The one technology that will outlive them all
Anything fragile hates volatility… – Nassim Taleb
One of my favorite insights from Nassim Taleb’s Antifragile: Things That Gain from Disorder, is the author’s observation that the value of a technology ought not be measured by how clever and new it is. Instead, it’s worth ought to be valued by its ability to withstand (and actually get stronger) in the face of challengers.
What strikes me most is the implication in his suggestion, namely, that if he’s right (and I think he is), not all technologies should be measured equally.
Think about it. Remember a year ago (a week ago?) when you were coveting that new piece of gear or were wowed by the latest social platform or digital wizardry? If you’re having trouble remembering, it’s likely because the thing you were craving has lost almost all its worth… already! If you still don’t believe me, just consider what’s on your current wish list. I’d be willing to bet that within months of acquisition, your excitement will deminish at about the same pace as a new car driven off the lot.
In contrast, consider old technologies that have stood the test of time. I’m thinking of the Eames chair I’m sitting in as I type. Or, better yet, the idea of a chair at all.
My point (or really, Taleb’s point) is that in a world where new stuff is abundant, the greater demand there is for things that are classic and don’t go out of style… ever.
One of the grand daddies of these kinds of technologies is the ability to record thoughts in written form. Writing is one of the most powerful and permanent and uninterruptable technologies that has ever existed. And yet, in an era where there’s so much talk about new and clever ways to distribute one’s written content, there’s relatively little conversation on how to get better with actually writing it.
Reading, writing or arithmetic?
Remember the basics of education as a kid? What I was told growing up was reading, writing and arithmetic were critical skills to learn. All three are actually pretty long-standing technologies in and of themselves and the learning of each (not the practice) I think are all invaluable.
But, if you were asked to choose which carried the greatest objective value in our time, which would you select?
If it were me, I’d quickly disqualify the math function. The neuro-pathways that open up because you’ve learned to think mathmatically is significant for hardcore math-types is awesome but is lost on everyday people like me. Plus, wearable computers and robots are taking care of that skill with such precision and speed, if I had to give up one, that would be it.
In a similar vein, reading is probably second on the list of core skills that are interruptable. In the consumer age, reading is not too different than watching or hearing or experiencing – again all in abundance by technologies that are better, stronger and faster than humans at delivering the goods.
Writing, however, is in a class by itself. In a world of inhale, writing is the one exhale. It requires more of the creative to engage. Unlike the other contenders, it can’t be put into the world without an originator. This kind of particularization may make writing the most human of technologies as well.
Critics of this idea might suggest the same is true of drawing or other expressive pursuits. Perhaps. But, consider photography (my trade of choice)… even the great Henri Cartier-Bresson described making a photograph as little more than expedited drawing. To be fair, this dynamic of speed was one of the reasons why he gave up photography.
In his words, “Photography is an immediate reaction, drawing is a meditation.” Said differently and to the point of what’s being presented here, my sense is he might agree that drawing is a higher form technology with greater value than making a photograph. I’m making a similar case with writing.
Commoditized creativity… everywhere
In a world where so many consumer-level people have become a photographer, videographer, painter, researcher and super-communicator, simply by virtue of having access to a modern smart phone, it can seem intuitive to pursue what’s novel.
Isn’t it fun to chase what’s new, even as the new cannabalises our professions? Yet, the temptation to line up for what Seth Godin has called the “race to the bottom” is real for all of us.
To Taleb’s point, it seems the wise among us are paying disproportionately little attention to older technologies that, right before our eyes, are getting stronger in the face of radical disruption. What’s astonishing is how wide open that race is in contrast to the new. It’s like going in the opposite direction to traffic… at rush hour… in the carpool lane. There’s no one else on the road.
Taleb goes on to suggest that the speed with which a “new” technology moves along the curve from early adopter to obsolete, is getting faster by the day.
In this way, what’s interesting to him isn’t what’s fragile, or even what is resilient. No, his recommendation is to pay attention and invest in the things that get stronger in the face of challengers… to hold in highest regard what he calls the antifragile. Again, I agree.
So, are you saying I should become a writer?
Yes. That is precisely what I am saying. It may be the most shrewd move you might ever make creatively. And, it’s never been easier (and more ignored) than now.
It’s worth noting that I’m saying these things from the perspective of having made photographs professionally for over a decade. I continue in that trade and love it (most of the time).
I’ve also been around long enough to notice that with the abundance of photographic content, the value of “photography” has diminished. I don’t say that as a lament. I see it more neutrally than that. It is more a reflection of an economic phenomenon. With an abundance of supply comes a decrease in demand.
And yet, companies everywhere remain committed to find the right imagery and metaphors to sell their products and express their ideas. They may lean into illustration (think drawing) or hire pro’s to commission a particular work that feels out of reach. But, increasingly, stock photography is sufficient. But whether stock or custom, imagery still seems to make the economic world go around.
But in the midst of all these photo takers, I’m amazed at how many fewer writers there are on the scene. No doubt, there’s plenty of blog content and Medium articles and emails and written words. What I don’t see however are writers: people committed to get creative words out of themselves and out into the world for others to benefit from.
Why Writing Will Never Die
Want job security? Write.
Of course, there are other more cathartic reasons to write. It’s just good for the soul to get your internal world expressed out in the open. It illuminates the interior, most often for good. Even throw away words aren’t really trash. They’re more like exhales, creating fresh space for good things to inhale in their place.
Again, I think Taleb is on to something profound with his exhortation for humans to pursue all things antifragile. It’s what humans were made for. It’s how humanity has survived despite the fragilistas (Taleb’s name… so good) among us. We become stronger when antifragile is our habit. Letting the fragile things go is what wise people do.
That is what the pursuit of writing is about. The technology itself will outlast everything we’re writing about… and that’s a good thing!
Wouldn’t it be great if we put our investments in vehicles that outlived us all? That’s where I’m putting my thoughts and I beg you to consider doing the same. It might be the wisest investment you’ll ever make.
PS… Want to start your own writing habit but don’t know where to start? Go here.