The Future-Altering Technologies We Forgot to Invent

Science fiction legend Gene Wolfe shares his thoughts


You probably haven’t heard of Gene Wolfe.

That’s too bad, because Neil Gaiman calls him “the finest living male American writer of SF and fantasy” and “possibly the finest living American writer.”

Wolfe has won many of speculative fiction’s most prestigious awards (including the Locus, Nebula, and World Fantasy awards), and some consider him the greatest writer of fantasy to have ever lived.

So why isn’t Wolfe more popular? One reason, I suspect, is that he doesn’t care. Wolfe doesn’t write for the average reader. In a letter to George R. R. Martin, Wolfe writes:

“My definition of a great story has nothing to do with ‘a varied and interesting background.’ It is: One that can be read with pleasure by a cultivated reader and reread with increasing pleasure.”

But I don’t want to explore Wolfe’s stories in this essay.

Rather, I want to share a delightful, fascinating and unexpected insight of his on the nature of innovation.

How to Defeat the Spartans

While reading Wolfe’s collection The Best of Gene Wolfe, I found a exciting bit of commentary on his short story Straw — it was so exciting, in fact, that I knew I had to write this essay as soon as I read it.

I won’t spoil the plot, but Straw is set in the Middle Ages. It features a team of mercenaries that ride around in a hot air balloon. The funny thing about this story is that, of course, the hot air balloon wasn’t invented in the Middle Ages. It was invented centuries later, in 1783.

This is precisely Wolfe’s point.

Fiction writers — including those of fantasy and science fiction — don’t just explore other worlds. They also explore worlds that could have been. There is no reason, says Wolfe, that we couldn’t have invented the hot air balloon 1000+ years before we did.

In his introduction to Storeys from the Old Hotel, Wolfe writes:

“Every so often I like to think of things that could have been invented a long time before they actually were — or that might easily have been invented but weren’t. …it seems obvious that the hot-air balloon could have been invented well before the end of the ancient world. You need a little rope (it’s been around for a long time), a lot of silk (which by then was coming steadily along the spice routes), some straw, and an iron basket to burn it in. There are no moving parts, and the design is simplicity itself — a bag held over a fire.”

Wolfe shares another “late” discovery that was made by the ancient Greeks:

“…for hundreds of years, wars among the Greeks (possibly the most brilliantly creative people in history) were fought by heavy infantrymen armed with long spears and circular shields. Most of them were won by the Spartans, the acknowledged masters of hoplite warfare. Then, around 379 BC, Thebes produced a general of real genius named Epaminondas. And Epaminondas came up with the simplest great military innovation I know of: he cut a notch out of each round shield. That was all it was. Instead of looking like a whole cracker, the shield looked like a cracker from which a tiny bite had been taken. But that bite permitted the soldier to use his left hand to assist his right in managing his long spear, and the Thebans crushed the Spartans at Leuctra.

Here’s a picture of a toy showing what these shields looked like:

Again as with the hot air balloon, Wolfe argues that we could have invented the notched shield over a thousand years before we actually did.

So why didn’t we?

Against “Steam Engine Time”

We’ll explore the random nature of technological discovery a bit later in this essay. First, let’s look at a school of thought that disagrees with Wolfe.

In The Best of Gene Wolfe, he writes:

“Inventions and scientific discoveries seem to occur almost at random. The people who disagree with that statement say that when technology (or science) reaches a certain point, the same idea will occur to a dozen people. The shorthand for this is steam-engine time, the idea being that when it’s time for the steam engine to be invented, a bunch of people will start working on one.”

Supporters of this theory (called the theory of “multiple discovery” or “simultaneous inventions”) often cite the near-simultaneous discovery of calculus by Newton and Leibniz (a famously nasty feud) or the development of the evolutionary theory by both Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace.

Not so, says Wolfe. In history, many inventions were made and then lost:

“They had indoor plumbing in Ancient Crete. It was lost with the fall of that civilization, and did not reappear until long after it was needed. A model airplane, carved from wood, has been found in an Egyptian tomb. (Don’t get me started on the Egyptian girl wearing sunglasses.) Electroplating seems to have been invented at least twice. And so on. I decided to put the hot-air balloon in the Dark Ages, and I threw in a few other things too. Thus the story you have just read. Was there ever a time like that? No. Could there have been? Certainly.”

Of course, both of these theories — one arguing that innovation is more random and the other that it is more historical — are up for debate. To me, they both sound plausible.

