Favorite Bits from the Archive: Stuff and Ideas

Some good stuff gets buried in all the trivia. Here are a couple of posts from December 2007 that I feel makes a bit of sense.

From Stuff and Ideas Part 1:

Stuff is no doubt at the bottom. But without ideas that raw stuff is useless. You may have an oil well underneath your land. Until the technology came into being for extracting and using that oil to some end, you were out of luck. All the raw ingredients in the world will be of little value until you have the recipe. Ideas are the recipe that make something out of the stuff that nature provides.

Ideas have two important characteristics that differentiate it from stuff. First, ideas are non-rival in use, whereas stuff is rival in use. When I consume some amount of stuff, the total amount of stuff available for others to consume grows down. My gain is your loss, given a fixed amount of stuff. But if I use an idea, it does not reduce the total stock of ideas available for others to use.

The other thing about ideas is that they are built upon simpler ideas. Any idea, except for the most basic (the primitives, so to speak) is a combination of other, simpler ideas. So as the stock of ideas grows, the set of potential ideas that are combinations of the elements of the current stock increases exponentially. Of this set of potential ideas, only some will be brought into existence by minds that are sufficiently prepared. That “sufficiently prepared” implies that minds have to understand, or internalize, at least a subset of the existing stock of ideas. In other words, you don’t have to re-invent the idea of a wheel. But you have to know that there is a such a thing—an idea—as a wheel and then you can go on to combine it with the idea of a lever to come up with a complex idea, the wheelbarrow.

No one of us is sufficiently smart to come up with all the ideas all on our own. Even if we were that smart, we are given only a finite amount of time on this mortal plane. Fortunately, ideas are non-rival and therefore ideas invented elsewhere and whenever are available for us to use, provided we are sufficiently smart to adopt them. Anyone anywhere can use the decimal system of arithmetic invented centuries ago by Indian mathematicians. Anyone anywhere can use Einstein’s relativity theory, or Darwin’s theory of evolution through natural selection. Once discovered, an idea is forever.

And from part 2 of Stuff and Ideas:

Economic growth and development is inevitable if human resources are valued appropriately. Conversely, economic growth and development is impossible if human resources are not valued. Let me repeat that: if the set of policies puts human resources center-stage, then it is most likely to work. Otherwise they are doomed to fail sooner or later.

So what are human resources? Before the advent of the industrial age, human resources definitely referred to human labor alone. Human muscle power augmented to some degree with animal muscle power was an important factor of production. But with advances in science and technology, came the increasing ability to harness non-muscle power. There was a shift in the balance of power, so to speak. While the muscles became increasingly less useful, brains began to become more useful in the production process.

There is a sort of poetic justice in this story of the ascendancy of brains over brawn made possible by better science and technology. After all, it was brains that created the science and technology, not brawn. So now in this post-industrial age, human resources basically refers to trained human brains.

I’ll be back with some thoughts on education in a bit. Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.

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