Emergent Magic: Why Ideas Are Becoming More Valuable

By | August 8, 2017

matt-seymour-325630One of the side projects related to The World Transformed book is building a vast collection of ideas. The book itself is a collection of ideas, and the notion was that would could use it a springboard to collect lots more ideas about how the world can be changed in positive ways. I put a mechanism in place for collecting ideas, but right now it needs a little work. (Stay tuned.) Anyway, recently as I was thinking about this project and I was answering (in my own mind) one of the potential objections to it, a really strange idea occurred to me.

First, the objection:

Collecting good ideas adds little value. Ideas are all talk. Like talk, they are cheap. Only doing things counts, and even then only doing effective things counts. Everything else is noise that is as likely to slow progress as it is to speed it along.

Let’s think about that. On the podcast we talk about this convergence of phenomena that drive us toward a very different future.

  • Individual people are becoming capable of doing more.
  • Doing things is easier than it used to be.
  • We can do things faster than we used to be able to.
  • Doing things requires less infrastructure and energy than it used to.

I can give examples of all that, but assuming you generally agree with those propositions, let’s move on. Also, these are probably not separate phenomena at all, but different manifestations of an underlying driver: Kurzweil’s Law of Accelerating Returns or Buckminster Fuller’s Ephemeralization—which are probably just two different names for the same underlying teleological principle.

Another way to describe that principle is emergent magic. For our purposes, we’ll say that magic is the ability to think or speak reality into being. Per that definition, magic does not currently exist in our world. Nobody (that I know of) can just think about something or speak an idea out loud and have it happen.

But we are much closer to that capability than we have ever been before. All that stuff about people being more capable, things being easier to do, things happening faster, things requiring less infrastructure—that all adds up to fewer steps between thinking about something and that thing happening. Maybe one day, after the Technological Singularity, we will get to straight-up practical magic that will be very close to “real” magic as I have defined it above. Via an elaborate post-AI, post-nanotech infrastructure, people will be able to think or speak just about anything into being.

But before any of that, we have emergent magic, with the gap between thought and reality getting narrower.

Okay, so here’s my strange idea. (That’s right, none of the above counts as a “strange idea” in my book. It’s all a given.)

Is the value of ideas diminished by their ubiquity as the “ideas are a dime a dozen” argument would have it, or is it diminished by the low probability that they will amount to anything?

We will set aside the apparent relative value of ideas. Ideas for novel medical treatments or energy technologies should be, of course, a lot more valuable than,”I’ve got a great idea for a new app; it will be the next Angry Birds!”

But the question of relative value is complex—sometimes when important ideas are implemented poorly, they end up doing harm; sometimes seemingly frivolous ideas have unintended consequences that make them extremely useful. That’s hard math and we’ll skip it for now.

If low probability negatively impacts the value of ideas, then—because of emergent magic—ideas are becoming more valuable every day. As the gap between thinking them up and executing on them closes, they become more probable. As they become more probable, they become more valuable.  They may be a dime a dozen today, but next year they will be worth a dime each. And then they’ll be worth a dollar each. And then a hundred of dollars.

Of course, even if they are becoming more valuable, there are so many ideas becoming valuable at the same time that, once again, the sheer number of ideas becomes a problem. Today we struggle to find the one valuable idea in a sea of useless ideas. In the near future, we may struggle to find the one billion-dollar idea in a sea of million-dollar ideas.


Photo by Matt Seymour on Unsplash