ESSAY:Postrel on dynamism and tech. progress

Kathryn Aegis (
Fri, 27 Nov 1998 10:09:48 -0800 (PST)

Virginia Postrel is the editor of Reason Magazine.

                  Why Those With Vision Embrace Imperfection

                  By Virginia Postrel
                  Washington Post
                  Sunday, November 22, 1998; Page C01

                  Just about every morning around 6, I wake up and glance
                  at a clock perched four feet away. Its glowing red
                  digits tell me that it is not yet time to get up, and I
                  happily roll over for another hour or so of sleep.
                  Whenever I think about it, I am amazed that I can open
                  my eyes in the dim light of morning and see.

                  Every couple of weeks, when I take the required break
                  from my wear-to-bed contact lenses, I get a sharp
                  reminder of why my amazement is justified. On those
                  mornings, the clock is nothing but a dark blur, its
                  digits smeared into a bright discoloration with no hint
                  of meaning. That is the way the world--all the world
                  more than a foot or so away--looks to my naked eyes. No
                  one who sees the world this way can simply scoff at the
                  notion of progress.

                  The development of the contact lens shows how
                  dissatisfaction and demand breed innovation and
                  improvement. Back in the late 19th century, an obsessed
                  Swiss physician named A. Eugen Fick had glass lenses
                  ground to his specifications, tested them on rabbits and
                  then tried them on himself--for two whole hours. He
                  recorded problems that the lenses posed and explored
                  possible causes. Over the next century, eye specialists,
                  later joined by polymer chemists, experimented with lens
                  materials and sizes, with ways of making impressions of
                  the eyeball and with wetting solutions--all in pursuit
                  of a lens that would provide the right vision correction
                  and could be worn for long stretches of time without
                  harm or irritation.

                  It was a long and difficult process, with inherent risks
                  for both innovators (whose ideas might not work) and
                  users (whose eyes might be injured). Yet this is how
                  progress arises: through trial and error, experiment and
                  feedback. Both components are crucial. As economic
                  historian Joel Mokyr notes, "If every harebrained
                  technological idea were tried and implemented, the costs
                  would have been tremendous. Like [biological] mutations,
                  most technological innovations are duds and deserve to
                  be eliminated. Yet overcoming the built-in resistance is
                  the key to technological progress: If no harebrained
                  idea was ever tried, we would still be living in the
                  Stone Age."

                  This principle applies to all innovation. How we feel
                  about this process tells us who we are as individuals
                  and as a civilization: Do we think progress requires a
                  central blueprint, or do we see it as a decentralized,
                  evolutionary process? Do we see mistakes as permanent
                  disasters, or as correctable byproducts of
                  experimentation? Do we search for "stasis"--a regulated,
                  engineered world? Or do we embrace "dynamism"--a world
                  of constant creation, discovery and competition? These
                  poles increasingly define our political, intellectual
                  and cultural landscape.

                  Because they believe we learn from choice, competition
                  and criticism--not from picking winners in
                  advance--dynamists are willing to put up with
                  experiments that may not work, or that they think are
                  lousy. And they embrace plenitude. Their world has room
                  for a range of enterprises: for both Promise Keepers and
                  Ms. magazine; for the macho culture of Intel and the
                  zaniness of Southwest Airlines; for punks and
                  debutantes; Mozart and Madonna; "The Little Mermaid" and

