Tech Is Too Cheap to Meter

July 27, 2009 by

Here is a brief selection from Chris Anderson’s new book Free, addressing the innovation value of waste.

Our brains seem wired to resist waste, but we are relatively unique in nature for this. Mammals have the fewest offspring in the animal kingdom, and as a result we invest enormous time and care in protecting each one so that it can reach adulthood. The death of a single human is a tragedy, one that survivors sometimes never recover from, and we prize the individual life above all.

As a result, we have a very developed sense of the morality of waste. We feel bad about the unloved toy or the uneaten food. Sometimes this is for good reason, because we understand the greater social cost of profligacy, but often it’s just because our mammalian brains are programmed that way.

However, the rest of nature doesn’t work like that. A bluefin tuna can release 10 million fertilized eggs in a spawning season. Perhaps 10 of them will hatch and make it to adulthood. A million die for every one that survives.

But there’s good reason for it. Nature wastes life in search of better life. It mutates DNA, creating failure after failure, in the hope that some new sequence will eventually outcompete those that came before and the species will evolve. In other words, nature tests its creations by killing most of them quickly—the battle “red in tooth and claw” that determines reproductive advantage.

Nature is so wasteful because scattershot strategies are the best way to do what mathematicians refer to as fully exploring “the potential space.” Imagine a desert with two pools of water separated by some distance. If you’re a plant growing next to one of those pools, you can follow one of two different reproductive strategies. You can drop seeds near your roots, where there’s a pretty good chance they’ll find water. This is safe but soon leads to crowding. Or you can toss the seeds to the wind and let them float far away. This means that almost all will die, but it’s the only way to find that second pool of water, where life can expand into a new niche, perhaps a richer one. The way to get from what the mathematicians call a local maximum to the global maximum is to explore a lot of fruitless minima along the way. It’s wasteful, in a sense, but it can pay off in the end.