The Curse of Being Important

by Roger Bourke White Jr., copyright October 2009



As a community becomes more prosperous and understands its world better, new ideas and new opportunities pop up that the people of the community can exploit.

(In the context of this story, I will use community to mean any size human organization from family up to nation, and new idea to mean new ideas, new opportunities and new technologies.)

Sometimes a new idea is exploited quickly and easily, and the benefits to the community are quick and bountiful. Other times a new idea languishes, gets fouled up in red tape, and never does much to help the community.

One difference in the fate of a new idea is whether or not it suffers under The Curse of Being Important.

What that curse is, and how it affects the blossoming of an opportunity, is the subject of this story.


A Tale of Two Opportunities

Here is a tale of two opportunities: One taken to the hilt, one missed.

In the 1970's, a new electronics technology breakthrough, integrated circuits (IC), was invented and its possibilities were explored. IC was a technology for making computers faster, cheaper, and smaller. One of the commodity uses was to make faster, cheaper, smaller mainframe and minicomputers. One of the surprise uses was to make something brand new: personal computers. Personal computers presented users, and programmers, with an entirely new way of using computers. It was so successful that just ten years later the computing power in personal computers surpassed the computing power in mainframe computers, and the legacy of IC's changing how people use computing power continues on to this day, thirty years later.

Whew! This is serious success!

Now compare this success story to the following failure story.

In the 1940's a new energy technology breakthrough, nuclear power, was being explored. This was a technology for providing energy in a way that was faster, cheaper, and smaller. One of the first uses was providing power to submarines; a second was providing power for large electrical generating plants. And ... that was it! Nuclear power provides energy to power submarines and electrical generating plants, and to this day that's pretty much all it does. We don't have nuclear powered cars or wristwatches, which would be commodity uses, and we don't have surprise uses such as powering artificial hearts. Nuclear power has changed our day-to-day living very little, and this is sixty years later!

By comparison with IC technology, nuclear power technology is a still-born child.

The question I will be exploring in this story is: Why the difference?

Why did IC technology blossom and make a huge in-our-face difference in how we live day-to-day, while nuclear power remains esoteric and operates only in places and ways where we average inhabitants of the community don't have to see it much?

I propose that the answer is: The Curse of Being Important.

In its early development, the IC concept was not threatening, and the personal computer was looked upon as a toy, something not important and not dangerous, and this let its full potential be discovered. Nuclear power's early development was overshadowed by its first application -- making nuclear bombs to end a scary war -- and as a result it has been considered important and dangerous from Day One. This has cursed it fully with The Curse, and its full potential to change our lives for the better has yet to be discovered.

In this story I will be describing what I see are the symptoms and effects of The Curse of Being Important, and how these effects can be avoided or reduced.


But... But... Nuclear is dangerous!

I have had a couple readers comment that comparing IC to nuclear power is an apples-to-oranges comparison because nuclear is so dangerous.

My answer to that is: Yes, nuclear is dangerous and kills people... but so is methyl isocyanate (Bhopal Disaster), gasoline (traffic deaths), geothermal energy (volcanos, earthquakes and tsunamis), wind energy (tornados and hurricanes) and many more ideas and technologies we work with every day. Every powerful technology is dangerous as well as beneficial.

Nuclear's biggest difference from these others is a deeply emotional belief held by many people that nuclear's danger is unmanagable, and that makes it different from other potentially deadly technologies that mankind uses routinely.

The difference is... The Curse.


What is The Curse of Being Important?

The Curse of Being Important happens when too many people in a community think an idea is important, and they all want a say in how it is exploited. The proverb version is "Too many cooks spoil the broth."

Too many people can get interested in what someone else is doing for a variety of reasons. The project can be something that kids are doing and helicopter parents are watching, such as baking cookies for the first time; something that will effect the day-to-day lives of a lot of people, such as building a road; or something that inspires many peoples' dreams, such as being able to soar like a bird.

So, the reasons for meddling range from enthusiasm to fear, from altruism to envy, and beyond. What all these reasons have in common is that they affect how the idea is implemented, and if they affect it in ways that make success less likely, the project falls under The Curse.


The Problems Caused by The Curse

The biggest problem caused by The Curse is that a budding idea can't be fully explored, especially in small scale versions of the idea.

