Waste, Creativity and Godwin’s Corollary for Technology

by Venkat on August 23, 2012

For the last six months, the scarcity/abundance dichotomy has been annoying me.  All dichotomies are false of course, but some are more of a bitch to transcend than others. On a 10-point scale where good vs. evil is a 4 in terms of transcendence difficulty, I’d rate scarcity versus abundance at 8.5.

And it is more than a harmless intellectual distraction. The scarcity versus abundance dichotomy is central to all technological thinking. The two sides of the dichotomy also have the two most powerful ideas in science — the second law of thermodynamics and evolution — as their respective intellectual motifs (I once called these two ideas the only sexy ideas in science; I think they appeal to humans because they both involve irreversibility, but that’s a story for another day).

So anytime you talk scarcity versus abundance, you are holding a sort of sumo wrestling match between two heavyweight ideas. This is why the respective poles of technological visioning, the ideas of the Singularity and Collapse, exercise such a powerful grip on our imagination.

I can’t say I’ve managed to rise above the dichotomy yet, but I am beginning to see a glimmer of a way out of this particular cognitive trap.

The trigger for this train of thought was probably Refactor Camp in March, where I deliberately asked Nick Pinkston to speak first, and put myself last on the agenda. Nick is about as cheerful an evangelist for abundance thinking as you can hope to find this side of The Secret, and given my own gloomy and scarcity-driven predisposition, I figured it would make for an interesting framing dichotomy for the event.

It turned into more than that. That’s worth a little sidebar.

Godwin’s Corollary for Technology

If you are at all interested in technology and futurism, and spend even a little time talking about these subjects, you will notice something funny. No matter what you are talking about, be it cellphones or 3d printing or Big Data, if a conversation goes on long enough, somebody will mention either the Singularity or the idea of Collapse. I noticed the phenomenon in the Facebook discussion group we created after Refactor Camp. Then I checked a few other fora and realized it was not unique to our group.

It’s sort of like Godwin’s Law: every Internet discussion that goes on long enough will eventually mention Nazis or Hitler.

So I am calling it Godwin’s Corollary for Technology: every online discussion about technology that goes on long enough will eventually mention the Singularity or Collapse.

Both laws of course, derive from powerful dichotomies underlying their respective overarching grand narratives. In general discussions on arbitrary subjects, good versus evil is  most likely to be the framing dichotomy, and that gives you Godwin’s Law. Since technological determinism often involves abandoning the good/evil dichotomy, you end up with the Singularity/Collapse watershed as the frame for Godwin’s Corollary.

(I also have a more ambitious conjecture: the Generalized Godwin’s Law. Every discussion within an online community converges to a zero-information signal characterized by empty assertions concerning the foundational dichotomy of that community. There’s a whole bunny trail there, having to do with how online communities live and die and transform, but I won’t go there today).

Let’s get back to scarcity and waste.

Good Waste and Bad Waste

We generally associate the idea of waste with profligate excess of the hedonistic variety. Destructive non-consumption withno redeeming value. Behavior that destroys resources that took human energy and resources to create, or non-renewable natural resources. Pure dissipation.

That’s bad waste.

There’s also good waste. This is the sort of waste people mean when they say to become a good artist, you have to waste paper. At one point, you used to hear the advice, to become a good photographer, waste film. 

Here’s the thing about good waste: it fosters creativity. If you have the luxury of being able to waste a resource, it means you don’t have to think about it. It is not an active constraint. This doesn’t mean you perversely set out to destroy that resource. It simply means you don’t worry about it as a constraint. This simplifies your thinking, which allows you to redeploy those mental resources on more fertile fronts.

You see this sort of “good waste” everywhere you see creativity. I think the relationship is quite intimate. Creativity involves a lot of false starts, dead-end explorations and so forth. The resource you can waste is precisely the resource that allows you to make this trial and error process fast (not efficient) and frictionless. In fact, your creative medium is defined by the wasteable resource. It is the canvas (literally in painting).

Speed is important because ideation is not generally a steady cognitive process. It likes to develop runaway momentum and exhaust itself, often explosively. You then pick through the debris of the explosion and pull out the good bits to develop with more deliberate and measured attention. Anything that dampens the explosion also lowers its fertility.

The interplay of good and bad waste is not simple. Here is an example.

One-Sided Print Outs

My preferred thinking medium is one-sided print outs. When I am thinking through an idea, I run through perhaps 10-15 sheets in about an hour before running out of energy. On explosive days, I fill maybe 60 sheets over the course of 4-5 intense hours (these are sadly getting rarer; physical fatigue often stops me before the idea runs its course these days).

