Patchwork of Old and New

Forbes ASAP , November 29, 1998

IF YOU WANT TO SEE what progress really looks like, the best place to start is an 81-year-old telescope.

The Mount Wilson Observatory sits on a mountain above Los Angeles, where the city's infamous inversion layer makes the air still and clear, the best "seeing" in North America. The 100-inch Hooker telescope is an engineering marvel, the largest telescope in the world when it opened in 1917. Every bolt, rivet, and sheet of steel--not to mention the 9,000-pound, precisely ground mirror--had to be hauled up the mountain on a steep road that was barely more than a wide hiking trail. The vast dome was built in Chicago, disassembled, and rebuilt on the mountain; the telescope tube came through the Panama Canal from a Massachusetts shipyard that normally built battleships. The tube, which weighs 100 tons, moves smoothly, almost silently, on a film of mercury, controlled by hand-finished gear works as precise as a Swiss watch but several hundred times larger. You can still direct the telescope the old-fashioned way, with brass buttons and a carefully calibrated prism system.

Here, in the 1920s, Edwin Hubble sat night after cold night in a rickety bentwood chair, always dressed properly in a suit and tie, taking pictures of the sky. In those pictures, our universe for the first time in human imagination became infinite and expanding. Hubble's observations showed the Milky Way to be not the whole of creation but one galaxy among hundreds of billions--all of them apparently racing away from ours. The static universe vanished. Even the stars, it seemed, had a history. Time, which had crept into geology and biology in the 18th and 19th centuries, entered the cosmos.

Mount Wilson would make a fine museum, a monument to the age of brass and steel. And in one view of progress, that's all the old observatory could ever be today: either preserved for the ages as pristine and authentic as in Edwin Hubble's day, or scrapped as obsolete. Progress in this view is--to its critics and fans alike--a process that destroys what has gone before. It proceeds by starting over.

In Hubble's own time, leading thinkers imagined progress as a series of discrete and largely static stages, each obliterating the last. "By this immense step in evolution, so brutal and so overwhelming, we burn our bridges and break with the past," declared Le Corbusier in his 1929 urban planning manifesto, The City of Tomorrow. "Our world, like a charnel-house, is strewn with the detritus of dead epochs," he wrote. "The great task incumbent on us is that of making a proper environment for our existence, and clearing away from our cities the dead bones that putrefy in them."

Although it sounds revolutionary, even violent, this is the vision of progress we have come to take for granted in the 20th century. Marxists believed in deterministic stages, ending with the dictatorship of the proletariat. Even non-Marxists and nondeterminists believed that progress meant controlling the future, plotting it out in advance, and eliminating the detritus of the past. The goal was, in one historian's aptly paradoxical phrase, "kinetic change made stable"--progress that is simultaneously radical and predictable.

In 1939: The Lost World of the Fair, David Gelernter, a computer scientist by trade, writes wistfully that "people had the remarkable idea that they could build the future: ponder it, design it, construct it. We feel differently today. We have little sense of control over the future." Gelernter's hero is the "nearly unstoppable" Robert Moses, who remade New York City as ruthlessly as Le Corbusier wanted to remake Paris, eradicating neighborhoods with little regard for the cost in money or lives.

The hold exerted by the idea of progress-as-stages explains why, when Disneyland opened a revamped Tomorrowland in May, the near universal media spin was that the park no longer believed in a bright future. In designing its new attractions, Disney had jettisoned the "one best way" of modernism in favor of a "culture of futures" that included reminders of the past. It no longer imagined tomorrow as uniform or wholly new. That meant, cultural critics intoned, that the park had rejected "the illusion of evolution as progress" and adopted their own view of technology as "a killing thing."

To such technophobes, the obvious alternative to obliterating the past is preserving it: rejecting new ideas and turning the world into a museum; keeping buildings, technologies, business practices, and social customs just the way they are, or used to be. We must choose, say both technocratic planners and their reactionary counterparts, between reinventing the world and changing nothing at all. We must pick one discrete stage or another. The debate about progress, in this case, is a debate over two essentially static notions. We will either construct a neatly designed future or return to the past, either control progress or eliminate it.

This assumption crops up often in discussions of the "new economy," whether coming from boosters such as Al Gore and Newt Gingrich or detractors such as Pat Buchanan and Jeremy Rifkin. It is present in every popular invocation of "paradigm shifts"--the notion that we lurch from one way of thinking or acting to a completely different one. Thomas Kuhn's original idea of paradigms, a theory of how science works, was more relativist than progressive. But in the cliches of American business jargon, every "new paradigm" is assumed both to overthrow and to better what came before. Starting from scratch--treating organizations as if their histories didn't exist--is the ideal form of "reengineering." And, of course, every management innovation or new technology constitutes a "revolution."

All of this is simply, and profoundly, wrong. It completely misunderstands how progress occurs and how civilizations learn. It ignores the lived experience of business, science, technology, art, and culture. It devalues adaptability and resilience, experience and experimentation. It gives rhetorical aid and comfort to the enemies of creativity, enterprise, and progress. Encountering the unplanned, incremental, dispersed, and unpredictable way important innovations really occur, it encourages panic and rejection.