Most new ideas are like delicate seeds and saplings: What they will become is not clear, and it's real easy to squash them so they become nothing. Accepting good new ideas is not inevitable, there are many examples in the histories of companies, communities and civilizations where the group walked away from a good new idea. The ones we read about are where some other community later proved the first community wrong in a spectacular way, but those are actually rare exceptions. In reality, many an idea can get walked away from permanently, and falling under The Curse makes that highly likely.

The primary symptom that an idea is suffering from the curse is that many people are involved and a lot of those people are both worrying and offering advice that has to be followed by those doing the tinkering and exploring. As Thomas Edison put it, invention is ninety percent persperation -- meaning a lot of things have to be tried and only a few will work well. Those that work partly well become the basis for the next generation of thinking. This fast and flexible nature of the inventing process is vital, absolutely vital, and if someone is kibbitzing each failure with, "See! See! I told you so!" start digging the grave for that idea.

When The Curse happens, the ways of exploiting the idea become limited. If people worry about an idea, there will be lots of restrictions and paperwork and the exploring slows down dramatically. If the idea survives at all, it will only survive in its biggest and simplest forms because these are best adapted to the slow pace of the mountains-of-paperwork environment. The fate of nuclear power provides a perfect example of this happening.

Another place I saw this happen was to genetic modification experimenting while I was a student at MIT in the mid-seventies. Someone there raised a flap about killer germs getting loose, and that got into the local papers, and the resulting protections implemented by the department delayed the genetic engineering breakthroughs for years. This problem raised its ugly head again in 2009 when an MIT student started some simple do-it-yourself genetic experiments as a hobby in her home, and she got questioned by some government-paid anti-terrorist analyst about her work's terrorist potential.

A second problem caused by The Curse is that the working environment in which an idea exists changes faster than the laws that regulate it. This means that the laws are always behind the times, and they slow down the process of reinvention as an idea adapts to changing times. If there are competitive ideas that are not as burdened with The Curse, they will prosper as proponents of the heavily cursed idea get bogged down with lobbying and City Hall Fights.


More examples of The Curse


Railroads with steam-powered locomotives were one of the first Industrial Age miracle technologies. They have been around a long time, since the 1820's in England, and they have affected a lot of people. Railroads need a lot of property and trains are big, noisy and dirty. Plus, there is a lot of danger in train operation, trains can hurt workers and they can hurt bystanders who happen to be crossing the railroad track, or walking along beside it.

As a result, railroads have developed their own body of law that is in many ways distinct from the laws of the rest of a community. Here are a few examples:

o Railroad workers don't have to pay social security because railroad pension funds predated the Great Depression when social security was created.

o Railroad crossings have their own regulations that are not the same as those for all other kinds of road conditions. An anachronistic example of this is that buses in Utah must come to a full stop at every railroad crossing. It's so anachronistic that the buses post signs on their back ends to warn unsuspecting drivers.

o Laws for property zoning and business operation are distinct for railroad companies. Chapter 11 bankruptcy, for instance, was originally designed to keep railroads operating while a reorganization of the company was in progress.

All of this distinctiveness is an example of The Curse of Being Important in action.

These distinctive regulations are there to protect both the railroads and the public, and in average circumstances they do that fairly well.

But times and technologies change faster than laws. And when competitive alternatives to railroads became popular, such as commercial airlines and trucks driving down interstate highways, the railroad governing laws kept railroads from quickly reinventing themselves, and they became a marginalized industry. The two most prominent symbols of this failure to adapt are Amtrack -- which handles rail passenger business following a mass bankruptcy of American railroads in 1971 -- and the slow progress of building next generation high-speed rail systems.

But those are just the most prominent symbols. What railroads have missed out most on is the missed smaller opportunities. We don't see any small-scale railroad activity, and we don't see any temporary railroad activity. Lack of small scale and temporary uses of a technology are sure signs The Curse is in full effect.



Insurance is important, but it's intangible and not used every day. This makes it hard for the average customer to shop for. As a result, it suffers from The Curse. The insurance business is heavily regulated. One example of a vexing oddity of this is you can't buy insurance across state lines.

Once again, part of what is missing are small scale and flexible solutions.

Update: This 14 May 11 WSJ Intelligent Investor article, Hedging Your Home Value: The Greatest Idea Never Sold by Jason Zweig, talks about a kind of insurance that could be widely available, but isn't. It is insurance against the market value of a home dropping. This has partly been strangled by regulations. There are experiments in this going on, but not many. From the article, "Such a policy, estimates Mr. Melendez, would cost an average of 1.5% of the sale price at the time a home changes hands. He says that getting the required regulatory approvals took two years and has been 'a monumental task.'"


