Lateral thinking: The reason you’ve heard of Nintendo and Marvel
Here's why generalists triumph over specialists in the new era of innovation.
David Epstein is the author of the New York Times bestsellers Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World and The Sports Gene. He has master's degrees in environmental science and journalism and has worked as an investigative reporter for ProPublica and a senior writer for Sports Illustrated. He lives in Washington, DC.
DAVID EPSTEIN: One of the researchers I spoke with was himself an innovator and was picked by R&D Magazine as the Innovator of the Year. But he also studied innovation. And what he found in studying patent databases is maybe a change in the importance of specialists and generalists over time. And he defined this by looking at people's work histories.
So, creators who are very specialized did all their work in one or a small number of areas of technology as classified by the US Patent and Trademark Office. Creators who were more broad spread their work across a large number of technology classes, sometimes merging many into one project. And since about the 1990s, the explosion of the knowledge economy, what he found was that these more generalist inventors, or sometimes they were even polymaths with some depth and breadth, were making larger and larger and more and more important contributions whereas the specialists, who were still very important, were often making less impactful contributions.
And he thinks that this is part of the rise of rapid communication technologies, that the information created in many cases by specialists is so rapidly and thoroughly disseminated that there are many more opportunities than ever before to invent something new by taking things that aren't new and combining them in new ways. And one of my favorite examples of this is a Japanese man by the name of Gunpei Yokoi, who didn't score well in his electronics exams so he had to settle for a job in Kyoto as a machine maintenance worker at a playing card factory while a lot of his peers went off to big companies in Tokyo.
He realized that he wasn't equipped to work at the cutting edge, but that so much information was easily available that specialists were overlooking that he could just combine older and well understood technologies in ways that specialists couldn't see because they didn't have a broad enough view. In doing that, he started a toy and game operation at that playing card company -- that playing card company is called Nintendo -- and he continued combining old technologies for his magnum opus, the Game Boy. All of the technology was long out of date by the time it appeared and yet it became the best-selling video game console of the 20th century.
Yokoi called his creative philosophy 'lateral thinking with withered technology'. What he meant by lateral thinking was taking information from one area that may not be new, but just bringing it somewhere else where suddenly it's new to that area, combining technologies in ways that other people hadn't. By withered technology, he meant this older, well understood, often cheaper technology so he didn't have to worry about competing at the cutting edge.
And that's a nice story, but I think it also fits with multiple studies of patent research that show in many cases the biggest impacts come not from the people who drilled the deepest into a technological class, but those who spread their work across a large number of technological classes. And incidentally, there are analogous findings in other industries. In a really interesting study of comic book creators, researchers guessed at what would make comic book creators make commercially valuable comics, and also what would make them more likely to make a blockbuster comic. And it was a great study because they could track the value of comic books both up and down, it didn't suffer from the survivor bias that a lot of studies of excellence do. And they posited pretty intuitively that the resources of a publisher would make a creator better, or their years of experience would, or the number of comics they'd made previously. And they were wrong, wrong, and wrong. The most important factor was the number of different genres that a creator had worked in. The genres ranged from comedy, and crime, to fantasy, adult, horror, non-fiction.
And it was true that you could make a team and combine teams of genre specialists to get some of that diversity. But that was actually pretty limited. So if you had an individual who'd worked in two genres, you were better off having a team of three who had worked in one genre each. But after four genres, then an individual who had worked in more than four genres did better than a team who had the same genre experienced by platoon. So you could not re-create the diverse experience of an individual entirely with a team of specialists.
So these researchers named their paper 'Superman or the Fantastic Four'. They said, if you can find a Superman who has worked in a very diverse array of genres, do it. And if not, then create a fantastic team with diverse genre experience by platoon.
- Since the explosion of the knowledge economy in the 1990s, generalist inventors have been making larger and more important contributions than specialists.
- One theory is that the rise of rapid communication technologies allowed the information created by specialists to be rapidly disseminated, meaning generalists can combine information across disciplines to invent something new.
- Here, David Epstein explains how Nintendo's Game Boy was a case of "lateral thinking with withered technology." He also relays the findings of a fascinating study that found the common factor of success among comic book authors.
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How would the ability to genetically customize children change society? Sci-fi author Eugene Clark explores the future on our horizon in Volume I of the "Genetic Pressure" series.
- A new sci-fi book series called "Genetic Pressure" explores the scientific and moral implications of a world with a burgeoning designer baby industry.
- It's currently illegal to implant genetically edited human embryos in most nations, but designer babies may someday become widespread.
- While gene-editing technology could help humans eliminate genetic diseases, some in the scientific community fear it may also usher in a new era of eugenics.
