Monday, January 13, 2014

It's Dark Between All of These Photons

The heart of innovation is the moment that reorients your thinking.  Everybody -- you included -- has always looking at something one way, and then you realize there is another way to see it.  This short post is intended to provide two examples of things you can see differently.

The post's title probably gives this one away, but let's rethink something really basic:  Light.  We know that light can be bright or dim, can be blocked to cast shadows, can occur in different wavelengths, and can be split into component wavelengths by a prism.  Our thinking about light, though, includes one enormous assumption:  We are big.  From the perspective of something the size of a subatomic particle, light would be perceived in an entirely different way.  There are a limited number of photons hitting a surface at any given time, and if we are small enough, we can go quite some time without being hit.  Without even getting into the wave/particle distinction or how we define the size of a photon, we can easily see how light can be analogized to fog.  When it is foggy, the entirety of the atmosphere doesn't turn into water; instead, there are many tiny water particles amid otherwise dry air.  Similarly, when a surface is lit up with photons, there are large portions of the surface that are, at a given time, not being hit by photons.  In other words, it's dark between all of these photons.

Now imagine that I am standing on a flat surface pointing straight up.  I then call you via video conference, have a friend show you what I'm doing, and ask you to point in the same direction I'm pointing.  Most people would simply point up.  There are many likely assumptions that go into this response, and the accuracy of each of them is critical to whether "up" is the right response.  Note that I reference "likely" assumptions.  Innovation is not about guessing the answer to a trick question, so we can forget about answers based on deception, such as imagining that I asked the question while standing in a giant centrifuge.  Instead, look for things that reorient how you understand the question.  Did you think about where I am relative to you?  If I'm in Moscow and you're in San Francisco, "up" for me is "down" for you.  In those circumstances, you should have pointed to the ground.  Even if we're standing next to each other and Jupiter is directly overhead, I may point "in the direction of Jupiter", but the rotation of the earth is such that by the time you've pointed, you are probably off by a small amount.

There is a concept in psychology called "fundamental attribution error".  Wikipedia explains it as "people's tendency to place an undue heavy emphasis on internal characteristics to explain someone else's behavior in a given situation, rather than thinking about external situational factors".  There is a similarity between fundamental attribution error and a failure to innovate.  We try to answer the question we think has been asked, rather than taking a step back and making sure we aren't missing something crucial in the very framework in which the the question exists.  Great innovations often happen when innovators realize that everybody else has been trying to answer the wrong question, or relying on incorrect assumptions in understanding the question.

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