And, this worldview doesn't explain why Mount Wilson is not a museum but a working observatory doing cutting-edge research on state-of-the-art instruments. To understand that, we need a different concept of progress.

Astronomers find the atmosphere a pesky thing. It interferes with starlight, turning what should be a clean, sharp point into a wriggling blur, zipping around like an amoeba on their computer screens. The best "seeing," therefore, is in space, away from the distortions of earth's air: hence, the Hubble space telescope.

But cleverness can substitute for space travel. Way back in 1953, a Mount Wilson astronomer named Horace Babcock envisioned how sharp images might be gathered by measuring those ever-changing atmospheric distortions and correcting for them in real time. Technology finally caught up with Babcock's vision, and in 1995 the observatory realized his dream. Edwin Hubble's old instrument now sees as sharply, if not as far, as his orbiting namesake.

The trick lies in an adaptive-optics system that first interprets the light coming in, dividing it into hundreds of separate beams, and then computes how a mirror would have to warp so that all of them would come out straight. Sitting now where Hubble once put his photographic plates is just such a deformable mirror, perched atop 250 tiny electronic pistons that wrinkle its surface a few wavelengths at a time. The mirror instantaneously takes the jumble out of starlight, allowing astronomers to map asteroids in detail and detect double stars in what before looked like single blobs. Thus, to the power of the old telescope's brass and steel has been added the speed and power of silicon.

This patchwork of old and new is extraordinarily efficient. Says Deputy Director Sallie Baliunas, "You get images here, from a telescope on the ground, as sharp as if the telescope were in space--for a capital cost of $ 3 million." By comparison, a space shuttle launch runs almost half a billion dollars, a rocket launch $ 100 million. In this and other ways, the observatory is adapting its fine old equipment, crisp air, and convenient site to become a center for low-cost, high-resolution astronomy. "Technology is making niches, as usual," says Baliunas, "and this is our niche."

Adaptability, niches, and incremental advances provide a far truer picture of progress. We learn and improve not by destroying the past but by enriching and improving on it -- often in ways that are neither predictable nor uniform. The practical bricolage that adds computerized pointing to brass-and-prism controls and straps high tech optics on an old-fashioned telescope defies "rational" planning.

In the words of philosopher of science Stephen Toulmin, "There is no scratch." Progress, whether in intellectual theory or literal nuts and bolts, must start with the world as it exists. As Toulmin observes in Cosmopolis, "The belief that, by cutting ourselves off from the inherited ideas of our cultures, we can 'clean the slate' and make a fresh start, is as illusory as the hope for a comprehensive system of theory that is capable of giving us timeless certainty and coherence." To those whose notions of rationality require systematic certainty, this is a disturbing concept. But it makes incremental progress possible, and both theory and practice more resilient. Instead of cleaning the slate every time we discover a mistake or a flaw, we can make small adjustments. And we can benefit from history.

History thus provides the raw materials on which the combinatorial process of improvement depends. The more we inherit, the more we can create. "The vast number of things that exist in the world today ensures that there will be ever more tomorrow, for virtually every existing thing is fair game to come under the scrutiny of someone restless and discontented who does not think 'well enough' is sufficiently free of faults," writes civil engineering professor Henry Petroski.

"Form follows failure" is how Petroski sums up the process: We look for ways to improve what already exists. This modest maxim is a stark contrast to the starting-from-scratch dictates of "form follows function." But it can produce powerful results: Witness the Mount Wilson telescope. This incremental idea of progress acknowledges that life will never be perfect, that any improvement requires ingenuity and work, and that different people have different notions of what constitutes both "failure" and improvement. While optimistic, it is not utopian.

To take a more contemporary example, Internet bookseller looks novel compared to its store-based competitors. As a startup, Amazon could tune its procedures, cost structures, and corporate culture to a new technological environment. But the company didn't really start from scratch. Its business model depended on the prior existence not only of the World Wide Web but of reliable credit card and shipping services and of an efficient national book distributor, Ingram Book Group.

By their very nature, inventors take advantage of what already exists, an opportunity that increases over time. The more ideas and inventions we have available to combine, the more creative we can be. Progress is, in this sense, a matter of producing ever more components for future creations. In the 19th century, business innovators often had to create whole systems -- feedlots and refrigerator cars to complement meatpacking plants, for instance -- because the institutional infrastructure wasn't yet there. Today's most successful creators can target niches, some of them quite narrow, that complement other products and institutions.

Such combined innovation not only fits new ideas into established structures, it encourages additional, complementary niches to form. The World Wide Web was built on top of the Internet's more general protocols. It expanded rapidly in large part because its hyperlink structure was invented before browsers or search engines, which evolved to make it work better. Nobody had to figure out everything ahead of time. By contrast, Project Xanadu--Ted Nelson's attempt at a complete, ground-up, perfectly engineered (in his words) "instantaneous electronic literature; the most audacious and specific plan for knowledge, freedom and a better world yet to come out of computerdom; the original (perhaps the ultimate) hypertext system"--has yet to be realized after decades of effort.

