention is less certain. We found historical evidence for 83 innovations between that were invented on more than one continent. And again, when lined up, the sequence of technology’s unfolding in Asia follows a similar order in the Americas and Europe. Technologies with globally distinct origins converge along the same developmental path. Independent of the different cultures that host it, or the diverse political systems that induce it, or the different reserves of natural resources that feed it, technology develops along a universal path. The large-scale outlines of its course are predetermined.
“Inventions are culturally determined. Such a statement must not be given a mystical connotation. It does not mean, for instance, that it was predetermined from the beginning of time that type printing would be discovered in Germany about 1450, or the telephone in the United States in 1876,” warns Kroeber. It means only that when all the required conditions generated by previous technologies are in place, the next technology can precipitate. “Discoveries become virtually inevitable when prerequisite kinds of knowledge and tools accumulate,” says sociologist Robert Merton, who studied simultaneous inventions in history. The ever thickening mix of existing technologies in a society create a supersaturated matrix, charged with restless potential. When the right idea is seeded within, the inevitable invention practically explodes into existence, like an ice crystal freezing out of water. Yet, as convention and science have shown, even though water is destined to become ice crystals when it is cold enough, no two snowflakes are the same. The path of freezing water is predetermined, but there is great leeway, freedom and beauty in the individual expression of its predestined state. The actual pattern of each snowflake is unpredictable. For such a simple molecule, its variations upon a theme are endless. That’s even truer for extremely complex inventions today. The crystalline form of the incandescent light bulb or the telephone, or the internet, will vary in a million possible formations, depending on the conditions evolving it. In practice, its appearance is unpredictable.
It is not much different from the natural world. The birth of any species depends on an ecosystem of other species in place to support, divert, and goad its metamorphosis. We call it co-evolution because of the reciprocal influence of one species upon another. In the technium many discoveries await the invention of another technological species: the proper tool. The moons of Jupiter were discovered by a number of folks only a year after the telescope was invented. But instruments by themselves don’t make discovery. Celestial bodies were expected by astronomers. Because no one expected germs, it took 200 years after the microscope was invented before Leeuwenhoek spied microbes. In addition to instruments and tools, a discovery needs the proper beliefs, expectations, vocabulary, explanation, know-how, resources, funds, and appreciation to appear.
An invention or discovery that is too far ahead of its time is worthless. Ideally an innovation opens up the next adjacent step from what is known, and invites the culture to move forward. If a visionary moves too far ahead no one can follow. An invention overly futuristic can fail first (it may lack critical not-yet-invented materials, or a critical market), yet succeed later. A discovery too unconventional for one time (too many steps ahead) will not be believed, or understood, at first, only to be revived later. Gregor Mendel’s theories of genetic heredity in 1865 were correct, but ignored for 35 years. His insights did not explain the problems biologists had at the time, nor did his explanation operate by known mechanisms, so his discoveries were out of reach. Later when the culture caught up, and science prepared itself with urgent questions that Mendel’s discoveries could answer, his insights were enthusiastically shared because they were only one step away. Within a few years of each other, three scientists (De Vries, Correns, and Tschermak) independently rediscovered Mendel’s forgotten work. And if you had prevented those three from rediscovery and waited another year, says Kroeber, probably six minds, not just three, would had made the then obvious next step.
The laws of genetics, like other inventions and discoveries, are crystals inherent in the technium, awaiting to materialize. There is nothing magical about these patterns, nothing mystical about technology having a direction. Every technology in the abstract is a latent structure primarily generated by the extremely complex system of extropy we call evolution. All complex adaptive systems that maintain a persistence disequilibria — from galaxies, to starfish, to a human mind — will exhibit emergent self-organized forms. The technium is evolution accelerated, so it is crammed with emergent self-created forms. These patterns have nothing to do with consciousness or awareness. They emerge in the dumbest systems sufficient complex to adapt. We call these forms inevitable, because like a spiral vortex in draining water, or snowflakes in a winter storm, they will manifest themselves whenever the conditions are right. But, of course, they never render themselves in the same details exactly.
The recurring forms of simultaneous inventions in human history are dots on a long connected line that stretches from the big bang to the deep future. The parallel tracks of independent technological development on different continents trace, and re-trace, and re-trace again a similar trajectory — of a semi-autonomous system headed somewhere. The technium is not a random meandering. It is not an accident of human preferences, foibles, and once-in-a-millennial genius. The technium has a direction. At a macro scale, it is leaning towards increasing complexity, sentience, consilience, specialization, possibilities and choices. As it flows in that direction it unfolds its inevitable progression. Yet at the micro scale, volition rules. Our choice is to align ourselves with this direction, to expand choice and possibilities for everyone and everything, and to play out the details with grace and beauty.