Why didn’t ancient Rome have Dungeons and Dragons? I am talking, of course, about the game. Anton Howes presents the general problem:
A theme I keep coming back to is that a lot of inventions could have been invented centuries, if not millennia, before they actually were. My favourite example is John Kay’s flying shuttle, one of the most famous inventions of the British Industrial Revolution. It radically increased the productivity of weaving in the 1730s, but involved simply attaching a little extra wood and string. It involved no new materials, was applied to the weaving of wool — England’s age-old industry — and required no special skill or science. Weaving had been “performed for upwards of five thousand years, by millions of skilled workmen, without any improvement being made to expedite the operation, until the year 1733”, was how Bennet Woodcroft — one of the nineteenth century’s most important historians of technology — put it. (Lest you doubt that description of Woodcroft, he was, in addition to being an inventor himself, the man who compiled and categorised England’s entire patent record up to 1852, and who collected the inventions that would later form the basis of London’s Science Museum, particularly some of the earliest steam engines — among the most important machines in human history — that grace its engine hall today. My hero!) Weavers had been around for millennia, as had shuttles: one is even mentioned in the Old Testament (“My days are swifter than a weaver’s shuttle, And are spent without hope”). As a labour-saving invention, Kay’s flying shuttle was even technically illegal.
I keep coming back to this example, because it goes against so many common notions about the causes of innovation. When it comes to skill, materials, science, institutions, or incentives, none of them quite seem to fit. But I keep seeing more and more such cases. There’s the classic example, of course, of suitcases with wheels – why so late? Was the bicycle another candidate?
…The economist Alex Tabarrok calls these cases “ideas behind their time”. I tend to just call them low-hanging fruit. Hanging so low, and for so long, that the fruit are fermenting on the ground. I now see them everywhere, not just in history, but today — probably at least one per week. And I now have a new favourite example, suggested yesterday on Twitter by Jordan Chase-Young: tabletop role-playing games.
Was it lack of the right the bureaucratic mindset? Lack of numeracy? Lower population densitie? Were such games invented but then lost to history? Ultimately Howes rejects these explanations, I think correctly.
Physically, there was nothing that actually stopped the invention of such games centuries or even millennia earlier. It required no special level of science, skill, or materials. So why did it take so long? Rather than there being any constraints, soft or otherwise, I think it’s simply because innovation in general is so extremely rare. It’s a matter of absence, rather than of barriers. The reason we have had so many low-hanging fruit throughout history is just because very few people ever bother to think of how to do things differently. We are, most of us, quite set in our ways. So even today, when there are many more inventors alive than at any previous point in human history, the fermenting fruit still abound.
Innovation doesn’t happen very often. How many people have ever invented a new way of doing anything? If stasis is the norm, then we should expect that many great ideas are routinely overlooked. For an economist this is an uncomfortable thought because we tend to think that profit opportunities are quickly exploited (no $500 bills on the ground). But while that is certainly true for choices within constraints it may not be true for choices that change constraints. This is also consistent with Paul Romer’s views on the combinatorial space of possible innovations—when the combinatorial space is vast and the explorers few, the innovations will be few and far between. What times, places and institutions generate more explorers?
Jason Crawford on twitter has more background and thoughts.