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The Tweakers

Posted on 4 December 2011

“The Tweaker” by Malcolm Gladwell →

“The point of Meisenzahl and Mokyr’s argument is that this sort of tweaking is essential to progress. James Watt invented the modern steam engine, doubling the efficiency of the engines that had come before. But when the tweakers took over the efficiency of the steam engine swiftly quadrupled. Samuel Crompton was responsible for what Meisenzahl and Mokyr call “arguably the most productive invention” of the industrial revolution. But the key moment, in the history of the mule, came a few years later, when there was a strike of cotton workers. The mill owners were looking for a way to replace the workers with unskilled labor, and needed an automatic mule, which did not need to be controlled by the spinner. Who solved the problem? Not Crompton, an unambitious man who regretted only that public interest would not leave him to his seclusion, so that he might “earn undisturbed the fruits of his ingenuity and perseverance.” It was the tweaker’s tweaker, Richard Roberts, who saved the day, producing a prototype, in 1825, and then an even better solution in 1830. Before long, the number of spindles on a typical mule jumped from four hundred to a thousand. The visionary starts with a clean sheet of paper, and re-imagines the world. The tweaker inherits things as they are, and has to push and pull them toward some more nearly perfect solution. That is not a lesser task.”

This is the power of the modern era. The best, most innovative ideas can come from anywhere, because we can constantly tweak the systems put into place somewhere else. Governments in Prince George can study housing strategies in Portland and see what works and tweak what doesn’t. I can read about the transit system in Fort St John and make suggestions on how lessons there might be applied here. Local newspapers can learn lessons from around the world about how to better manage their online comments sections. Or we can try to make a better cola.

The point is, we have access to so many data points, so much information, that there is absolutely no reason that we cannot constantly strive to find ways to tweak things to make them better. Whether it’s music or writing or voting systems, there is nothing stopping you from coming up with a better solution than what’s already been done. You don’t have to re-invent the wheel. Just make it better.

Filed under: ideas

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