Either way, Wolfe’s idea fascinates me. This means that there are inventions we once had — potentially life-changing, history-altering inventions — that are now lost to us. Even more fascinating is the idea that there are inventions out there right now that we haven’t yet invented but could.

Could we have, like the Egyptians with their planes and sunglasses, be missing something right before our eyes?

And, if so, why do we miss them?

The Things We Forgot to Invent

There are many more examples of how we failed to put a technological two and two together to make four.

In Antifragile (one of my favorite books), philosopher Nassim Taleb points out that we were a few thousand years late on inventing a simple tool used by every frequent flyer — the wheeled suitcase.

The wheeled suitcase is so simple. It’s a suitcase. On wheels. But the damn thing wasn’t invented until 1970, decades after the invention of electricity, airplanes, radio and the nuclear bomb. (Hilariously, the guy who made it even had trouble selling the idea to a manufacturer.)

Taleb writes:

“Can you imagine that it took close to six thousand years between the invention of the wheel (by, we assume, the Mesopotamians) and this brilliant implementation (by some luggage maker in a drab industrial suburb)? And billions of hours spent by travelers like myself schlepping luggage through corridors full of rude customs officers. Worse, this took place three decades or so after we put a man on the moon.”

It gets even worse when you realize that Mesoamericans invented the wheel as a toy but failed to see its immense practical applications:

“The story of the wheel itself is even more humbling than that of the suitcase: we keep being reminded that the Mesoamericans did not invent the wheel. They did. They had wheels. But the wheels were on small toys for children. It was just like the story of the suitcase: the Mayans and Zapotecs did not make the leap to the application. They used vast quantities of human labor, corn maize, and lactic acid to move gigantic slabs of stone in the flat spaces ideal for pushcarts and chariots where they built their pyramids. They even rolled them on logs of wood. Meanwhile, their small children were rolling their toys on the stucco floors (or perhaps not even doing that, as the toys might have been solely used for mortuary purposes).”
Example of a Mesoamerican toy with wheels

There are many other examples. The Greeks had complex gear systems but they didn’t make clocks. The Alexandrians had a simple steam engine but they didn’t end up making trains (so much for “steam engine time”).

So what is Taleb’s point?

We laugh at the irony of the wheel or the wheeled suitcase because it seems so obvious. But Taleb points out that this stuff only seems so clear because we have the wisdom of hindsight.

Looking forward, we tend to be pretty blind.

We humans are not good at imagining the future. The future we see ends up looking a lot like the past with a few things tweaked or added on.

Think about aliens in SF movies — they’re often a chimeric combination of octopi, birds and other wild beasts we’ve seen in person or on TV. Likewise, a dragon, if you think about it, is really just a big bird-lizard-alligator-snake.

Taleb’s argues that the human intellect (PhD or not) is not good at innovating — at least not directly. Therefore, the things we invent depend a lot more on chance and randomness (getting lucky, in other words), than we think. This is why our ancestors missed so much — they weren’t lucky enough to see. And, if our ancestors missed stuff, you can bet that we have too.

So what’s the answer?

Many of the greatest discoveries of the 20th century such as the laser and the internet were first made as playthings or for unrelated purposes. Nobody thought they would have the practical application they now do. Many of the great discoveries of the 21st century will be found in the same way — by accident.

The answer, then, may not be to pour more funding into R&D. Rather, we should encourage tinkering — we need to repeat many rounds of random, playful and curious trial-and-error to actually discover the amazing ideas that are sitting, invisible, right in front of our faces.

So what?

Okay, I’m done being all excited — just one last thought.

As a teenager, I thought life was terribly boring.

For me, a curious side effect of a textbook education was that reality started to look like a textbook too. Textbooks are boring. They give you problems, but the answers are in the back of the book. (Or, in the worst case, you just had to break into your teacher’s office at night and finger through a few files to find the answers.)

“What is the point of learning,” I thuoght, “if we have all the answers already?”

As an adult, I realized this was not true. The “smart” folk in high places know much less than they think or claim, and even the our most fundamental beliefs are open to doubt, skepticism and challenge.

Much of our knowledge, scientific studies or not, stands on shoddy pillars of rotting wood — faulty statistics, wishful thinking, the whims of human cognition and all rest of culture, history and thought that makes up what philosopher Isaiah Berlin called the “crooked timber of humanity.”

There are many questions we have yet to ponder and many things we have yet to invent.

And if you don’t invent it, there’s a chance no one will.

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Originally published here.