Weekend Reading: Non-Experts, Non-Linear Innovation, and We Were Builders
Vicki Boykis on the impossibility of true breadth and depth of technical expertise:
What used to distinguish senior people from junior people was the depth of knowledge they had about any given programming language and operating system.
What distinguishes them now is breadth and, I think, the ability to discern patterns and carry them across multiple parts of a stack, multiple stacks, and multiple jobs working in multiple industries. We are all junior, now, in some part of the software stack. The real trick is knowing which part that is.
I’ve written lately about the nature of innovation, and this is a good addition from Works in Progress. The mixture of basic scientific research and the tinkering of inventors is not a mechanical, proportional relationship. Impactful innovative results from foundational discoveries could happen immediately, or could be separated by decades. And often we create new inventions without even understanding how they work:
The impact of science on invention is long-term and often impossible to foresee. There are some times, certainly, when scientific pursuits have obvious applications: when Robert Koch identified the bacteria responsible for tuberculosis, he must have known that this would someday help us prevent or cure the disease. But when Bohr peered into the structure of the atom, or when Rutherford and Curie investigated the nature of radiation, it is doubtful that they expected their work to lead to nuclear power or MRI scans.
Investments in science, then, if motivated by long-term progress, cannot be prioritized by immediate practical impact. It requires, in Bush’s words, “the free play of free intellects, working on subjects of their own choice, in the manner dictated by their curiosity for exploration of the unknown.”
Back in the summer, Tanner Greer wrote an excellent post on our current cultural stagnation and inability to get things done. “On Cultures That Build” (my thoughts) made the case that, rather than pulling ourselves together and getting to work to invent, create, and solve problems, the standard approach is the “appeal to management” (one of my favorite aphorisms of 2020). He follows it up here with a look at Battle Cry of Freedom, a civil war history.
With the election of Abraham Lincoln they could point to one who had risen from a log cabin to the White House. “I am not ashamed to confess that twenty five years ago I was a hired laborer, mauling rails, at work on a flat-boat—just what might happen to any poor man’s son!” Lincoln told an audience at New Haven in 1860. But in the free states a man knows that “he can better his condition . . . there is no such thing as a freeman being fatally fixed for life, in the condition of a hired laborer.”