Kinds of Potential

I’ve been thinking about the idea of potential lately, especially in the sense of the phrase “technological potential” as applied to say countries, growth sectors, trends, and charismatic engineering companies like SpaceX.

Or on a smaller scale, things like just a workbench with tools.

For instance, what sort of potential does a well-stocked workbench have? Here’s my 6-month old one. It’s young, but pretty well-stocked at this point. You can’t measure its potential in volts, but it certainly has a quality described by the word potential.

For the past 6 months, I’ve been doing increasingly complex maker projects (from a low baseline where getting an LED to blink felt like an accomplishment), and slowly buying equipment and supplies along the way, in the process building out this workbench corner in my home office. It feels like watching a peculiar battery slowly get charged up to its full potential.

I call this corner of my office the Ribbonfarm Lab. Someday I hope to rent space and grow that corner into a whole room. And then that room into a mansion with its own underground lair and air defense system.

My understanding of the word potential has always been anchored in the physics sense of it, as in electric/magnetic/gravitational fields (or more generally potential fields in the mathematical sense). Physically, it evokes for me things like a charged battery, water behind a dam, and so on.

But this sense of potential isn’t that illuminating when you’re talking about the idea more loosely, as in the case of the phrase “technological potential.”

The potential embodied by the workbench is of a different sort than the undifferentiated (fungible?) kind embodied by an electromagnetic or gravity field. At the risk of making a bad zeitgeisty joke, I’m interested in potential fields created by assemblages of non-fungible potential sources — non-interchangeable tools.

A soldering iron and a 3d printer do not represent the same sort of potential, and cannot be interchanged, but together produce a sort of larger emergent potential field capable of producing certain types of artifacts. The workbench in the photo has that composite sort of potential. It is a potential in the form of a systems engineering capability envelope.

It’s been both painful and rewarding building up this potential. I’m finally getting to the point where the workbench has almost everything needed to do basic mechanical, electrical, and electronics work without having to order something and wait a week every time I want to do another trial-and-error round on a project. The REPL (read-eval-print loop) latent in the workbench has shortened from weeks to hours. Maybe that’s the volt-like measurement unit here: the median frequency of the REPL for a given class of exploratory activity.

My typical project blocker now is increasingly a bug I haven’t fixed, or a skill I haven’t learned, rather than a part or tool I don’t have on hand. Right now I’m avoiding troubleshooting a 7-segment LED display that randomly turns off for seconds at a time. There’s nothing I can buy that will help me fix it faster that I know of. I am the bottleneck now.

I’d say there’s just over a thousand dollars worth of things in the picture now (the bench itself, and the 3d printer are the two most expensive items, and a lot is hidden in the drawer and underneath of course). Getting here was a very path-dependent process, since I was very wary of gadget-happy shopping sprees, and was only buying things as they became necessary for the next step of one of my several projects. So these initial bootstrap projects have evolved extra slowly. But I think that’s the right way, not just the cost-conscious way. If you don’t let actual needs drive infrastructure, you end up with negative potential instead of positive. Stuff you feel guilty about not using. Unformulated intention debt.

But I can feel my tinkering accelerating as the workbench gets more complete, and develops more potential, more positive potential, in the abstract, beyond the needs of the specific few projects I have going (more on that in future posts).

So what sort of potential does this lab bench embody. I’d say it is concrete and positive. It embodies a set of powers to do specific things. That gives us a 2×2:

I drew that 2×2 on a physical whiteboard btw, which is another bit of potential that the Ribbonfarm Lab now has. I also have a box of extra markers, so I have that going for me as well.

I think there are 4 kinds of potential, as shown in the 2×2:

  • Auras (abstract surpluses) are the most familiar kind and what the term generally denotes. Money, fame, the felt sense of generalized competence that comes with tacit knowledge, the feel of being well-oriented. This is what people think of when they use the word potential, and it is the kind most associated with the word itself. There is latent optionality, but not actual options. Money can buy many things, but until you go shopping and identify things you might actually buy (options), there isn’t any actual optionality.
  • Powers (concrete surpluses) are the kind of potential I’m most interested in now. Concrete enough to represent at least partial options. So on that workbench as it stands, I could solder leads onto that motor and power it up. I can print something with that printer. Powers are closely related to capabilities: they are capabilities + enabling conditions.
  • Goals (abstract debts) are the most familiar kind of negative potential. While you have an active goal, you are sort of trapped at the bottom of a potential well. You’re not free. You’re not confined in any specific way by specific walls or constraints, but by the not-yet-trueness (which is not quite the same as falseness) of a future state.
  • Maintenance (concrete debts) is the concrete equivalent. It is negative potential in the sense that it’s a set of defined and necessary things you have to do to get to zero potential, before you can start developing positive potential. Like right now, I have taxes due, and until I get the documents/details off to my accountant, part of me will not feel free.