But it has to be one-sided print outs.

I can’t really work with ruled paper or blank two-sided paper.  Both are pristine resources that I feel guilty about wasting with my manic scribbling of mostly useless thoughts. Ruled paper has the additional problem of being ruled.

It is completely irrational, but revealing: the reason I work best with one-sided printed paper is that it has already been bad-wasted. It’s going to the recycling bin anyway. So it is a particularly liberating medium to work with. More than liberating. You can feel virtuous because you are effectively redeeming bad waste.

What’s more, since I am personally conscientious about limiting what I print, and always printing two-sided when I can, not only am I redeeming bad waste, I am generally redeeming others’ bad waste (I am always on the lookout for one-sided paper that others are about to recycle, which is now a problem since I don’t work in an office with others).  I pay for your profligate printing sins. I am a minor Jesus of paper.

Wasting Bits, Wasting Pixels

What got me thinking about good waste was preparing for the talk I just did at the Media Evolution conference in Sweden (I am now officially an “international speaker,” just over a year into my talking-head career) titled Wasting PixelsThe organizers contacted me to speak after reading my post on the idea of Public Computing on Forbes, where I’d talked about a possible future with large touchscreen displays everywhere.

In groping about for a high-concept with which to think about ubiquitous displays, I settled on Alan Kay’s famous idea of “wasting bits” as a starting point.

For those who are not familiar with the idea, “wasting bits” was Kay’s reaction, as a designer of software systems, to the promise of Moore’s Law.

He recognized that Moore’s Law meant that a previously scarce resource (computing power and memory) was now going to become increasingly cheap. This meant that effective design thinking could now ignore processing speed and memory limits as meaningful constraints.

Or stated another way, you could now afford to waste bits, something that would have been unthinkable to old-school punch-card programmers trained to conserve every precious CPU cycle and memory bit.

Kay’s idea turned into the overarching design principle that has since driven software design. Though memory and processing constraints still do keep popping up (especially when new platforms emerge, such as mobile), the general trend of technology towards wasteable bits has stayed robust.

Applying that logic to displays that are getting cheaper by the year (though not at Moore’s Law rates), it struck me that you could think about the future of public computing, with touchable displays everywhere, in terms of the overarching “wasting pixels” design principle.

I won’t get into this particular example, but there is a general principle here: civilizations are defined by the resources they can waste. This constitutes the wasteable frontier of resources.

The Wasteable Frontier

Good waste is related to, but not synonymous with, the ideas of commoditization and “costs of doing business.”

A technology development can be commoditized, offering no competitive advantage to anyone, without getting cheap enough to waste. It can even go beyond commoditization within the market to becoming a public utility or commons resource (effectively being taken out of play from the economy) and not get that cheap.

Gold is an example. It is a commodity, but not cheap. So is law enforcement.

Wasteable resources are a special case. A resource gets cheap enough to waste when it is cheap enough that you can leave it out of the strategic cost calculations for most products and services that it is a part of.

This is a relative definition of cheap. Global shipping is an example of a wasteable resource today, for value-added manufactured goods. Relative to manufacturing and other costs, the costs of shipping something from China to the US (say) are so trivial that as a first approximation, you can ignore them. You can think about business models and strategic positioning issues without thinking about transport (your accountants still have to include it in their book-keeping of course). The design space for your business model shrinks in useful ways.

Not all resources are wasteable in all industries. Electricity is something you can waste in many contexts in the developed world, but not in the data center business, where it is a big enough cost component that it pays to locate data centers near cheap power.

This suggests a good measure for development actually. A nation or region is as developed as the resources its economy views as wasteable (in the good+strategic sense).

This is one major reason innovation is largely a one-way flow from developed to developing economies. Even though there is plenty of innovation and creativity in developing countries, much of it is a context of a much smaller wasteable frontier. If you’ve developed a really clever solution for efficiently operating a factory in an environment of load-shedding and power disruptions, or a way to power light bulbs far away from the grid, good for you, but it isn’t a particularly useful technology to export to the developed world.

Waste and Abundance

The more distinct resources you can waste (paper, clean water, electricity, bits, pixels), the simpler creativity becomes. This leads to an empirical basis for faith in technological abundance.

When you waste paper while writing, you are making the leap of faith that by crumpling and tossing twenty sheets of paper, you will get to an essay in the twenty-first sheet that is much better than if you had carefully restricted yourselves to one sheet.

How much better? You can quantify it.

