People set themselves curious challenges. Doogie Hooner’s is to explain everything through flowcharts, and his book doing precisely that is published today. One of the tasks he sets himself is to explain the internet to a nineteenth century street urchin. A small extract from the resulting flow chart is shown below, click on it to see the full thing.
It’s nicely done, and it’s probably not giving too much of the plot away to say that the urchin doesn’t end up a great deal the wiser. It is next to impossible to understand the internet in 1835 because it is next to impossible to understand the predecessor concepts. The things you need to understand in order to understand the internet don’t exist yet. Or to put it the other way round, the internet could be invented when it was because the conditions for its existence were already in place. And that in turn is one of the reasons why words like ‘invented’ don’t seem terribly useful when talking about things like the internet: the internet emerged when it did at the point when it was a small step on from all the things which existed already.
That can be a local effect as well as a global one. I had a fascinating conversation a couple of weeks ago, discussing whether a particular innovation could take root in a particular organisation. The conclusion was that it couldn’t, not because the innovation wasn’t there for the taking, but because the way that organisation thought about the relevant problem would not allow it to see the innovation as a potential solution. William Gibson’s famous dictum, ‘The future is here. It’s just not evenly distributed yet,’ is in part a consequence of that too. The future emerges at times and in places where the conditions exist to support it.
That’s not to argue for some crude form of historical determinism. Our specific presents and futures are the result of specific people doing specific things. It is, though, to make the point that invention and innovation are much more the crystallisation of current possibilities in new arrangements than they ever are the plucking from nowhere of what had hitherto been unknown.