Monday, 3 February 2014


I came across the word “neomania” this week. Well, that overactive excitement derived from innovation seemed spectacularly absent from Demis Hassabis this week. He’s the Brit who’s just sold his artificial intelligence company DeepMind Technologies to Google for £400 million. He was photographed clutching a vintage ZX Spectrum in his hand as if to make the point I’m about to make.

Nowadays we get so thrilled by breakthroughs. Do you suppose Hero of Alexandria got as excited in 10AD? You haven’t heard of this Hero – hero in fact in every sense? Me neither but he is regarded as the most prolific inventor of all time – sorry Leonardo.

He was a Greek mathematician and engineer and many of his inventions were used in the theatre which he loved. These include: the first steam engine (see above), a railroad system for transporting boats across dry land, ‘robots’ – these figures controlled by strings and pulleys and powered by a rotary cylinder appeared in a 10 minute automated play, a wind-powered pipe organ, a coin operated wending machine, the syringe and the extraordinary list goes on. 2000 years ago. Yes, 2000.

As we get very excited by that next new thing over our next lunch we might just think about Hero and wonder where our next Hero is because sorry he isn’t going to be another Steve Jobs. Actually it’s probably a she (but that’s another story). Because one thing is for sure. New isn’t as much part of our life now as we like to believe.

At that very stimulating lunch in a restaurant (over 2,500 years old are restaurants) we’ll be wearing shoes that haven’t much changed in their design for over 5,000 years, eating food cooked by fire (discovered over 1,000,000 years ago), using knives and forks (over 5,000 years old), drinking wine (over 8,000 years) in glasses (3000 years although drinking vessels date back 11,000 years). The point being, and I’m sorry to go on about it, some of the most basic day to day things haven’t changed much at all for a very, very long time.

Nassim Taleb whose extraordinary book “Antifragile” inspires and informs much of this blog has a law which is that for non-perishable things their robustness is proportionate to the length of their life. In other words we can expect Coca-Cola to go on for another hundred years or so and Facebook for another ten. And that feels about right. Richard Gott the physicist has shown something similar in studying how long an existing West End or Broadway play will run; he does this to an accuracy of 95%.

In the intoxication of looking at change and the thrill of technological innovation we sometimes forget this game is being played out over a long time. It matters less whether it’s new than whether it works and is useful.

Interestingly Taleb thinks wheels on suitcases (invented 40 odd years ago) maybe one of the great inventions in our lifetime. So according to Gott and Taleb we can expect them to be with us till at least 2057 long after Twitter has been reclaimed by ornithologists.

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