Tribalism and discrimination<p>One question the "Genetic Pressure" series explores: What would tribalism and discrimination look like in a world with designer babies? As designer babies grow up, they could be noticeably different from other people, potentially being smarter, more attractive and healthier. This could breed resentment between the groups—as it does in the series.</p><p>"[Designer babies] slowly find that 'everyone else,' and even their own parents, becomes less and less tolerable," author Eugene Clark told Big Think. "Meanwhile, everyone else slowly feels threatened by the designer babies."</p><p>For example, one character in the series who was born a designer baby faces discrimination and harassment from "normal people"—they call her "soulless" and say she was "made in a factory," a "consumer product." </p><p>Would such divisions emerge in the real world? The answer may depend on who's able to afford designer baby services. If it's only the ultra-wealthy, then it's easy to imagine how being a designer baby could be seen by society as a kind of hyper-privilege, which designer babies would have to reckon with. </p><p>Even if people from all socioeconomic backgrounds can someday afford designer babies, people born designer babies may struggle with tough existential questions: Can they ever take full credit for things they achieve, or were they born with an unfair advantage? To what extent should they spend their lives helping the less fortunate? </p>
Sexuality dilemmas<p>Sexuality presents another set of thorny questions. If a designer baby industry someday allows people to optimize humans for attractiveness, designer babies could grow up to find themselves surrounded by ultra-attractive people. That may not sound like a big problem.</p><p>But consider that, if designer babies someday become the standard way to have children, there'd necessarily be a years-long gap in which only some people are having designer babies. Meanwhile, the rest of society would be having children the old-fashioned way. So, in terms of attractiveness, society could see increasingly apparent disparities in physical appearances between the two groups. "Normal people" could begin to seem increasingly ugly.</p><p>But ultra-attractive people who were born designer babies could face problems, too. One could be the loss of body image. </p><p>When designer babies grow up in the "Genetic Pressure" series, men look like all the other men, and women look like all the other women. This homogeneity of physical appearance occurs because parents of designer babies start following trends, all choosing similar traits for their children: tall, athletic build, olive skin, etc. </p><p>Sure, facial traits remain relatively unique, but everyone's more or less equally attractive. And this causes strange changes to sexual preferences.</p><p>"In a society of sexual equals, they start looking for other differentiators," he said, noting that violet-colored eyes become a rare trait that genetically engineered humans find especially attractive in the series.</p><p>But what about sexual relationships between genetically engineered humans and "normal" people? In the "Genetic Pressure" series, many "normal" people want to have kids with (or at least have sex with) genetically engineered humans. But a minority of engineered humans oppose breeding with "normal" people, and this leads to an ideology that considers engineered humans to be racially supreme. </p>
Regulating designer babies<p>On a policy level, there are many open questions about how governments might legislate a world with designer babies. But it's not totally new territory, considering the West's dark history of eugenics experiments.</p><p>In the 20th century, the U.S. conducted multiple eugenics programs, including immigration restrictions based on genetic inferiority and forced sterilizations. In 1927, for example, the Supreme Court ruled that forcibly sterilizing the mentally handicapped didn't violate the Constitution. Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendall Holmes wrote, "… three generations of imbeciles are enough." </p><p>After the Holocaust, eugenics programs became increasingly taboo and regulated in the U.S. (though some states continued forced sterilizations <a href="https://www.uvm.edu/~lkaelber/eugenics/" target="_blank">into the 1970s</a>). In recent years, some policymakers and scientists have expressed concerns about how gene-editing technologies could reanimate the eugenics nightmares of the 20th century. </p><p>Currently, the U.S. doesn't explicitly ban human germline genetic editing on the federal level, but a combination of laws effectively render it <a href="https://academic.oup.com/jlb/advance-article/doi/10.1093/jlb/lsaa006/5841599#204481018" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">illegal to implant a genetically modified embryo</a>. Part of the reason is that scientists still aren't sure of the unintended consequences of new gene-editing technologies. </p><p>But there are also concerns that these technologies could usher in a new era of eugenics. After all, the function of a designer baby industry, like the one in the "Genetic Pressure" series, wouldn't necessarily be limited to eliminating genetic diseases; it could also work to increase the occurrence of "desirable" traits. </p><p>If the industry did that, it'd effectively signal that the <em>opposites of those traits are undesirable. </em>As the International Bioethics Committee <a href="https://academic.oup.com/jlb/advance-article/doi/10.1093/jlb/lsaa006/5841599#204481018" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">wrote</a>, this would "jeopardize the inherent and therefore equal dignity of all human beings and renew eugenics, disguised as the fulfillment of the wish for a better, improved life."</p><p><em>"Genetic Pressure Volume I: Baby Steps"</em><em> by Eugene Clark is <a href="http://bigth.ink/38VhJn3" target="_blank">available now.</a></em></p>
A popular and longstanding wave of thought in psychology and psychotherapy is that diagnosis is not relevant for practitioners in those fields.
Scientists regenerate damaged spinal cord nerve fibers with designer protein, helping paralyzed mice walk again.
- Researchers from Germany use a designer protein to treat spinal cord damage in mice.
- The procedure employs gene therapy to regenerate damaged nerve fibers that carry signals to and from the brain.
- The scientists aim to eventually apply the technique to humans.
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Scientists use new methods to discover what's inside drug containers used by ancient Mayan people.
- Archaeologists used new methods to identify contents of Mayan drug containers.
- They were able to discover a non-tobacco plant that was mixed in by the smoking Mayans.
- The approach promises to open up new frontiers in the knowledge of substances ancient people consumed.
PARME staff archaeologists excavating a burial site at the Tamanache site, Mérida, Yucatan.
Cold hands and feet? Maybe it's your anxiety.
- When we feel anxious, the brain's fight or flight instinct kicks in, and the blood flow is redirected from your extremities towards the torso and vital organs.
- According to the CDC, 7.1% of children between the ages of 3-17 (approximately 4.4 million) have an anxiety diagnosis.
- Anxiety disorders will impact 31% of Americans at some point in their lives.