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November, 2011

Steam Engine Time

The concept of 'steam engine time' and its implications for innovation.
After posting the other William Gibson quote about the difficulty we have in imagining the past I wasn't sure whether I should post a second quote from his very long interview with the Paris Review. However, now that Kevin Kelly has riffed on it, I feel I have no choice (it's Kevin Kelly talking about William Gibson, what else is a geek to do?). First, Gibson's quote:
There’s an idea in the science-fiction community called steam-engine time, which is what people call it when suddenly twenty or thirty different writers produce stories about the same idea. It’s called steam-engine time ­because nobody knows why the steam engine happened when it did. Ptolemy demonstrated the mechanics of the steam engine, and there was nothing technically stopping the Romans from building big steam engines. They had little toy steam engines, and they had enough metalworking skill to build big steam tractors. It just never occurred to them to do it. When I came up with my cyberspace idea, I thought, I bet it’s steam-engine time for this one, because I can’t be the only person noticing these various things. And I wasn’t. I was just the first person who put it together in that particular way, and I had a logo for it, I had my neologism.
In Kelly's words:
When it is steam-engine-time, steam engines will occur everywhere. But not before. Because all the precursor and supporting ideas and inventions need to be present. The Romans had the idea of steam engines, but not of strong iron to contain the pressure, nor valves to regulate it, nor the cheap fuel to power it. No idea - even steam engines -- are solitary. A new idea rests on a web of related previous ideas. When all the precursor ideas to cyberspace are knitted together, cyberspace erupts everywhere. When it is robot-car-time, robot cars will come. When it is steam-engine-time, you can't stop steam engines.
This makes me think of two things: First, it kind of changes the whole thought of the inventor. They're no longer this solitary player who has an "aha moment," but rather part of the network of ideas that is the current time. The inventor makes a few connections within the network and they've got this new thing that never could have happened without all these other circumstances to assist their creation. With that said, my second thought is that maybe my first thought is all wrong and this has to do much more with the distinction between invention and innovation. Economist Josef Schumpeter wrote this in his book The Theory of Economic Development:
Economic leadership in particular must hence be distinguished from “invention.” As long as they are not carried into practice, inventions are economically irrelevant. And to carry any improvement into effect is a task entirely different from the inventing of it, and a task, moreover, requiring entirely different kinds of aptitudes. Although entrepreneurs of course may be inventors just as they may be capitalists, they are inventors not by nature of their function but by coincidence and vice versa. Besides, the innovations which it is the function of entrepreneurs to carry out need not necessarily be any inventions at all. It is, therefore, not advisable, and it may be downright misleading, to stress the element of invention as much as many writers do.
It seems more likely that steam engine time is not so much about invention, but rather innovation: The idea that ideas come to life when the network is in place to support them and generally the people that win are the ones that align the pieces correctly, not necessarily the ones who create the new widget. Maybe a small distinction, but it seems like an important one.
November 2, 2011
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