"Pulp Fiction." Dynamists do not demand that we
collectively choose "one best way." This way of thinking is foreign to most public debates, which are often governed by static, technocratic assumptions. In early 1996, about a year into the Republican takeover of Congress, I met with a Capitol Hill insider who tried to explain what had gone wrong with Newt Gingrich's "revolution." The problem, he said, was that most members of Congress--including
"revolutionary" Republicans--couldn't imagine life
without central, governmental direction. "They're good conservatives, so they want to reduce government," he said. "But they think of that as getting as close to the abyss as possible without falling off." Life as the abyss. All too often, that attitude shapes our political discussion. We have become so accustomed to technocratic governance that we take for granted that new ideas, products or problems require government scrutiny and centralized "solutions." Most political arguments thus take place between competing technocratic schemes: Should the tax code favor families with children or people attending college? Should a national health insurance program enroll everyone in managed care, or should we regulate HMOs so they act more like fee-for-service doctors? Should we regulate, subsidize or ban biotechnology? The question often isn't whether the future should be molded to fit a static ideal. It's whose blueprint should rule. Instead of rushing to address every new development with a grand plan or an ad hoc solution, dynamists have the patience to let trial and error work. "Premature choice," physicist Freeman Dyson wrote in 1992, "means betting all your money on one horse before you have found out whether she is lame." The search for the perfect corrective lens provides a microcosm of dynamism at work. Eyeglasses to correct nearsightedness were invented around the year 1500, two centuries after reading glasses. For me in the late 1960s, they were miracle enough. The trees once again had leaves and the chalkboards had words. Contact lenses came a decade later, along with more wonders: peripheral vision, sharper and more consistent focus, no annoying smudges, no slipping down my nose. And I did look better. Another decade passed. My hard lenses had been replaced by gas-permeable ones, safer because they let in more oxygen. But when I moved to Los Angeles, my eyes couldn't take the dry air: The lenses would cause me pain within a few hours, driving me back to glasses and all the shortcomings I thought I'd escaped. Finally, a new optometrist hit on a solution: disposables, which had been on the market only a couple of years. Unlike rigid lenses, they came in off-the-shelf sizes--easier to fit than shoes--and could be quickly and cheaply replaced. They were super-wet and got thrown away before they could get grungy. As an added bonus, I could keep them in for two weeks at a time. The inventors are still at work, and the perfect contact lens remains always out of reach. This process is hardly unique to contacts. Authors revise books, cooks fiddle with recipes, teachers try new techniques and parents hope to do better with their second child than their first. Rarely do we discover perfection. The imperfections of the world generate the demand for progress. "Form follows failure," explains civil engineering professor Henry Petroski, whose popular books explore the histories of such mundane objects as zippers and forks. Fix one problem and others arise. Or having solved the more serious problems, we turn to others we never worried about before. Car makers refine the placement of cup holders; dishwasher manufacturers design fold-down racks; Procter & Gamble produces Tide Free for the allergy-prone. Post-it Notes sprang from one man's discontent with the bookmarks that kept falling out of his choir hymnal. Contrary to the traditional technocratic vision, the very nature of progress dictates an inherently open, unpredictable and imperfect future. This diverse, decentralized process makes those who crave control uncomfortable. No one is in charge, and the results are risky. Consider the advice dispensed by Vogue medical columnist and physician Isadore Rosenfeld on disposable, extended-wear contact lenses. Three of the four experts he surveyed, Rosenfeld wrote in June 1994, say sleeping in the lenses "is not safe" and is unjustified "unless you're having near-sighted dreams." Don't do it, he warned, but added, "There's good news on the horizon: I'm told there are lenses in development that will permit adequate passage of oxygen to the eye and will likely be safer for overnight wear." As consumer information on the inherent hazards of sticking pieces of plastic in your eyes and then going to sleep, Rosenfeld's column was entirely reasonable. He questioned cornea authorities and presented up-to-date research. And I can testify from excruciatingly painful personal experience that extended-wear lenses do entail the risk of corneal ulcers. But would we have contact lenses at all, much less safer lenses in development, if everyone shared Rosenfeld's attitude toward risk taking? We can only imagine what he--or any other sensible person--would have advised the obsessed Dr. Fick when he was placing ground-glass lenses over his eyeballs and observing the results. Confined to a fashion magazine, Rosenfeld's preference for progress without risk is a benign fantasy, no more dangerous than the lingerie ad it followed. But it is, in fact, a fantasy. Risk and courage are essential to innovation. The early adopters who take chances with unproven innovations provide critical feedback both to innovators and later users. The information they supply helps determine whether a new idea will flop altogether or get to prove itself to a larger public. Just about every new idea goes through a debugging process. When the use of bank credit cards spread in the 1960s, the losses bordered on the catastrophic. Issuing banks lost millions of dollars in theft, fraud and bad debts. Consumers screamed about receiving unordered cards in the mail--a technique banks used to establish a large enough network of cardholders to interest retailers. Pundits warned of a nation of "credit drunks." Congress held hearings, led by Wright Patman, then the powerful chairman of the House Banking and Currency Committee. He threatened to regulate bank cards out of business. Fortunately, cooler heads prevailed, and only minor restrictions became law. As for the risks (and losses) the banks took, they were as necessary as they were painful. "Most credit card veterans now view the late 1960s as a time of madness, culminating in staggering losses to the banks, public embarrassment and federal legislation," Joseph Nocera wrote in "A Piece of the Action," a history of the
"money revolution." From that chaos emerged our current
credit card system. Trial and error is a very humble process. It invests no one with decisive power, assumes no one is omniscient or even particularly wise. It cherishes the unheralded inventor willing to test a new idea. It recognizes that most ideas will fail--but converts that weakness into a powerful lever for progress. "There is no way to find the best design except to try out as many designs as possible and discard the failures," writes physicist Dyson. Progress does not mean that everyone will be better off in every respect. But under ordinary circumstances, for the random individual, life in a dynamic society will be better tomorrow, on the whole, than life today. It will offer more variety, more opportunity, more options, more knowledge, more control over time and place, more life. It will address more sources of dissatisfaction (though it may also call attention to new ones) and create more sources of delight. And while dynamism will not perfect moral character or avert foolish ideas, its continuous processes of criticism and correction will, over time, curb excesses and limit damage. We have not discovered the one best way to live, nor is it likely that we ever will. But we can improve our lot by building on the discoveries, insights and experiments of the past. Virginia Postrel is the editor of Reason magazine. This article is adapted from her new book, "The Future and Its Enemies: The Growing Conflict Over Creativity, Enterprise and Progress" (Free Press). Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company