Inventions are inevitable

So, here’s the argument: inventions (including theories and technologies) are inevitably invented.  (This links nicely with Sid Winter’s thesis.) Thus we shouldn’t focus on or celebrate mythic “heroes” who happen to get credit for inventions that are inevitable – someone else would have invented them if the hero wasn’t around (Simonton highlights the increased instance of simultaneous discovery, here’s a wiki site cataloguing simultaneous discoveries).  As Robert Merton put it – “discoveries become virtually inevitable when prerequisite kinds of knowledge and tool accumulate.”

Kevin Kelly talks about this in his book What Technology WantsHe pulls in examples from mathematics and physics.  For example, Einstein was ahead of his time with the theory of relativity but some scholars were concurrently looking at similar questions and would inevitably have come up with the same theory.

Sort of an interesting issue embedded in here.  That is, discovering the realities and truths of nature is one thing – but clearly the possibilities and forms that technologies might take is a very different issue.  This is the space that the STS folks (Science & Technology Studies) have carved out – though they employ a confused epistemology and frequently overstep their bounds (Latour/Woolgar’s Laboratory Life is an example of this problem).  More perhaps on this later.

Here’s a figure from Kevin Kelly’s book (sorry, the quality isn’t the hottest).


4 Comments on “Inventions are inevitable”

  1. Ray Ritchey says:

    Within the same field, yes, I agree, its usually will happen, eventually. When several different fields are combined, I”ll disagree. Or may be it comes down to the term invention. For the general concept, when the technology is ready, a device will get made. What varies, and are extremely important, are the details.

    Apple, for example, did not invent the portable MP3 player. What they did was make it useful. Same with the integrated PDA with phone, the Treo was first. What Apple did was through excellent design, product a much superior product that resulted in higher adaption, than previous devices in the market place had. This goes back to the argument of would infinite monkeys typing would eventually produce the works of Shakespeare.

  2. teppo says:

    Ray: There’s indeed a big literature on “recombination” – though I think it has some different issues (the mechanisms, beyond randomness, aren’t very clearly laid out). Though good point.

  3. teppo says:

    link via @dave_bryce — time to stop celebrating inventors when all this stuff is just inevitable – http://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2011/11/the-myth-of-the-innovator-hero/248291/#.TsNBs9QozXI.twitter

  4. Quora says:

    Are inventions are inevitable?…

    See Teppo Felin’s perspective: “So, here’s the argument: inventions (including theories and technologies) are inevitably invented.  […] Thus we shouldn’t focus on or celebrate mythic “heroes” who happen to get credit for inventions that are inevita…


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