Wasted Days and Wasted Nights- by Orvan Ox
Sometimes advancements happen by determination. The obvious, mid-latter 20th example is “Let’s get someone to the Moon.” But quite often advancements happen by what is called serendipity. As Asimov put it, “The most exciting phrase to hear in science, the one that heralds the most discoveries, is not “Eureka!” (I found it!) but ‘That’s funny…”
This was prompted by a question on Twitter, which is a very simple question that likely has no One True Answer. “What is the Greatest Invention of All Time?” There are many candidates. Language would be quite basic – but was it truly invention or discovery? Written language certainly followed, eventually, and needed some considerable polishing – and cross-referencing for preservation. Anyone arguing against that claim is invited to “merely” translate some Linear A. }:o)
One possibility is ‘sewers’ – something most First-Worlders don’t think about much as they do not need to. They’re just there, doing the job. Nice and boring. And that is certainly one of the big wins of them. Nobody enjoys it when Something Happens and a sewer demands attention, even if it’s only a bonding bill for maintenance before Something Really Bad happens. How to scare anyone who deals with sewers, just say “Orangeburg” – and step well back.
Sewers? The Brit’s got at least some teasing in ‘pop culture’ at least once upon a time about considering that civilization was indicated by “proper drains.” Yet, that is if not right on the mark, certainly not far off. Properly designed and built (and managed!) sewers beget “proper drains.” Proper drains beget at least the start of hygiene and cleanliness (once you have sewers, THEN you can have piped-in water, else where would it all *go*?). Hygiene and cleanliness begets health. Health begets better survival. Better survival begets… and therefore begets more brains. More brains, more brainpower. And with less fighting off diseases, more time and energy for those brains to work with.
And, yes, invention will beget leisure time and most, perhaps almost all, will be ‘wasted’. The early Industrial Revolution saw an explosion of gin-sellers in Britain. The Brits might well have lost a generation to gin and not knowing how to cope with time in the big city. Similarly, it has been argued that the post-WWII USA had such a fairly easy time of things that TV became the “electric hearth” or the boob tube became something of a tranquilizing drug for many. The information revolution (started by Gutenberg’s press, accelerated by the cross-index, and then… well, Facebook, Twitter, and various things might be considered “time sinks.”) BUT… so what? There are also things like wikis, which, when done right (rarely, like most things) add to knowledge, or at least increase access to knowledge.
Yes, a there is a vast, previously perhaps even unimaginable amount of computing power… devoted to games. Yet research projects do advance some by using the spare cycles (Folding@Home is just one). And a few decades back many were derided for wasting time with childish (or worse!) comic books or crazy science fiction stories. The ones that got some thinking about getting into space, getting to the Moon, and going farther. Will some screwball event happen that will mean some great advancement happens… because Billy (or Billie) played some video game? It would more surprising it that FAILED to happen. Will the world be saved because someone once played Grand Theft Auto? It seems doubtful in the extreme, but Reality is a mighty weird place.
New ideas are sort of mutant thoughts. Most mutations might do nothing or seem to do nothing. Many will go nowhere. And a few will take off. And the gotchya of it is that until the very last bits are ready to fall into place, nobody knows which is which. In the 1960’s going to the Moon had become or was ready to become an Engineering Problem. In 1962, it might have been just barely an Engineering Problem and a right b*tch of one at that, but it was no longer pure fantasy. No magic was needed. A HELLUVALOTTA effort from more than a few Truly Stubborn Cusses, but no magic. In 1862? Utter fantasy was what that dream was, and magic seemed a requirement.
But as Leslie Fish put it, “What makes one step a ‘Giant leap’ is all the steps before.” Today, Elon Musk is taking steps, but his steps benefit from how many chemists (and alchemists, going back), how many astronomers, how many mathematicians who worked on “useless” problems that turned out useful later? And Elon is doing stuff we can see. He’s connecting dots. Difficult dots, with expensive connections, but still, we can see them or most of them.
It’s the unseen dots and unrealized connections that will RE-make the future. One day Billie (or Billy) might have that “Aha!” moment, or at least start wondering why ‘Approach A’ is always shown, but ‘Approach B’ (or G… or N, or even V..) might be better/faster/easier/cheaper.. or even allow something not yet even imagined. And millions might have all the same experiences and not question or even notice a thing. But if enough brainpower, enough mindpower, enough point of view variation, is allowed to ‘waste’ time… that one ‘oddball’ mind that thinks just a tiny bit askew from Standard… is thereby given the opportunity to trip over that one particular hook indicating one of Nature’s “Easter eggs”, that might have been “just lying around” for Ages. Or maybe it was only coded last Thursday. Who knows? We know won’t know until well after it happens.
The ultimate uptime requires at least some downtime. And we should all be down with that.