Freeman Dyson on the role of failure in technology

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!)


  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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