The Technium

Invention and Discovery Are the Same

To find something is the same as making it. To make something is the same as finding it.

We tend to think that natural forms are discovered while artificial forms are invented, but when stripped to its essentials the path to arriving at a novel natural form is exactly the same journey as arriving at a novel artificial form. Discovery and invention are the same process:

In both cases there is a search in a sea of uncertainty, errors made and corrected, detours, serendipitous gain, surprise, failure, re-try, repeat, exploration. Artists invent, discover. Scientists invent, discover. Explorers invent, discover.

The following unconventional formulations are true statements:

Calculus was discovered by both Leibniz and Newton.

Black holes were invented by John Mitchell in 1783.

Transatlantic radio communication was discovered by Marconi.

The planet Pluto was invented in 1930.

Steam engines were discovered in English mines.

The electron was invented by Ernest Rutherford.

The light bulb was discovered by many tinkers including Edison.

The red shift of galaxies was invented by Walter Adams.

Hamlet was discovered by Shakespeare.

Columbus invented America.

Tim Berners-Lee discovered the world wide web.

Someday we may invent an alien civilization.

I hope to discover another book.

You can swap the terms “discover” and “invent” without altering the meaning.

In the fine arts there seem to be an unnatural distinction between found and made. “Found” art is not deemed as important as made art. Recently a respected photographer, Michael Wolf (I am a fan of his), was awarded a prize for photographs which he found in/on Google Street View. Because he did not “make” or take the photos, but “merely” found them, his award was protested and controversial. This worry is misplaced. Objectively there is no difference between hunting for images on Main Street or on Google Street. In photography especially there is no difference between making or finding.

In real life there are so many moving parts that anything that CAN happen will happen sooner or later. The same math applies to Google Street View. So many roving cameras, cruising all day, everyday, in so many cities of the world, that sooner or later, anything that can happen will happen while a camera is running.


Out of this statistical abundance, Wolf strolled through with his “camera.” He spent weeks scrolling through Google Street View, hunting for “decisive moments” that he could frame and capture with a screen shot. He was mainly looking for calamities, and he called his collection a “series of unfortunate events,” which won him an Honorable Mention at the prestigious World Press Photo 2011 contest. Wolf later strolled through Paris Street View as well.


Wolf was not the first to mine Street View. There are other collections as well. Jon Rafman’s 9-eyes is one. Sample images here:



Wolf talks about his process:


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