Editor, Infectious Greed; Senior Fellow, Kauffman Foundation
History And Contingency
How many calls to a typical U.S. fire department are actually about fires? Less than 20%. If fire departments aren’t getting calls about fires, what are they mostly getting calls about? They are getting calls about medical emergencies, traffic accidents, and, yes, cats in trees, but they are rarely being called about fires. They are, in other words, organizations that, despite their name, deal with everything but fires.
Why, then, are they called fire departments? Because of history. Cities used to be built out of pre-combustion materials—wood straight from the forest, for example—but they are now mostly built of post-combustion materials—steel, concrete, and other materials that have passed through flame. Fire departments were created when fighting fires was an urgent urban need, and now their name lives on, a reminder of their host cities’ combustible past.
Everywhere you look you see fire departments. Not, literally, fire departments, but organizations, technologies, institutions and countries that, like fire departments, are long beyond their “past due” date, or weirdly vestigial, and yet remain widespread and worryingly important.
One of my favorite examples comes from the siting of cities. Many U.S. river cities are where they are because of portages, the carrying of boats and cargo around impassable rapids. This meant, many times, overnight stays, which led to hotels, entertainment, and, eventually, local industry, at first devoted to shipping, but then broader. Now, however, those portage cities are prisoners of history, sitting along rivers that no longer matter for their economy, meanwhile struggling with seasonal floods and complex geographies antithetical to development—all because a few early travelers using transportation technologies that no longer matter today had to portage around a few rapids. To put it plainly, if we rebooted right now most of these cities would be located almost anywhere else first.
This isn’t just about cities, or fire departments. This is about history, paths, luck, and “installed base” effects. Think of incandescent bulbs. Or universities (or tenure). Paper money. The post office. These are all examples of organizations or technologies that persist, largely for historical reasons, not because they remain the best solution to the problem for which they were created. They are often obstacles to much better solutions.
It is obvious that this list will get longer in the near future. Perhaps multilane freeways join the list, right behind the internal combustion engine. Or increasingly costly and dysfunctional public markets. Malls as online commerce casualties. Or even venture capitalists in the age of Angellist and Kickstarter. How about geography-based citizenship. All of these seem vaguely ossified, like they are in the way, even if most people aren’t noticing—yet.
But this is not a list-making game. This is not some Up With Technology exercise where we congratulate ourselves at how fast things are changing. This is the reverse. History increasingly traps us, creating paths—and endowments and costs, both in time and money—that must be traveled before we can change directions, however desirable those new directions might seem. History—the path by which we got here, and the endowments and effluvia it has left us—is an increasingly large weight on our progress. Our built environment is an installed base, like an ancient computer operating systems that holds back progress because compatibility gives such an immense advantage.
Writer William Gibson once famously said that the “The future is already here—it’s just not very evenly distributed”. I worry more that the past is here—it’s just so evenly distributed that we can’t get to the future.