Daniel Lemire's blog

, 3 min read

Does time fix all?

As an undergraduate, finding useful references was painful. What the librarians had come up with were terrible time-consuming systems. It took an outsider (Berners-Lee) to invent the Web. Even so, the librarians were slow to adopt the Web and you could often see them warn students against using the Web as part of their research. Some of us ignored them and posted our papers online, or searched for papers online. Many, many years later, we are still a crazy minority but a new generation of librarians has finally adopted the Web.

What do you conclude from this story?

Whenever you point to a difficult systemic problem (e.g., it is time consuming to find references), someone will reply that “time fixes everything”. A more sophisticated way to express this belief is to say that systems are self-correcting. Yet few systems are self-correcting. We simply bear the cost of the mistakes and inefficiencies. If some academic discipline fails to make us better off, we barely notice and we keep paying for it. What we see as corrections are often disruptions brought by people who worked from outside the supposedly self-correcting system. Far from self-correcting, the system resists changes. For example, lectures are a terrible way to teach, yet they have been around for centuries and we are likely to lecture for at least decades, if not centuries. They are provably not cost-effective from a learning perspective. But it will take strong outside forces to get any change.

Maybe librarians would have eventually invented the Web. I doubt it, but given enough time everything is possible. Yet “in the long run we are all dead.” (Keynes) The argument that if enough time passes, the problem will be solved mostly makes sense if you plan to live forever. Neither you nor our civilization will be around forever.

We need better science and technological innovation today. It is not ok to say that if we wait another generation, we will find out how to control the climate and generate free energy. Our survival as a civilization depends on our ability to remain innovative today. The stock market has been flat for the last ten years. It is not at all automatic that new prosperity will emerge through new innovations and inventions. It may very well not happen in my lifetime. I’m a techno-optimist, so I believe we will out-innovate our problems, but I don’t believe that the system will do it. Crazy people will have to act outside of the norm. We won’t have Internet-enabled brain implants if we just wait long enough: some Ph.D. student needs to sign waivers and make his mother cry so we have any chance to know how it feels to have the Internet in our brain.

Free-market advocates believe that free markets are self-correcting. That is a more believable notion except for the fact that there is no such thing as a free market in the real world.

By the way: things often become worse over time. My body is living proof: I’m weaker than when I was in my 20s. Conclusion: People too often believe that the systems they are in are self-correcting. Yet corrections, when they happen, are often actually disruptions brought forth by outsiders. Trust that systems, when left alone, will do the right thing, is overly optimistic.

We should celebrate outsiders and protect them from the wrath of the insiders.