That things sometimes fail is something known to all. But rather than distress over this, we should celebrate failure. After all, failure is how we learn what we shouldn’t be expending effort on.
So it is with this news that CNN is canceling part of its Snapchat programming. That a network I don’t care about isn’t going to be on an app I’ve never used isn’t of great import in itself (to me, at least). But as a symbol of how the world works, it’s time to do the Happy Dance.
This strange blend of capitalism and markets that we use to run the world has problems: Some end up with more than others, it can seem wasteful at times, and there are most definitely problems with things that the system doesn’t consider. However, it has one vast benefit, this being the very thing that makes the system work over time: It allows people to make mistakes.
Our basic technological problem is that we don’t have a very good idea of what it is that people want. Odd things, humans are. At one point, millions flocked to buy pet rocks, and the same people wouldn’t take New Coke if they were paid to do so. These desires also change over time. Whatever it is the millennials want is unknown even to them, let alone the rest of us.
This problem is compounded by the manner in which what it is possible to do keeps changing. Technology marches on. Only a decade ago, we basically gained full internet access on our phones; a century ago, we got phones themselves. Solar cells are now cheap enough to actually use cost-effectively, and we can just about run a car off a battery these days.
It’s the combination of these two ever-changing feasts, desires and the ability to sate them, which produces one heck of a problem for us. By one count, there are one billion different things for sale out there. How do we combine them, in what manner and portion, to produce something that someone wants? And then, given that the billion is changing and growing, how do we run through the possibilities again tomorrow, as they change?
It’s this problem that the current economic setup solves, or at least solves better than any other system we’ve ever tried. No, do not start to think the system ensures that people get those combinations right. For it doesn’t, not in the slightest. The errors outweigh the successes by a vast margin. What the system does is it allows people to make mistakes.
It is by messing up, large-scale and big-time, that we find out what not to do. It’s a small portion of things which aren’t ghastly mistakes which we then go on and do more of. This is the saving grace of the capitalist, market system. The free market innovation machine works because it allows that exploration of all of the things which don’t.
It is important that we get this right too. The system works because of these errors. Thus, we must allow errors, or we’ll destroy the system. That means that we don’t want (too much, at least) regulation of what people may do. Given that it is the freedom to make mistakes which drives innovation along, then we’ve got to preserve that liberty to screw up. Instead, of, say, judging what may be made or done by some set of rules about what might be useful. Or banning innovation by insisting upon proof that it is desired or safe before allowing it (the precautionary principle).
Technology marches on because people have the space to make mistakes so that we find out what not to do. It will only continue to do so as long as we preserve that space to do so.
Apparent mistakes like CNN on Snapchat aren’t the problem. They’re the point.
Tim Worstall (@worstall) is a contributor to the Washington Examiner's Beltway Confidential blog. He is a senior fellow at the Adam Smith Institute.
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