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 World

The Budget Disaster that Sabotaged the WHO’s Response to Ebola

How Movies Like Contagion and Outbreak Distort Our Response to Real Epidemics

PowerPoint Is the Worst, and Now It’s the Latest Way to Hack Into Your Computer

The Shooting Tragedies That Forged Canada’s Gun Politics

A Highly Unscientific Ranking of Crazy-Old German Beers

Education

Welcome to 13th Grade!

Some high schools are offering a fifth year. That’s a great idea.

Culturebox

The Actual World

“Mount Thoreau” and the naming of things in the wilderness.

Want Kids to Delay Sex? Let Planned Parenthood Teach Them Sex Ed.

Would You Trust Walmart to Provide Your Health Care? (You Should.)

  News & Politics
Politics
Oct. 22 2014 9:42 PM Landslide Landrieu Can the Louisiana Democrat use the powers of incumbency to save herself one more time?
  Business
Continuously Operating
Oct. 22 2014 2:38 PM Crack Open an Old One A highly unscientific evaluation of Germany’s oldest breweries.
  Life
Lexicon Valley
Oct. 23 2014 10:30 AM Which Came First, the Word Chicken or the Word Egg?
  Double X
The XX Factor
Oct. 23 2014 8:51 AM The Male-Dominated Culture of Business in Tech Is Not Great for Women
  Slate Plus
Tv Club
Oct. 22 2014 5:27 PM The Slate Walking Dead Podcast A spoiler-filled discussion of Episodes 1 and 2.
  Arts
Brow Beat
Oct. 23 2014 9:00 AM Exclusive Premiere: Key & Peele Imagines the Dark Side of the Make-A-Wish Program
  Technology
Future Tense
Oct. 22 2014 5:33 PM One More Reason Not to Use PowerPoint: It’s The Gateway for a Serious Windows Vulnerability
  Health & Science
Bad Astronomy
Oct. 23 2014 7:30 AM Our Solar System and Galaxy … Seen by an Astronaut
  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.