TCS Daily

Big Idea, Bad Idea

By Sonia Arrison - December 19, 2002 12:00 AM

Is it possible to catalogue every human idea? Japan-based researcher Darryl Macer thinks so, and last month he proposed in the journal Nature to count the number of human ideas and map them. This plan, while a clever attention grabber, will not succeed and demonstrates a worrisome mode of thinking.

Macer, an associate professor of biological sciences at the University of Tsukuba in Japan, writes that "although the human mind appears to be infinitely complex ... I would propose that the number of ideas that human beings have is finite, and call for a project to map the ideas of the human mind."

To believe that human ideas are finite is to give up on invention. If ideas are finite, and if we have already used up all available ideas, which Macer implies, then invention is impossible. It is rare to see a scientist make such an argument, especially when it is so clearly false.

On a daily basis, new ideas are announced, whether they are new discoveries, songs, stories, or products, and there is no logical reason to believe that this progress will stop. Indeed, humans crave new ideas and are constantly working to create them. This all seems obvious but Macer's proposal brings up the key question of how to think about knowledge.

The answer to this matters a great deal, not only to the technology community and policy makers, but indeed to all areas of human life. Author Virginia Postrel offers some guidance in her seminal book, The Future and its Enemies, where she identifies two types of thinkers: stasists and dynamists.

Stasists seek to control most aspects of the world and believe that knowledge can be easily articulated and shared - these are the technocrats, reactionaries, and central planners. Dynamists, on the other hand, want to limit rules to general frameworks and believe that knowledge is often dispersed and tacit - these are the folks who believe in individual freedom, trial and error, and diversity.

Macer's proposal effectively embodies stasism because it assumes that every possible idea can be centralized in a database. He defines an idea as "the mental conceptualization of something, including physical objects, an action or behavior that was made or could be made in the future, or a past, present or future sensory experience." The nature of knowledge explains why his quest will fail.

First, because humans are creative and because ideas tend to evolve over time, it is unlikely that human ideas are finite. But even if they were, it would still be impossible to catalogue and explain them all because so much of human knowledge is local and tacit. That is, ideas are informed by time, place, and circumstance, and are often difficult to articulate.

For instance, it is difficult to explain what inspires art, makes for an interesting article, or makes people laugh. As Postrel explains, "laughter is universally human, but what we find amusing varies widely by time and place, culture and generation, personality and circumstance. Explaining a joke is the fastest way to kill it."

Think also of apprenticeships, which are important for many professions such as bakery, engineering, and medicine. Some ideas are better transferred through direct experience than by textbooks. Even with the aid of technology like videos and DVDs, some ideas can't be accurately collected and conveyed. Imagine trying to learn golf by watching videos - it wouldn't work very well.

A vast database of ideas, Macer says, will "aid in policy making" and "offer persons assistance when making moral decisions." While information can certainly help in thinking about issues, it's a mistake to think that it's possible to centralize all the relevant knowledge for every problem.

Indeed, Macer's idea suffers from what Friedrich Hayek called the "fatal conceit" - the idea that a few very informed people could order societal affairs in ways that would somehow yield results superior to those that spring from the spontaneous order of a free society. This can lead to all sorts of problems. A famous example concerns the railways in 1910.

The Interstate Commerce Commission denied the railroads an increase in freight rates because "scientific management" ideas told them that the railroads could instead economize on operations. The operators of the railways knew from their local and tacit knowledge that this was not the case, but could not persuasively articulate why. As a result, the railways fell into such a poor state that the federal government was temporarily forced to take over the industry and raise rates.

These are dangers that occur when stasists convince others that it is possible to understand and solve problems from some central location, which is why Macer's proposal is worrisome.

Macer is interested in bioethics and wants to help the world deal with issues like cloning and genetic engineering. He would serve a better purpose by simply outlining all the ideas he can find rather than feeding the conceit of central control.

Sonia Arrison is director of the Center for Technology Studies at the California-based Pacific Research Institute.

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