Health Care

The current health care debate has become heated in part because how to handle health insurance is so much a part of the issue. The biggest problem with insurance playing such a prominent role is that insurance companies become the health care industry customers, not patients. Patients are tickets to be punched -- the punches are the procedures conducted upon them -- and those punched tickets are then handed to the insurance companies for payment.

Oddly, few people in the heated health care debate see this as a problem. But is this a prime example of The Curse in action.

The long-term solution to the health care problem is to reenfranchise patients. If patients are customers, informed customers I should say, then smaller scale, flexible solutions will flower, and the complaints about the system will drop dramatically.



The construction industry faces several characteristics that make The Curse easy to bring on. First, it has a Prisoners Dilemma problem: The constructers of a building only build it once, it's not an indefinitely repeating activity of the sort buying groceries is. This means that it is easy for cheating to be a profitable tactic. Second, it's complicated -- a lot is going on behind the scenes. Third, the users are not the customers -- people who drive over a bridge or walk into a building are not the ones who hand money to the contractors who build it.

So, in place of direct customer-provider feedback, we have building codes and building inspectors. In the best of circumstances the codes are well-synched with reality and the inspectors are dedicated to their work and feel enfranchised to do it well.

But once again, this is a place where the laws/codes may not keep pace with reality, and the inspectors end up discouraged and disenfranchised, and this activity then becomes fertile ground for corruption in its various forms.

And, once again, flexibilty and small scale experimentation are the first victims. To get some idea what flexibility and small scale in the construction industry could get us, take a look at the variety and visual excitement of the booth designs that show up in the East Hall (main hall) at Las Vegas Convention Center when an extravagant trade show such as the Consumer Electronics Show comes to town.


Air Travel

Air travel is a complex activity, but what makes its version of The Curse unique is the fear of flying that many air travelers have. This produces the Worshipping at the Altar of the Holy Metal dectector-style airport security that American flyers have enthusiastically endorsed.

At first glance, air travelers seem to pay directly for their service, which should mitigate some of The Curse. But in reality, air travlers only pay directly for part of the air travel system. They pay directly for airplane operations, but they don't pay directly for airplanes, airports or air traffic control. Plus, airline procedures are heavily regulated.

The barnstorming after World War One was the era when airplane experimentation was happening on a small scale. But since the 1950's the airline industry has felt the full effect of The Curse, and it got a hefty triple dose following the 9/11 Disaster. The airline industry is now deeply marginalized compared to what it could be if The Curse were lifted.



Parents don't sit in a classroom, their children do. This means that even in private schools there is a disconnect between the user of the system and the payer for the system. In public schools the gap is even wider.

The system gets messier because there is no clear way to measure the success of an education. So, sadly, "The Curse is strong in this one."

There are two big ways The Curse shows up in education. First is the lack of flexibility and second the system's vulnerability to pressure groups.


TV and Telecommunications

The electricity-based commercial telegraph was developed in 1837 in both the UK and the US. (In the US by Samuel Morse of Morse Code fame.) Since then the improvement in price and performance of moving data by electricty (wired and wireless) has been steady and mind-boggling.

And the "footprint" to provide telecommunications service has declined steadily as well. With cell phone/wireless technology of 2010, there's hardly any footprint at all -- compare providing cell phone service to providing railroad service, oil, or steel. It's miniscule.

But The Curse has been strong here. Look at your monthly phone bill and notice the arm-long list of additional surcharges you pay, listen to the constant talk about what should or should not be broadcast on TV and radio, notice how much hoop-jumping there is to purchasing a cell phone and its service -- each one is a manifestation of The Curse.

Compare the early development of telephone, radio and TV to the early development of the Internet. The Internet of the 1960's and 70's was considered so unimportant that it was sponsored by DARPA -- that government organization which is specifically designed to promote what the commercial world sees as "loser technologies" but that have some hope of some day helping the US military. In other words, in its early days it dodged The Curse and thus was able to be explored fully.


Hiring, Firing, working conditions

It is surprising that The Curse shows up as strongly here as it does. It's surprising because there is no Prisoners Dilemma problem -- jobs can go for on a long time -- and the payer/payee relation is direct: A person works for a person or company and gets paid by that person or company.

For reasons that are not clear to me, the American community has decided the government and other organizations need to be involved in this direct relation at many levels, and the signs of The Curse are spread all through the hiring/working/firing relation.

