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Steam Engine Time

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 // This post is about: , , , , ,


  • Dion Haubro says:

    The only problem with “Steam Engine Time” is whether there’s enough momentum behind the idea to persuade the powermongers.

    Steamengine is a lot of work when there’s a ready supply of slaves (in Roman times). James Watt’s engine made a lot of sense to the English mineowners who were basically deforesting most of Britain to keep their old inefficient steampumps working so their mines wouldn’t flood.

    If I were to wear my tinfoil hat, I can think of a some obvious inventions that are on the cusp of Steam Engine Time, but the Kleptocracies/Corporations that benefit from the status quo aren’t ready to let them get momentum.

    While ideas like Cyberspace a relatively free, the actual implementation of such takes some cash and time. Watt spent a great many years tinkering with his improved steam engine before it was ready to literally drive the wheels of progress forward.

    Can we get a Kickstarter campaign for Corporation-free fuel/engine/energy research now, please? :)

    Without my tinfoil hat, I still think that some basic “market” fundamentals have to be in order for a proper change to happen, besides 2-10+ people describing the same concept in one way, shape or form.

  • Chris Lites says:

    Well, I’m revising a book about dreams and the collective unconscious. William Gibson indicated a few days ago [Feb 8] on Twitter that his novel in progress had started with “communal dreaming.” Fortunately for me, he seems to have abandoned the idea. I hope it’s evidence of “steam engine time” if he goes forward with the idea.

  • nick says:

    That last paragraph reminds me of Tesla vs. Edison. Guess who lived large and guess who died is miserable poverty? Guess whose inventions changed the world more, and whose innovations did. Is it the right way?

  • faris says:

    lovely stuff mate, reminds me of the adjacent possible, and all ideas are combinations.

    Rock ON FX

  • Cosmos and the Sideburns [Uncertain Principles] | Gaia Gazette says:

    […] rotation of polarization by light, somebody else would’ve in short order. It was basically steam engine time for E&M (and also, you know, steam engines), and Faraday’s discoveries would’ve […]

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