Value of Essay (21 sheets) > Value of Essay (1 sheet) + cost of 20 blank sheets.

This is a very simple example of what is known as an exploration-exploitation trade-off in control theory and machine learning.  You are assuming that there are returns from exploratory trial-and-error activity that outweigh the costs of wasted resources. These returns diminish the longer you explore (so if you crumple and toss 1000 sheets of paper, you might have an entirely different problem like writer’s block), but the point is, waste is good in a definable and quantifiable sense.

The problem of course, is applying this sort of logic to human civilization at large. The leap of faith that wasting oil will lead to a new abundance somewhere else is much less defensible than wasting paper in search of the perfect angle from which to write about a subject.

But for better or worse, technological debates today are based on the idea of climbing a stairway to a heaven of permacultural abundance, with the stairs below you crumbling as you climb. A sort of bootstrapping via profligacy. You either believe your sins of waste will not catch up with you before you reach the heaven, or that they will.

I am not satisfied with this. It is not a resolution of the abundance/scarcity dichotomy. But it is a starting point that may lead to a more basic and powerful dichotomy. I think.

Good waste/bad waste is sort of a temporary framing. I like it because it gets at both our moral and conceptual confusions around resources, and forces us to examine the vast amounts of cultural baggage we carry around under the term “waste.”

But I’ll have to stop here with this quick-and-dirty post. I have a conference to get to, and then on to Stockholm for a couple of days.

aepxc August 23, 2012 at 5:06 am

Isn’t “good waste” just another way of saying “investment”? You’re consuming resources today in a way that grows an asset (which will likely provide benefits in the future). You waste film to be a better photographer, waste paper to be a better thinker, waste bits and pixels to accelerate the rate of innovation or decrease fragility in the face of shock.

The way I see it, “scarcity” and “abundance” have two dimensions – investment and distribution. The first is an evaluation of whether today’s ‘capability frontier’ has grown or shrunk from where it was yesterday. Have I transformed resources from a less useful (to me) form to a more useful (to me) form? Have I made my life easier today without making it more difficult for myself tomorrow? Have I produced more than I consumed? Expansion of knowledge, infrastructure, and institutions is what makes it easier for us to pursue our interests today than it would be if we came into this world alone, naked, and ignorant on a desert island.

The second is a function of observation and imagination – can I observe and/or feasibly imagine a set of conditions I want but cannot have? Life, for instance, is a lot less scarce today than it would be if a few billionaires could afford to buy immortality. Likewise, Louis XIV did not experience scarcity even though his absolute quality of life was significantly inferior to that of today’s average/middle class frenchman (who nevertheless does experience scarcity). Both dimensions make scarcity and abundance into relative measures. What is abundant and what is scarce is relative to our goals, motivations, and historical experiences. Something that looks like a collapse from one capability frontier can look like a singularity from another.

W at Off-Road Finance August 23, 2012 at 10:51 am

There’s an interesting political aspect here. It’s quite typical for politics to revolve around “we’re wasting resource X” when maybe it should be “what resource can we afford to waste?”.

punkscience August 23, 2012 at 11:53 am

Dude. You just blew my mind.
#awesome

Gabe August 23, 2012 at 12:07 pm

I tend to think of things in terms of entropy. Good waste would be increasing entropy by some amount in exchange for a larger net decrease later on. Bad waste would be increasing entropy to no effect, or increasing it more than necessary through inefficiency. The dream of the singularity is that machines will be able to find new ways of decreasing entropy on their own without human intervention. Of course, these decreases are always local and at the expense of some external energy input, in our case the Sun. Ultimately, collapse wins since as far as we know the total entropy of the Universe always increases.

Alexander Boland August 23, 2012 at 12:09 pm

I had a similar thought, but it’s now been greatly enriched by this post:

Keynesian economics (at least as it’s conventionally known) is based on the idea that we’ll all be better off if we waste more paper than if we try to conserve–and this is true if resources are abundant enough. Austrians constantly decry the “waste” and “theft” of fractional reserve banking. I think a better distinction can be made:

Currency signifies some ballpark amount of resources. Every time a note passes through someone’s hands, they are getting information that says “waste more paper, get a better idea!” Whether our society chooses a gold standard, a bimetallic standard, fractional-reserve, or whatever else, we are deciding on what signals to send regarding how much paper should be wasted.

In the case of The Great Depression, it would seem (at least by the conventional narrative), that the problem could be solved by creating more paper because the paper was cheap. As for now, that is up for debate.

