Human ability and reach would be greater if different systems for turning imagination into reality existed. There are not only many possible new systems, but some of them are actually feasible.
I first want to convince you that there are many technological counterfactuals that do not exist because of the current systems. A stronger claim is that there are many feasible systems that do not exist. Finally, I will sketch some outlines of how new systems that are both feasible and useful might appear.
Counterfactuals are hard to think about. It’s easy to see successes, examples of the system working. It’s slightly harder but still reasonable to notice failures. The challenge is calling out which of these failures could have been successes if something had been different. Even if our current systems produce many failures, there’s no point in building new ones if it won’t change anything.
There are two ways to find counterfactuals. In the first approach you find failures with precise inflection points that led to the failure and ask “what if the system was structured so that the inflection point played out differently?” The second approach is to look at “near misses” - success stories with inflection points where success was in spite of the system, not because of it. For now, I’m going to focus on the first approach and examine some failures that could have been successes.
Here are some counterfactual futures: There is good reason to believe that if the government had pursued the creation of fusion power with the same ruthless focus and level of funding that it pursued the Manhattan Project or the Moon Landing, we would have net energy positive fusion energy. Would this have been worth it? I certainly think so, but either way it is a possible present with a single systemic change in the past.
There was a proposal in the 1960’s to create a tunnel-creating machine that would use the heat from nuclear fission to melt through the earth. The physics all (theoretically) checked out but the military didn’t see much use. If it had actually been built, it’s possible we would have vast multi-level underground infrastructure and the idea of the Boring Company would be, well, boring.1
The technology exists to create satellites that assemble themselves on orbit like a simple version of the Enterprise in a dry dock. Self assembly would remove the current constraint on satellites that they need to fit in the nose2 of a rocket. We could have started launching them years ago and have worldwide satellite internet, better global positioning, and potentially much cheaper space stations. It is expensive to test this, and the technology is stuck in a chicken-and-egg situation where potential funders say “we’ll support it if you can show that it works.”
If it was not painfully obvious that any competitor to Amazon and the Kindle would be utterly crushed in the market, e-books could easily be dynamic and interactive. There’s no technological barrier here, only a justifiable hesitancy from any profit-focused system to go up against the Behemoth.
There are also many systems that could exist. Here are some counterfactual systems:
What if there was an entirely different system, something out of Neil Stephenson’s Anathem. Imagine we had a system where we delivered basic necessities to people locked in a castle for a hundred years at a time whose stated mission was just to enhance human knowledge and ability. They didn’t know anything about which startups had IPO’d or raised 50 million dollars. They didn’t know who the president was or what the return rate on bonds were. What would emerge at the end of a century? Maybe nothing. The inability to exchange ideas with the broader community could lead to them coming out and saying “behold what we have created!” to which the rest of the world responds “yes, we figured that out half a century ago.”
What if there was an organization funded by the government whose direction was solely set by an oracle like the one at delphi. Or in more practical terms, somebody who spent their entire time zonked out on drugs like the oracle in 300. They would spend their time working on things literally dreamed up by a madwoman. It would certainly be out-of-the-box thinking.
What if instead of devoting their wealth to philanthropic organizations, the wealthiest people in the world pooled their money to identify the best and brightest of our kids and sent them to an isolated base, Ender’s Game style. Like in Ender’s game, they play a game in a simulated version of reality. But instead of playing a simulation that trained them for war with enemy aliens, the simulation was a tool to let them explore the possibility of bringing new things into the world.
The point is not that we should do any of these things. The point is that there are other systems that could exist.
Thanks to Andy Matuschak and Luke Constable for reading versions of this essay.