Nothing Matters, Until It Changes Everything

Moneybox
A blog about business and economics.
Jan. 2 2013 6:58 PM

Nothing Matters, Until It Changes Everything

Consider the automobile, for instance. Back in the late 19th century, it would have been easy to dismiss the potential importance of the car. Cars weren't very good, for one thing. But more importantly, it wasn't at all clear how they might be of much advantage. Cities were dense places, with tangles of streets crowded by pedestrians and horse-drawn wagons and omnibuses. Cars were expensive and offered little in the way of travel-time advantages. Petrol was very expensive in real terms, and there was no infrastructure available to deliver it to would-be drivers. It was hard to see a market for cars outside of the realm of playthings for the rich.
Advertisement

The striking thing about this line of thinking is that it underestimates the automobile for the exact reason that the automobile turned out to be so important. A transformative new invention, by definition, doesn't fit very well into the world as it exists. Automobiles were transformative—so useful that vast new public and private infrastructure projects were undertaken over a period of decades to better-and-better accommodate their presence. But that's an iterative process. At the outset nobody wants to build the infrastructure for something that nobody uses, and nobody wants to use something that there's no infrastructure for. Eventually it tips.

The flipside of this is that as a matter of personality, inventors and innovators are bound to be prone to over-enthusiasm for their own gizmos. So folks who adopt the curmudgeon role and dismiss the hyper-men are going to be right nine times out of ten. But the successes that really matter are exactly the ones that have lots of barriers standing between them and real utility.

Matthew Yglesias is the executive editor of Vox and author of The Rent Is Too Damn High.

TODAY IN SLATE

The Slatest

Ben Bradlee Dead at 93

The legendary Washington Post editor presided over the paper’s Watergate coverage.

The Congressional Republican Digging Through Scientists’ Grant Proposals

Renée Zellweger’s New Face Is Too Real

Sleater-Kinney Was Once America’s Best Rock Band

Can it be again?

Whole Foods Is Desperate for Customers to Feel Warm and Fuzzy Again

The XX Factor

I’m 25. I Have $250.03.

My doctors want me to freeze my eggs.

The XX Factor
Oct. 20 2014 6:17 PM I’m 25. I Have $250.03. My doctors want me to freeze my eggs.
Technocracy

Forget Oculus Rift

This $25 cardboard box turns your phone into an incredibly fun virtual reality experience.

George Tiller’s Murderer Threatens Another Abortion Provider, Claims Free Speech

Walmart Is Crushing the Rest of Corporate America in Adopting Solar Power

  News & Politics
The World
Oct. 21 2014 3:13 PM Why Countries Make Human Rights Pledges They Have No Intention of Honoring
  Business
Moneybox
Oct. 21 2014 5:57 PM Soda and Fries Have Lost Their Charm for Both Consumers and Investors
  Life
The Vault
Oct. 21 2014 2:23 PM A Data-Packed Map of American Immigration in 1903
  Double X
The XX Factor
Oct. 20 2014 1:10 PM Women Are Still Losing Jobs for Getting Pregnant
  Slate Plus
Behind the Scenes
Oct. 21 2014 1:02 PM Where Are Slate Plus Members From? This Weird Cartogram Explains. A weird-looking cartogram of Slate Plus memberships by state.
  Arts
Behold
Oct. 21 2014 12:05 PM Same-Sex Couples at Home With Themselves in 1980s America
  Technology
Technology
Oct. 21 2014 5:38 PM Justified Paranoia Citizenfour offers a look into the mind of Edward Snowden.
  Health & Science
Medical Examiner
Oct. 20 2014 11:46 AM Is Anybody Watching My Do-Gooding? The difference between being a hero and being an altruist.
  Sports
Sports Nut
Oct. 20 2014 5:09 PM Keepaway, on Three. Ready—Break! On his record-breaking touchdown pass, Peyton Manning couldn’t even leave the celebration to chance.