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Freeman Dyson on the role of failure in technology

by Michael Nielsen on May 29, 2008

You can’t possibly get a good technology going without an enormous number of failures. It’s a universal rule. If you look at bicycles, there were thousands of weird models built and tried before they found the one that really worked. You could never design a bicycle theoretically. Even now, after we’ve been building them for 100 years, it’s very difficult to understand just why a bicycle works – it’s even difficult to formulate it as a mathematical problem. But just by trial and error, we found out how to do it, and the error was essential.

That’s from a fantastic interview with Stewart Brand. I’d love to see an interview with the roles turned around. (Incidentally, occasional commenter John Sidles gets a very nice mention by Dyson in the interview. Way to go John!)

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  1. This follows from the fact that technological change is an evolutionary process. Evolution means many failures for few successes. See:

    The Evolution of Technology, Basalla

    Without Miracles: Universal Selection Theory and the Second Darwinian Revolution, Cziko

  2. Nice way of looking at it. I guess memes are replicated, with variation introduced by individual innovators, who then compete – survival of the fittest.

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