Fights, anything with a “win” condition attached, belong in the Goals quadrant. There’s an interesting bunnytrail there: the very existence of an adversary is a sort of negative potential in your world. Until you either defeat or make peace with the adversary, there’s an abstract negative potential dragging you down.

I was also thinking of the 3-part training regimen in martial arts — kihon (basic conditioning), kata (basic forms), and kumite (sparring/fighting). I think they belong in the maintenance, powers, and goals quadrants respectively. I can’t think of anything directly conflict-like for the fourth quadrant, but I guess the general preparedness of high situation awareness and a strong orientation are a kind of aura of conflict-readiness in the form of a positive potential. Mind-like-water or something.

Religion also belongs in the Goals quadrant alongside fights. Religious people like the ideas of purpose and submission simultaneously, so abstract-negative potential is really what religion offers to believers. Purpose is submission to goal-debt. Maybe “god” is just an adversary in a fight you know you can’t win, and for some reason you like that, so you submit right away. Hmm… Say Uncle, Uncle Sam, Uncle God…

The parenthetical terms on the y-axis limits, nirgun and sagun, are Indian philosophy terms that feature prominently in discussions of the metaphysics of potentiality. They translate roughly to attribute-less and with-attributes, and correspond roughly to the Western philosophy pair of noumenal/phenomenal. The terms are generally used in discussions of philosophical dualism, but my 2×2 is pretty much only about a materialist notion of potential even in the abstract half of the diagram. But there’s an angle there I haven’t quite figured out. Something about the relation of the 4 types of potential to 4 types of mind state. Goals map to purposeful mind states, auras to what you might call immanent mind states, powers to powerful mind states (or agent-y or prowess-y), and maintenance to burdened mind states.

To return to my original point, the idea of “technological potential” is changing through a kind of intensification visible in the increasing iteration rate of all kinds of REPLs. That’s what the Maker revolution was, a decade ago: Hobbyists and tinkerers developing a marginal subculture of engineering, centered around computing. That is now going mainstream.

I’m not joining the hobbyist Maker revolution a decade late, I’m joining the industrial Maker revolution right on time.

The Maker patterns of engineering — iterative, experimental, based on contests and projects — that were emerging 20 years ago, through robotics competitions and such, are now increasingly mainstream. It is increasingly the default way to do all engineering now, not the marginal hobbyist-hacker way. The shifting patterns are shifting patterns of potential.

Fifteen years ago, things like 3d printers and quadrotor drones catalyzed a culture of engineering that was built around the potentiality of the computer rather than that of the machine shop. 3d printers became the motif of the Maker movement because they reflected that shift in center of gravity. In the old world, the computer went to the machine shop, in the form of CNC (“computer numerical control”) of machine tools like lathes and milling machines that had been around for centuries. With 3d printers, the machine shop came to the computer desk. Curiously, the language (gcode) is the same in both cases, but has flipped polarity — from controlling subtractive processes to controlling additive process. There’s probably a good joke or interesting analogy there I’m not seeing.

It’s still code telling some motors how to move. The difference now is that the center of gravity of the potential is in the computer. The importance of additive manufacturing lies more in the shift in center-of-gravity it enables in the technological potential field than its direct potential for changing how specific things are manufactured (spoiler: most things will still be manufactured via traditional manufacturing, not additive). It’s a kind of leverage.

In my picture of the desk, the most important piece of the potential field is actually missing — the laptop computer I use to talk to that Arduino board, or make the designs that I transfer to the 3d printer. But you can tell from the picture that it is a workbench organized around a personal computer rather than something else. In a traditional workshop, it’s easy to see that the center of potential is elsewhere — in a miter saw for instance. Traditional workshops are where you go to get away when you are sick of computers. Maker shops are where you go when you want to make your computer do more things.