Alexander Boland August 23, 2012 at 12:10 pm

Also one other tie-in. I was going to say that sometimes constraints are important for productivity–and the same can be said in economics. Even if there is relative abundance, simulated scarcity is good for Schumpeterian innovation.

Ran Prieur August 23, 2012 at 12:18 pm

Could the idea of good waste apply to wasting time?

Venkat August 24, 2012 at 1:43 am

Thats a toughie. I suppose leisure class creativity relies on that.

Maggu August 24, 2012 at 6:10 am

Your reading this blog is a good waste of time. In your calculations you have supposed that reading the blog will provide you with something that you are able to use somewhere in your life.

nat August 23, 2012 at 1:38 pm

I would make a small argument with your idea of “being able to afford to waste materials allows for better creativity”.

This is true up to a point but I would argue that, in most art forms, some amount of scarcity causes artists/architects etc to be more careful of their work and results in better finished products.

The most common of these examples would be architects and engineers with severe limitations in money and supplies and the laws of physics have created the most beautiful bridges, buildings etc. When architects have unlimited money and supplies they end up with giant Trump Tower like monstrosities.

Also reflect upon the illuminated manuscripts of the middle ages. Vellum was very very expensive so each page was a work of art.

There is a break point at which one can not afford to do something because its too expensive, but too many resources also allows for true waste.

There is a sweet spot of “can experiment” with “need to pay attention”.

Dave McDougall August 23, 2012 at 8:31 pm

Agreed 100%. To add an example, digital cinema’s ‘just keep rolling’ ethos has devastated craftsmanship in favor of ‘let’s see what happens.’

I think the key is to find strategies for how to use productive waste. Productive waste is that which enhances preparation, not that which makes it unnecessary — and so much of this is in the attitude of the individual craftsperson. Wastability of materials is only generalizable to practice, and not to creating finished products.

Bradford August 23, 2012 at 11:35 pm

Agreed. And I might elevate it to more than a small argument. Maybe Rao is using the term “creativity” where what he means is “production.” Yes, being able to ignore some constraint allows you to produce more. But that isn’t creative work, in the sense of “innovative”.

Maddie September 6, 2012 at 10:07 am

Are they simply two different flavors of creativity, the one born of waste (more productive) and the other of scarcity (more resourceful)? Maybe the second leads to elegant solutions out of necessity, and the first simply reaches a similar conclusion after more iterations.

George August 23, 2012 at 2:13 pm

I’d be interested how you think the good waste concept relates to people as a resource and the practice of outsourcing to India/China/your-cheap-labour-locale. At what scales of endeavour and skill are people sufficiently homogeneous in capability and effectiveness that they can be considered fungible, a single class of resource?

Venkat August 24, 2012 at 1:37 am

Wasting people in a good way is not possible I think, since that basically maps to slavery on the other end. Basically the idea doesn’t work for living things that can experience “being wasted” as pain. Factory farming = wasting animals = cruelty for example.

Xianhang Zhang August 24, 2012 at 1:43 am

Wikipedia is a great example of wasting people effectively.

Dave McDougall August 24, 2012 at 11:14 am

And also in the (slightly) paid version thereof, referred to here as the “digital sweatshop”: http://www.eastbayexpress.com/ebx/dawn-of-the-digital-sweatshop/Content?oid=3301022

Maus August 23, 2012 at 2:55 pm

Another very thought provoking post. First, +1 on the “one-sided” paper. I thought you meant that you needed to print to one side (presumably to use the other for further notes or amendments); but then realized that you were “recycling” the cast-off 81/2 x 11 emphemera of the world. I, too, use discarded print outs. I probably have ten reams of the stuff salvaged from work sitting in my office at home.

As I was reading, and triggered by Ran’s question re: wasting time, I wondered if the bad waste versus good waste dichotomy could be applied to labor. It occurred to me that the archaeological and anthropological evidence suggests that the Egyptian pyramids required the unskilled labor of thousand to erect what were essentially monuments to individual ego (albeit with an underlying theological justification that few would accept today). Flash forward, and the creative effort of constructing the pyramids represents a significant source of modern Egypt’s GDP. Was the profligate use of that labor bad waste at the time (setting aside the Jewish narrative of bondage in Egypt), or a very long-sighted investment?

Relevance? The amazing GDP growth in the Asian economies of the past two decades has been achieved by the application of out-sourced technological design to a huge pool of in-sourced, low-wage labor that essentially removed labor as a constraint on the growth of manufacturing processes. Using Foxcon as an example, the U.S. tends to focus on issues related to the alleged exploitation of Chinese labor, without considering that it is laying the probable groundwork for China’s economic dominance in mid-21st century. I posit that our uneasiness with the “waste” of labor is rooted in our classically liberal notion that humans should not be reduced to instrumentalities.