Plunging ahead without knowing what the next stage of evolution is supposed to look like strikes technocrats, dedicated to progress-as-stages, as wasteful and irresponsible, an adolescent refusal to accept the need for planning and control. David Gelernter criticizes personal computer makers for marketing hardware with no predetermined purpose: "The whole idea of the killer app is if I'm a hardware company I can build a computer with no plans for it whatsoever--put it out there with absolutely no intention of anything in particular for it to do--and I assume that killer app will materialize from the atmosphere," he says contemptuously. "And so far it always has." The result, he claims, is that software is "completely chaotic," lacking an overall intellectual structure.

Progress without control, like order without design, is a hard concept for our public rhetoric--and most of our public intellectuals--to grasp. The heyday of technocracy taught us that progress was the Manhattan Project and Apollo to the moon: bureaucratically managed programs aimed at specific goals, with each step plotted in advance. Progress, we came to assume, meant no accidents, no surprises, and no mistakes. No exploding Challenger space shuttle. Its neat fables omitted the messy, disruptive, sometimes dangerous trial-and-error process that gave us contact lenses, the Chicago Board of Trade, supermarkets, and the movies.

Gripped by the idea that progress meant large public works, we failed to appreciate improvements in small things: unbreakable shampoo bottles and ever lighter soda cans; all the world's music made portable and inexpensive; $ 20 halogen floor lamps and crystal-clear long-distance calls; Post-it notes and decent pizza outside New York. In love with computers, we forgot that someone had to invent the mouse pad, and that that invention, too, was progress. By jerking progress out of time and circumstance, we lost much of its texture and meaning. We became vulnerable to the claim that progress is merely a myth, technology inevitably treacherous, and aspiration unseemly--"one of the diseases of modern life," as a conservative philosopher puts it.

The result is a dangerous gap in our political discourse. We have no good way to defend progress without talking about stages: "the information age," "the digital revolution," "the postindustrial age," "the age of global competition." It all sounds scary, mechanical, and deterministic. And it would be, if true. But in fact progress is incremental and unpredictable -- a process whose cumulative effects are worth celebrating but whose course is continuously changing. Progress, in this view, is not a matter of marching toward utopia, step by predetermined step, but the sum of countless parallel individual searches, each aimed at greater knowledge or happiness.

Unfortunately, this dynamic vision lacks a public vocabulary. And it frustrates the power fantasies of those who find satisfaction not in local improvements but in global reengineering. "How do we smash this particular system and build an alternative we can be proud of?" asks Gary Chapman, former executive director of Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility and prominent technology critic. The static model has broad appeal. It particularly comforts those whose minds crave unitary meaning in human affairs and fear a future of endless, decentralized, unpredictable innovation and adaptation. So dynamism is frequently misunderstood, ridiculed, or condemned by people who cannot bear the thought of progress without control.

Advocating "a return to national greatness" led by an "energetic government," writer David Brooks complains, "We no longer look at history as a succession of golden ages. Instead, history is something of a chaos; cultures bubble about in a relativistic stew. Historians do not measure cultures by their contribution to one central world civilization." Pat Buchanan asserts, "Mankind's got to control science, not the other way around."

The French bureaucrat Jacques Attali warns that market dynamism, the decentralizing power of the Internet, and the mobility of "high-tech nomads" are eroding the ability of political elites to enforce collective decisions. "Under such circumstances," he warns, "Western civilization is bound to collapse." British critics Richard Barbrook and Andy Cameron mock cyberculture, with its notion of uncontrolled progress, as both "utopian" and "atavistic," an expression of adolescent California culture. We must, they say, "reassert the possibility of rational and conscious control over the shape of the digital future."

On a more mundane level, we take for granted that every new problem will provoke immediate calls for government to impose a unitary solution. "As the president said, we need a comprehensive system, one that's been worked out, that's affordable and has national standards," declared a magazine editor discussing day care on CNN.

To dynamism's critics, it is immature to expect institutions to evolve over time, to allow experimentation and adaptation to address the problems new technologies bring. Faced with these issues--porn on the Internet, consumer data collected by Web sites, technology haves and have-nots--they demand solutions right now. They cannot stand the idea that diversity and choice, rather than "a comprehensive system," might make people better off. But in the real world, people have many different goals, and we don't know all the answers in advance. Risk is inescapable, pluralism is essential, there is no alternative to experimentation, and solutions take time.

There is no scratch, and stages are an illusion. But progress is real. From Edwin Hubble's telescope--its eyesight sharpened, its mirror still girded in steel and floating on mercury--astronomers see things no human being has seen before. At the place where the cosmos claimed its history, old and new coexist, each enriching the other. In such unpredictable partnerships lie the secret of how civilizations learn. From the top of Mount Wilson, we too can discover the meaning of time.