One of the most common, yet unexamined, concepts in technology policy is the idea of a “pace of technical development”. Usually, it is described as “fast” and taken to mean that we need to make interventions in a timely manner. This is all good and well, but what does it mean to say that the pace of innovation or technical development is fast? Relative to what? One way to approach that question is to say that we should look at two kinds of speed, and we can do that by employing a very simple mental model: that of the alphabet. 1 This notion derives from a talk by Ricardo Hausman on knowledge and economy.
The alphabet is essential in developing textual space – the space of texts that we have actually written and that can be used for different purposes.2 There is an important difference between the texts that could be written and the texts we have actually written. When we speak of the pace of textual development (the analogue here of technical development), we immediately realise that it depends on two different things: how many actual letters there are to combine and how many combinations we have made. The invention of a new symbol or letter allows us to create more words, and hence more texts.
The textual space, then, develops through capability and combination.
This is not unlike biological evolution – the idea of speciation speed and the emergence of new biological capabilities captures something like this as well. This is – grossly simplified – the idea behind the Cambrian evolution.
Systems that develop in this way are tricky to study, and we often miss the sum total pace of development because we are only looking at the pace with which new letters are added to the alphabet, and not the number of new combinations that this makes possible or the number of actual combinations that are produced.
As we add new letters the number of possible words grows fast – combinatorially – and the textual space then expands at the pace we try new texts and words and combinations.
There is no reason to think that the pace of technical development is any different. It is also, very likely, a composite speed where capabilities and combinations unfold the technical space. Think about the Internet as an example: it added a whole bucket of letters to our alphabet and suddenly there are a lot of new things we can do to explore the adjacent possible – and a lot of the progress we have seen since has been fuelled by that, but progress in combinations rather than pure capabilities. And look at AI now – the way that the field is growing is Cambrian in nature, for the moment. 3 See here for example.
There are other interesting aspects of this mental model that also are worth thinking more about.
Given a certain alphabet that vastly exceeds our ability to explore the textual space that can be generated by it – how fast are new words and new texts added? It seems likely that we produce more new words today than before, but not per English language speaker. So what does this tell us about the pace of textual development?
[ Alphabet – dictionary – text ] as a model could be translated to capabilities, tools, usages in technical development – but there are surely other mappings as well, so what do they look like?
In order to be able to compare the pace of development of different systems, we can assume a sort of general model where they are all languages, with alphabets, dictionaries and texts. What can we then say about law and technology? Is law developing slower than technology? It would seem that way, but why is that? Is it because of a lack of letters in the alphabet? A lack of words in the dictionary? Or is there something about the production of text in some systems that is harder? This seems to suggest that there is a role in the mental model for writing / producing text and the costs associated with that.
Can systems, equally, be slowed down by having too many words in a dictionary? Or too many letters?
At the very least it seems prudent to think of technical development as a two dimensional process – with capabilities and combinations as a first approximation – alphabets and words. It is probably even better described by some n-dimensional analogy, but economy of description also matters.
- 1This notion derives from a talk by Ricardo Hausman on knowledge and economy.
- 2There is an important difference between the texts that could be written and the texts we have actually written.
- 3See here for example.
2 thoughts on “A note on the pace of technical development”
Thank you for sharing.
Your model made me associate to the democratization of tech. If interface steers code and not the opposite way around, we will empower everyone to take active part in developing. More letters, more opportunities? Or a new set of challenges?
Both! And this is the key – we buy opportunities at the price of challenges, I think.