Skip to content

Insight Cascades, pt. 5 — Stepping Stones

Published: 2022-10-03

On exploration, exploitation and lack of meaning. It's not a malfunction, it's a signal.

It’s impossible to plan for greatness, says artificial-intelligence researcher Kenneth Stanley.

The things that one wants to achieve often don’t look anything like the stepping stones to get there. Vacuum tubes weren’t invented for computers, but that’s where they led in the 1940s. If we had pulled the vacuum-tube researchers into doing computer research, we would’ve destroyed the stepping stones. Then there would be no vacuum tubes or computers.

It’s very difficult to accomplish such things by setting objectives, yet this is how we tend to allocate research funding. Destroying innovation by attempting to control it institutionally is to me another example of the sort of left-hemisphere thinking that currently dominates the world.

Whether in technology, music, art, finance, or anything worth pursuing really, humans understand stepping stones. They aren’t random, they are the things that are interesting, which lead to other interesting things. It’s worth keeping an open mind, to be able to recognize when the previously unrealistic becomes possible, when the stepping stones align.

Richard Feynman was fond of giving the following advice on how to be a genius. You have to keep a dozen of your favorite problems constantly present in your mind, although by and large they will lay in a dormant state. Every time you hear or read a new trick or a new result, test it against each of your twelve problems to see whether it helps. Every once in a while there will be a hit, and people will say: “How did he do it? He must be a genius!”

Gian-Carlo Rota, Indiscrete Thoughts

These are things that have deeply resonated with me and I feel are extremely important for human thriving, both on an individual and systemic level.

The balance on a societal scale is between exploration and exploitation, and present-day human culture has become imbalanced toward exploitation. As a result of competition overpowering cooperation, our environment is deteriorating in a very concrete way.

While modern societies are more safe and overflowing with abundance than ever, they are also characterized by a sense of disconnection and mental illness.

“We live in a world where there is more and more information, and less and less meaning.”

Jean Baudrillard, Simulacra and Simulation

Tinker with life’s variables, see what’s possible. This is especially true if the bets are small and the consequences of a negative outcome bearable. Little bets, easily reversible, honoring what’s interesting.

Sometimes it’s just a distraction, sometimes something else. Keep a broad funnel, but a tight filter. If you have a tendency to overanalyze things like I do, it’s worthwhile to speed up your decision-making.

Being interested in something without being attached to the outcome is where it’s at. It’s a fire to be kindled.

Perhaps what’s resonant to you is your unique edge, what enables you to thrive and survive. Instead of avoiding biases and idiosyncracies, maybe one should lean into them? What can you do that the world needs? How would you find out?

CC BY-NC 4.0 Kasper Viita