Trees of No; or, Fractal (im)possibilities

What stops good things from happening?

I came across this paragraph in The Counter‘s recent article on lab-grown meat:

David Humbird, the UC Berkeley-trained chemical engineer who spent over two years researching the report [into the economics of lab-grown meat], found that the cell-culture process will be plagued by extreme, intractable technical challenges at food scale. In an extensive series of interviews with The Counter, he said it was “hard to find an angle that wasn’t a ludicrous dead end.”

Humbird likened the process of researching the report to encountering an impenetrable “Wall of No”— his term for the barriers in thermodynamics, cell metabolism, bioreactor design, ingredient costs, facility construction, and other factors that will need to be overcome before cultivated protein can be produced cheaply enough to displace traditional meat. 

“And it’s a fractal no,” he told me. “You see the big no, but every big no is made up of a hundred little nos.”

Jo Fassler – Lab-grown meat is supposed to be inevitable. The science tells a different story.

I’m agnostic (i.e. uninformed) about the meat question, but the idea of a fractal “Wall of No” got my attention: it’s a fantastic description of the layers of obstacles that prevent the changes we wish to see from happening, both in individual lives and in the wider world.

Tech Tree

A small chunk of the tech-tree from 1995’s Warcraft II – my first memory of a tech-tree. You can see another example here.

This is most clearly the case with new technologies. Making iron requires mastery of smelting ore in general, which requires mastery of fire. Spoken language is a prerequisite for written language, which requires paper and printing press to unlock mass literacy. The internet depends on digital computers and telephony, which depend on software and transistors and electrification and a thousand – a hundred thousand – other innovations. Technology depends on technology: it’s turtles all the way down.

Fractal Lives

And this applies just as much to the mundane details of our lives: we spend our days in a forest of problem-trees.** We can’t go on holiday until we’ve chosen a destination, decided where we’ll stay and how we’ll get there, solved the money problem and the passport problem and the swimwear problem. We need to turn nos into yeses.

Like it or not, we’re committed to a lifetime of yak shaving.

Innovation: bundling solutions

Invention is discovering the theoretical solution to a “no” and doing it once; innovation is bundling solutions in an easy to use set so that the “no” can be overcome repeatedly and easily, so that we cease to see it as a “no” at all.

This is true of “hard” (i.e. physical) tech and “soft” (social or informational) technologies. Progress means taking secateurs and (eventually) chainsaws to “no” trees.

Hitting the Wall

But if one kind of progress consists in gnawing away at our problems twig by twig – hamster style – and never giving up, another kind consists in the peace that you gain by recognising the impossible when you see it, and letting it be. There are a hundred little fractal “nos” that underpin our lives, and trying to escape them costs us many “yeses”:

  • Most of the universe will remain beyond your comprehension, let alone your influence.
  • There are more good and important things in the world than you can fit into your life.
  • You’ll continue to find that you’re are mistaken – about a great many things.
  • Maintenance will take more time and money than you want to give it.
  • There will be people and things that you’re jealous of.
  • You know nothing good comes easy…
  • … all good things take some time.
  • You’ll live with consequences.
  • You can’t please everyone.
  • Nor ever master life.
  • There will be injustices.
  • There will be chores.
  • And incompletenes
  • Things will break.
  • We will die.

Yes.


*We can also think of these as nested problems

I'd love to hear your thoughts and recommended resources...