On a much larger scale, every kind of successful technology company is now starting to be organized this way. Management culture has been slow to catch up, but is finally beginning to notice that software is eating the industrial tech stack and reorganizing everything according to the logic of computing, instead of letting computing be subservient to the logic of something else.

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About Venkatesh Rao

Venkat is the founder and editor-in-chief of ribbonfarm. Follow him on Twitter


  1. I think the word you’re looking for is not potential, it’s *capital*. You’re right in your observation that capital (as opposed to money) is non-fungible – that’s why good capital allocators are so richly rewarded. It’s not enough just to have money – if it were then any old banana republic could make its citizens enormously rich just by taxing consumption and investing in capital.

    SpaceX represents a very special kind of capital, which is probably its particular organisation of very brilliant people (with Elon Musk at the top, a non-fungible human if I ever saw one). Similarly, the ‘potential’ you feel from your workbench is that feeling of capital – the tools that can be used to create value.

    Capital is the entropy-reducing machine. Potential in a thermodynamic context will, by default, lead to increased entropy (the opposite of what we mean by ‘potential’ in non-physics parlance). Capital can turn that potential energy into order and wealth.

    • But that’s what credit does. Credit like the one emitted by a government (and co-emitted by their entral bank)—which is then distributed as debt—is what leads the way of investment and the creation of large projects, like spaceX or even more mundane things like building highways or subway tunnels.

      It all works well as long as the actualized potentialities (motivated by money creation) do work in the end and create markets which are good. This gets in trouble when the markets are already created and full.

      But as you say, capital also reduces entropy and keeps societies and economies stable.

    • On the first sight ‘Capital’ is a decent proposal for naming ‘abstract potential’. It could mean that the upper right quadrant needs another division as capital is usually associated with the power of directing other powers which it has at its disposal without embodying them. Capital has engineers, it isn’t an engineering potential which is embodied by engineers.

      However your glorification of capital sound a little cringe. There is no business like show business which is the deepest and certainly most auratic business, one which is now everywhere and in everything. Instead of accumulating capital you can also pretend to just have it and accumulate lots of fake capital. The long term effect is not some negentropy, triumph over death and Mars becoming Earth 2.0 but a rot from within. ‘Decadence’ is the word.

      Religion has lots in common with show business and aura management. Destroying the aura is a big thing, stuff for Reformators, dissidents and spores of new religions. Aura can also be reinforced. Counter-reformation created the greatest art and when your idol says “Gamestonk”, all the petty short sellers are trembling – but they come back.

  2. > Maybe “god” is just an adversary in a fight you know you can’t win

    Like death, which is also a big part of what religions work with.

    • I was also under the impression that God = Jesus was an “ally” and Satan was the adversary but for the modern soul it might just be the other way around.

  3. God as an adversary reminds me of the movie The Endless.

    I like how this post describes the accumulation of potential through doing technical projects, it really resonates with my experience.

    Our general desire is to minimize the time, tools, skills, and money (TTSM) required to reach the next REPL. Computers are remarkable tools in the breadth and depth of their emergent potential; they’re so great at synergizing with other tools. This results in newly possible REPLs. These new REPLs will be on aggregate cheaper, but often with a changed relative distribution of TTSM costs. Things that used to be unaffordable/impossible are now within one’s grasp, but they’ll cost you a lappy and the time spent learning to code!

  4. The workbench-as-a-REPL is an interesting metaphor. Lots of re-centration flows through the discussion, which is, spiritually, the opposite of all the de-centration, Ego weakening and para-collectivism which has dominated our past aeon. Same energy as the recent commitment to the personal blog. Anticipation of a post-pandemic mood swing which hasn’t to work itself up on the populism of Mr.Trump?

  5. Christian Molick says

    > … the very existence of an adversary is a sort of negative potential in your world. Until you either defeat or make peace with the adversary, there’s an abstract negative potential dragging you down.

    For me having adversaries is similar in utility to having mentors. They can help you to test your assumptions and capacities and also stay on course. And there is always the potential of learning new tricks or hidden vulnerabilities from any contest. Adversaries may be essential for maximizing potential.