Here is a Wall Street Journal editorial describing how crusading in the 1990's effected executive compensation to produce the compensation style that many are complaining about today.


Things not Cursed

All of the above have been badly cursed. By comparison, here are some things that have dodged The Curse.

Electric Motors

Electric motors are all around us, and we don't give them a second thought... which is a pretty good symptom of not suffering the curse. If the only ones thinking about something are those that design with it, that something is unlikely to be cursed.

Back to electric motors. First, they come in a wide range of sizes ranging from tiny ones powering wristwatches up to huge ones powering ships and pipeline compressors. Second, they are used for a variety of tasks, and third they have been steadily improved for decades, the concept was first demonstrated in 1821. These are the kinds of benefits that ducking the curse gets an idea.


Plastics are widely used, and raise controversy mostly over people arguing about ways to get rid of them when we are finished using them. They have a touch of curse because many people view them as a symbol of the evils of modern living, but fortunately for all of us, this aspect of thinking about plastics has remained a minor part of modern community thinking.

The first plastic was developed in 1855 as a replacement for ivory used in billiard balls. This is an example of the benefit of a technology being introduced as a toy. The kinds of plastics and the scope of their use has increased steadily since then.


How to Avoid the Curse

The curse grows as more people become interested in an idea and more people see scary outcomes to uses of the idea.

But an indea grows best when thousands of people experiment with while it is young, fresh and not well established. Having a phase of do-it-yourself (DIY) or backyard experimenting is the best thing that can happen to a budding idea. This is how the more efficient and smaller scale uses for the idea are discovered. This is what happened with IC technology, and computer programming, both were considered safe for anyone and everyone to play with, and this is why the first breakthroughs, such as the Apple II computer, came from teenage experimenters.

So, the best thing that can happen to a new idea is to discover a way to present it as an entertaining game. The worst thing that can happen is to call for government support. When you call in the goverment, you have given your idea the kiss of death.


If your idea is cursed, what can you do?

If your opportunity is cursed, what can you do?

Try to keep it from getting cursed even more!

The Curse is not an on/off thing, it's definately a shades-of-gray affair.

First and foremost, try to reduce the emotional content of your new idea. The curse gets worse the more some accuser can tap into community emotional fears. This is what has happened to genetically modified foods (GM foods) in Europe. GM critics there successfully ponied up images of frankenfoods, and politicians paid attention.

Second, be sure to keep in mind the emotion that is behind the issue as you deal with criticism. Rational analysis is not going to help much when the issue turns emotional and scary. Work on diffusing the emotion.

With that in mind, prevention is the best solution. Pay attention to things such as science fiction stories and movies, and position your idea so it won't look like it could become part of some conventional cheesy SF story where the hero takes out the mad scientist promoting your idea and then marries the professor's daughter as a reward.

The SF movies of the 1950's gave plenty of warning that nuclear energy was going to have a tough row to hoe emotionally. Hundreds of movies were made where the monster was made big and dangerous by getting a dose of radioactivity.

Likewise, the 2000's cheesy SF movies cautioned us against genetic engineering doing the same thing -- think the 2002 version of Spiderman where Peter Parker gets his powers from the bite of a GM spider. (And remember that the 1960's version of Spiderman got his power from being bitten by a radioactive spider.)

Update: This 5 Jan 13 Economist article, Cloney ponies: How technology could transform an ancient sport, is an example of a technology being introduced as a toy. This is an example of a way to introduce a new technology that dodges The Curse of Being Important. Toys -- very expensive ones in this case -- don't fire the community busybody instinct the way "serious" or "important" uses do.

So, well done aspiring cloning engineers, this is just the kind of first use which will let cloning technology thrive in its "early spring" stage -- when there is much to learn, a lot of mistakes to be made, and it's important that busybodyness not get in the way of the experimenting.



The Curse of Being Important is one of the most consistent idea killers throughout human history.

It stunts the adoption of new ideas by making them hard to implement. If the idea survives, it will survive only in its biggest, simplest forms because only these can be made profitable when faced with walls of paperwork, delays and regulation.

The best way to avoid the curse is to present an idea as safe and entertaining. The best thing that can happen to an idea is to have thousands of early adapters experimenting with it in low-cost, small-scale experiments. These early experimenters will find the interesting and surprising uses for the idea.

The worst thing that can happen is have the idea become linked with deeply emotional and scary stories. The next worst thing, which will follow, is having politicians decide they must get involved -- that is the kiss of death to finding small scale interesting uses for the idea.


-- The End --