The future, in retrospect, always seems inevitable. When Steve Jobs unveiled a sleek new device, it felt like it was just meant to be. When Elon Musk gives an interview, it almost seems as if he had dreamt Tesla up in his childhood bedroom and only gotten around to it more recently. Yet that’s not how it happens.
In Six Degrees, network scientist Duncan Watts stresses that discovery is done in a messy and ambiguous world, by “real people who suffer the same kind of limitations and confusions as anybody else.” It is, above all, more a matter of persistence than epiphany.
And that’s something that we often forget. Brilliance doesn’t arrive on a rainbow, but can come in the guise of an idiot, muttering incoherently about something nonsensical. Yet somewhere along the line, someone noticed that there was wheat amongst the chaff and helped midwife the idea. It is those stories, not fairy tales, that should guide us.
The Not So Prodigal Son
Near the turn of the 20th century, the son of a well-to-do industrialist, recently graduated from university, found himself poorly married with a young child and unable to find gainful employment. With nothing better to do, he spent much of his time reading and discussing wild ideas with a small group of friends that called themselves the Olympia Academy.
Yet despite the grandiose name, which was more of an inside joke than anything else, the Olympia Academy was mostly just a bunch of guys hanging out and chewing the fat. Distressed about his situation and his prospects, the young man became deeply morose and wrote to his sister in a letter:
What depresses me most is the misfortune of my poor parents who have not had a happy moment for so many years. What further hurts me deeply is that as an adult man, I have to look on without being able to do anything. I am nothing but a burden to my family…It would be better off if I were not alive at all.
His father would pass away a few years later. By that time, the young Albert Einstein did find work as a lowly government clerk. Soon after, in 1905, he unleashed four papers in quick succession that would change the world. It was an accomplishment so remarkable that it is now often referred to as his miracle year.
Another seven years passed before Einstein finally got a job as a university professor and it wasn’t until 1919, when a solar eclipse confirmed his oddball theory, that he became the world famous icon we know today. His work lives on in everything from nuclear power to digital devices like iPhones and GPS navigation.
The Mediocre Child
As the least talented scion of one of Europe’s richest families, Ludwig Wittgenstein was supposed to go into the family business rather than indulge in individual pursuits. To that end, he studied engineering in Berlin and then entered Manchester University to learn the emerging field of aeronautics.
It was there that he attended some lectures by J.E. Littlewood and became interested in pure mathematics and logic. Before long, he came across the work of Bertrand Russell and became obsessed. He stayed at Manchester long enough to earn both a degree and a patent for a jet engine, then set off to Cambridge to seek out Russell.
Wittgenstein arrived at Russell’s chambers unexpectedly and unannounced, then immediately began arguing with the eminent scholar. As if that wasn’t enough, he began attending his lectures and following him home, pestering him along the way. Russell would write at the time:
My German friend threatens to be an affliction, he came back with me after the lecture & argued till dinner-time –obstinate and perverse, but I think not stupid
Despite Wittgenstein’s maddening behavior, Russell continued to work with and mentor the young man. The problem they were trying to solve was the immense hole that Russell had discovered in the fabric of logic and he felt Wittgenstein had both the gumption and the brilliance to help him close it up.
Alas fate, in the form of World War I, intervened and Wittgenstein entered the Austrian army. He continued to work on the problem in his spare time and in 1915 sent a note to Russell that he had a breakthrough. After that, Wittgenstein disappeared and Russell feared that Wittgenstein, along with his solution to the problem, had been lost to history.
A few years later, Russell received a card from an Italian prison camp. Wittgenstein, still holding the key to the future of mathematical logic, was still alive but in captivity and unable to complete his work. John Maynard Keynes, who was a delegate at the Versailles peace conference, arranged for special privileges and writing supplies.
Wittgenstein emerged from his internment with a manuscript and, again with Russell’s help, the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, was published. It was immediately recognized as one of greatest works in the history of philosophy. Wittgenstein, still in his early twenties, was now a living legend.
A Universal Computer
Feeling that he had solved the problem of mathematical logic, Wittgenstein disappeared once again to become a grade school teacher in an obscure mountain village. Yet the Tractatus had caused a stir and a group of men, which came to be known as the Vienna Circle, met regularly to discuss Wittgenstein and his ideas.
However, the hole in logic, called Russell’s paradox, remained open. A young student named Kurt Gödel began attending the Vienna Circle meetings and became intrigued by the problem. Unlike Wittgenstein, however, he did not believe the hole could ever be closed and produced his incompleteness theorems, which proved that to be the case.
The ripples caused by Gödel’s work caused soon reached Cambridge and Alan Turing, then an undergraduate, seized on his methods to create an imaginary machine which, using just ones and zeroes, could perform any possible computation. Turing’s work became central to the British effort to break the German Enigma codes and gave birth to the very real computers we use today.
After completing his undergraduate work, Turing was recommended by John von Neumann for a fellowship at Princeton University, where Einstein and Gödel now resided at the Institute for Advanced Study. It was von Neumann who created a functional architecture for Turing’s imaginary machine and built an early version of it.
After Princeton, Turing went back to Cambridge and found that Wittgenstein had returned as well. They attended each other’s lectures and argued incessantly.
The Path To The Future
The story I just told is a confusing one, all the more so considering the parts I left out. The path to our modern world was not a straight one, but a tangled mess of intersecting threads. Where we would expect to see an organized chain of lone geniuses working quietly in isolation, we inevitably find a crisscross of interactions.
When we look at how our modern age came about, two themes emerge. One is mentorship. Even a genius like Wittgenstein needed a Bertrand Russell who, although secure in his own historic legacy, found the patience to suffer the young man’s maddening eccentricities and help him to realize his potential.
The second is what John Hagel calls creation spaces. The meetings of the Cambridge Apostles, which Russell and Keynes regularly attended, Einstein’s informal Olympia Academy and the Vienna Circle all probably seemed like idle chatter to outsiders, but they were essential to the process of discovery. We live in a world of the visceral abstract, where imaginary ideas can be more consequential than hard facts.
So while some complain that we were promised flying cars but got 140 characters instead, we should remember that 140 characters are far more important. It is through the ability to communicate and interact that we build the future. Throughout history, that has been the one truth that has formed the basis for all of human discovery.
Yet today there is a crucial difference. Our creation spaces are no longer tied to a particular time or place, like Cambridge, Vienna or Princeton, and no longer available only to those with the privilege and means to participate in them. We can make discovery and accomplishment a universal opportunity, if only we can muster the desire and the will to make it so.
image credit: Sam Howzit
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