Thought Experiment

What’s the big idea?

In the end, we the people decide what ideas make a difference.

How come little ideas tend to get more traction and enjoy more success than big ideas?

That’s the question posed to me a while ago, but it’s a question predicated on an assumption and anecdotal evidence, so I’d need to see some actual numbers first, and I don’t think it’s that simple.

Big ideas, regardless of their world-changing potential, meet with initial resistance, like a jackhammer striking the pavement, or a saw sliding through wood, metal, or plastic. As ubiquitous and essential as the telephone is, decades elapsed before it reached mass market acceptance. At first, the motorcar was resisted, and required men to proceed them waving a red flag as a warning to pedestrians and horse-drawn vehicles. We would be lost without the humble tin or can, but the tin opener wasn’t invented until some five decades afterwards.

Big ideas are sometimes missed opportunities. Much has been written of Roman and Greek innovation, but for reasons unknown they failed to make the logical connective leap of the imagination between the rail track and the aeropile — or Hero’s engine — a precursor to the external combustion engine — AKA the steam engine — a potent combination that would have given us the steam locomotive, mass transportation, and perhaps the Industrial Revolution almost a millennia ago. And then there was the unique Antikythera mechanism, an “ancient hand-powered Greek analogue computer” thought to be the work of Archimedes or a student of his, discovered in 1900 among the remains of a Greek cargo vessel transporting treasures from the coast of Asia Minor west to Rome, that sank in bad water around 70 to 60 BC. Should the Antikythera mechanism or the steam locomotive have arrived in Rome, the epicentre of ancient culture, the implications could have been profound, changing the future around us to the extent that the world as we understand it would not exist.

Big ideas sometimes require a shift in habits and behaviour (saving the environment, improving our lifestyles, working practices and so on). Out of that, there’s what I refer to as the path to comprehension:

  • saving the environment is a lot to take in, and requires a shift in habits and behaviour (long path);
  • whereas getting irate while watching Love Island or Big Brother, and spending hours bleating about it on social media requires little understanding or effort (short path).

Take the whole Brexit saga, something the Tories won because their case for leaving the European Union was much more explicable to the masses, while remaining in the EU was characterized as bureaucratic, distant, and — perhaps most important — foreign. While not a big idea, Brexit was a success because it was understandable and appealing, in spite of the manifest lies undergirding it.

Big ideas often require major changes. Little ideas often find a foothold faster, but then take the long route to growth and mass market appeal — digital currencies are weird mix of the two. In the end, we the people decide what ideas make a difference.