Saturday, May 25, 2024

"Harris Tweed, the miracle fabric"

Rory Sutherland at The Spectator, May 25:

To understand the development of technology, you may be better off studying evolutionary biology rather than, say, computer science. A grasp of evolutionary theory, with the facility for reasoning backwards which it brings, is a better model for understanding the haphazard nature of progress than any attempt to explain the world by assuming conscious and deliberate intent.

One useful concept from evolutionary thinking is the idea of the ‘adjacent possible’. As the science writer Olivia Judson explains: ‘Evolution by natural selection only works if each mutational step itself is advantageous. There’s no such thing as advantageous in a general sense. It’s advantageous in the circumstances you’re living in.’ In the field of product design, there is an analogous idea known as ‘Maya’, a phrase coined by Raymond Loewy, which stands for ‘Most advanced yet acceptable’. Any successful product should be notice-ably better than those which precede it, but not so different as to be alarming, incomprehensible or unbelievable. The plug-in hybrid electric car might be a good example of a Maya product, in that it introduces the benefits of electric propulsion without the fear fully electric vehicles often induce.

Any successful product should be noticeably better than what went before, but not so different as to be alarming

What is fascinating about this process is how uncertain it has become. Apple, one of the world’s wealthiest companies, has spent billions developing the Vision Pro, a clever set of goggles which has the potential to change computing, but which also has the potential to sell in tiny numbers and end up in a cupboard after a few months of novelty. No one yet knows.

Many government programmes fail because they don’t understand Maya or the adjacent possible. For instance, government grants are available for installing heat pumps, but only if you make a dramatic and expensive one-off transition: you must rip out your gas boiler, which has given you dependable service for 20 years, and trust your home heating to something entirely new. Evolution doesn’t make gambles like that – and neither do people.

There are also intertwined dependencies in evolutionary progress. One adaptation must establish itself before another can take root. Sometimes two things combine to great effect. The invention of the Penny Post in the UK was obviously dependent on the growth of the railways – but to some extent the development of the railways also required the introduction of the Penny Post. That’s because you can’t just travel across the country and turn up at someone’s door announcing you are staying for a week: you need an inexpensive form of communication to make arrangements first.

Hence some good ideas fail at the first attempt but succeed later. I always thought Google Glass was a fundamentally good idea: at the time it was advanced but not yet acceptable. Interestingly, with recent advances in artificial intelligence, Google has just announced it plans to relaunch a spectacle–style device....


 Our boilerplate introduction to the writer::

Readers who have been with us for a while know I get a kick out of Ogilvy's Rory Sutherland. He's a first rate marketer and enough of a behavioural scientist to be able to hold his own in conversation with Kahneman.
Additionally, he holds, along with Berkshire Hathaway's Charlie Munger, that most nebulous* of corporate titles: Vice-Chairman.


Some of our prior visits with Mr. Sutherland:

And many more. If interested use the 'search blog' box, upper left.
*I must say though that the Russian metals guy with 'Chief Head' as his title is in the running.
Sadly, both Mr. Kahneman and Mr. Munger died in the last year.
As for the Russian metals guy, he was on a trajectory for billionaire status or the gulag, I'm not sure which was his final destination.