Anywhay, lot’s of food for further thought…

Maus August 23, 2012 at 2:59 pm

OK, that last line is just atrocious grammatically speaking. I meant:

Anyway, lots of food for further thought…

Xianhang Zhang August 24, 2012 at 1:07 am

About 8 years ago, when I was an undergraduate, most people printed out the lecture notes to bring to class and annotate. I did the math and realized that the marginal cost of hard drive space of recording the entire video of the lecture cost less than the cost of the paper printouts people were using.

That was the moment I realized hard drive space was basically “free” and that we should think about how to deploy storage in a post-scarcity world. It’s taken the rest of the world about 4 – 8 years to arrive at the same conclusion because people never sit down and do the math.

Venkat August 24, 2012 at 1:41 am

Agree with the inference, though I do think the specific case doesn’t hold up, since there is an editorial and filtration type processing in note-talking. Recording all lectures is the Big Data approach. Unless you do more than just re-view, it’s probably more efficient to listen the first time and take summary notes.

Daniel Clee August 27, 2012 at 11:03 am

A thought-provoking article, and one in which where “The Secret” is quoted I still haven’t been able to get a handle on. Well done. One point, though. In your wasting-paper-makes-for-a-better-writer scenario, while in my own experience this is definitely true, still we must wonder why literacy (the condensing and unpacking of information to cross the aeons, your definition from a previous article that I felt profound) seems to be on the slide. Lengthy, dense articles, as you write, are an acquired, minority taste. The world is moving toward an image-based communications ideal, rather than in the last 1,500 years where words have dominated. Why, then, with the advent on both cheap paper, pencils and MS Word, writing generally is of such poor quality? Further, how did the likes of Charles Dickens, who had a meagre childhood, prove an exception to your otherwise perfectly well-reasoned law of “good waste” with respect to writing and literacy?

George August 27, 2012 at 12:50 pm

Daniel,
I think that while the waste allows a practitioner to refine their art, the standard by which those artists are judged is dictated by the audience. Until relatively recently, in historic terms, books have been an expensive luxury limiting the audience to those with the means and inclination to invest significant capital in their purchase. If, to succeed as a writer, you have to satisfy an audience with highly refined discriminatory taste then there is a pressure to refine your ability to as higher standard as possible.

I think there are two factors driving the degradation of writing skills. The first was started by moveable type, but it took computers to really seal the deal; the audience for literature is now the lowest common denominator. To succeed as a writer in a purely monetary sense you now have to catch the fancy of the masses and that creates a pressure to use only common vocabulary, simple grammatical constructs, et al. Once the unconscious role models can succeed with marginal writing skills, why would consumers develop their skills beyond that point.
The second factor is that reading is a much less common pass time. It’s no longer something people aspire to, having a library of books in your house is no longer a sign of affluence. Without that social incentive to consume literature people have shifted to pass-times that require significantly less thought and investment to extract value, such as television and the mostly ephemeral rewards of social networks. Without that large body of experience from consuming well written literature it’s no surprise that people are unable to write well in those rare occasions where they elect to do so.

Venkat August 28, 2012 at 3:32 pm

So long as it is a powerful minority, in or close to the economic 1%, I don’t mind.

Michael R. Nelson September 1, 2012 at 8:05 am

Outstanding analysis of a very important and timely topic. I’d love to see your take on creativity and the “waste” of time. After so many years of corporations trying to become more “lean” by ensuring that every employee is “on task” 110% of the time, it is heartening to see companies like Google allowing their employees to apply their creativity on projects that aren’t in their job description 10 or even 20% of the time.

It’s also interesting to think about how the two US political parties view scarcity and abundance. Democrats tend to believe in the scarcity paradigm–and thus work hard against monopolies that try to capitalize on scarcity and often try to find ways to reallocate scarce resources so they can do the most good. Republicans tend to preach the gospel of abundance–but then often support policies that enable companies to create artificial scarcity (enabling mega-mergers, SOPA, cuts to R&D funding, e.g.). What if we had a party that believed its first priority was to create abundance (and “creative waste”) and actually pursued policies that did??

Venkat September 2, 2012 at 9:25 am

That’s a toughie. Political parties and businesses aren’t really capable of thinking this way in their present form I think. The 20% time idea is not quite right as an example.

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