Note — Mar 22, 2020

Where Be Dragons?

Seen in → No.118

Source → antonhowes.substack.com/p/age-of-invention-wher...

This is very much my kind of thing. Dr Anton Howes, who’s an historian of innovation, starts by looking at “inventions [that] could have been invented centuries, if not millennia, before they actually were.” That is in itself an interesting topic, but he then goes into more detail about a specific one; tabletop role-playing games, and Dungeons & Dragons in particular. Howes considers multiple hypotheses, including the need for a bureaucratic mindset or for higher levels of literacy or numeracy.

The economist Alex Tabarrok calls these cases “ideas behind their time”. I tend to just call them low-hanging fruit. Hanging so low, and for so long, that the fruit are fermenting on the ground. I now see them everywhere, not just in history, but today — probably at least one per week. […]

But all of that is actually just optional. At root, it’s simply collective storytelling, with pre-agreed constraints on what you can and can’t do. […]

An interesting variant of the argument, suggested by Matt Clancy, is that in fact tabletop role-playing games have been invented and re-invented many times, all over the world, but because of the lack of printing and low population densities, they have become lost and forgotten. Perhaps. Though I find it hard to believe that an activity so fun would never have been mentioned. […]

I think it’s simply because innovation in general is so extremely rare. It’s a matter of absence, rather than of barriers. The reason we have had so many low-hanging fruit throughout history is just because very few people ever bother to think of how to do things differently.

(Via the excellent Samuel Arbesman’s Cabinet of Wonders.)