The Inspiring Power of Bad Ideas

This is an adaptation of an adaptation of a twenty-minute talk I gave on June 29, 2019 at the inaugural KevCon, a going-away-slash-birthday party for Kevin Bankston. I subsequently published it on Medium. But the experience of collecting my dad’s digital ephemera; the surprise at learning people are still subscribed to my zombie RSS; and the recent glimmers of hope for a less-centralized internet all made me feel guilty and stupid about leaving it in a proprietary silo to bitrot. So: here.

The title of this talk is “The Inspiring Power of Bad Ideas” and it is possible that the argument I’m about to make—that misguided obsession can be art—will turn out to be worse than any of its sub-ideas. But even if that proves true, along the way I will have gotten the chance to explain to you why I love Paul Scheerbart so much. And that’s enough for me.

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Here he is! Scheerbart was a penniless fixture of Berlin cafe culture around the dawn of the 20th century, known at the time for his heroic intake of alcohol and eclectic if amateurish mix of pursuits, some of which managed to draw complimentary mentions from contemporaries like Walter Benjamin, Bruno Taut and Walter Gropius. I myself am a guy who, in his twenties, spent his nights on drunken bullshitting with more talented friends and his days furiously blogging about it. So I feel a great affinity for Scheerbart.

Scheerbart’s writing was in the air for the Expressionists, for Bauhaus, for Dada, though you couldn’t really say he was a driving force for any. Today he’s best remembered for a lengthy essay about glass architecture — colored glass, mind you — which he felt was the key to unlocking human destiny and would offer advantages over conventional materials ranging from the aesthetic to the spiritual to the hygienic to, er, the ability to withstand aerial bombardment.

It seems a bit far-fetched, I know. But aerial bombardment was a new concern at the time — aerial everything was. Scheerbart had seen the Wright Brothers at a European exhibition and was inspired to write a pamphlet about plane-enabled warfare. In it he made a bunch of farsighted predictions like drones and a bunch of far-fetched ones like the end of conventional land forces. This mix of prescience and wild-eyed overreach is pretty typical for him.

Notably for this audience, he was also a science fiction author. Here his best-known work is Lesabendio, a utopian novel that is light on plot even by the standards of its genre. In it, a bunch of aliens living on an asteroid decide to build a tower. I think that’s pretty much it.

But none of that is what I want to talk about here. Paul Scheerbart was also an inventor. And I think he wrote one of the single greatest works about innovation ever published.

We have all read accounts of inventors obsessively toiling toward their breakthroughs. Bell Labs. The HP garage. The Manhattan Project. They’re all fine, I guess. But I think we should spend more time considering the more common case: obsession, toil, and total failure. Because the idea was stupid.

It began in 1907. Scheerbart was thinking about transportation — he started with straightforward ideas like firing people out of canons, deploying parachutes for safe landing — parachutes were exciting new technology at the time. From there he moved on to balloon-suspended rails and enormous wheels with passenger compartments inside. And it was in this moment that inspiration struck.

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As you can see, the principle is simple. Wheels B and C balance upon A. D and E are there for safety. Suspend a weight from F and of course the whole thing will tilt to the left and begin proceeding forward… indefinitely. Perpetually. A perpetual motion machine. This was big.

As usual, YouTube can provide confirmation of ideas that are good and true. Though I encourage you to press pause before something uploaded by Nazis begins autoplaying.

“I knew quite well that this assertion would be denied by every physicist. But this was what incited me more than anything else. I had always detested physicists. What concern of mine was Robert Mayer’s law of the conservation of energy?”

In Scheerbart’s day it was apparently harder to fabricate a working model. Not only that, but he was going up against established forces and the status quo. He knew all too well what he was facing, as the above quote attests.

Today we would express this sentiment more economically: fuck the haters. He was undeterred. This was just the beginning.

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Add some more wheels and it’s quite obviously a… dredging machine(?). Anyway he quickly realizes this was how the canals on Mars had been built.

He got all this done in about two hours, after which he admits his imagination “went a bit wild.” He draws the diagram hundreds more times over the next few days, swinging between self-doubt and bemusement that he’s unlocked such a cosmic mystery so simply. By the end of the week he has hired a plumber to get him started on a prototype. Alas, he finds his own mechanical skills are lacking, and anyway the thing is too small to work. But these are just details.

He spends the next two days dreaming of unlimited electric light illuminating the ocean’s depths. He can’t think of anything else.

“Day and night, I see wheels incessantly before my eyes, along with whatever else I may be thinking; always wheels — wheels — it’s almost uncanny.”

The prototype is still an issue. But he imagines the deserts blooming as new canals redirect rivers. Should we raze all of earth’s mountains? Or drain the Mediterranean? It’s hard to say. There’s a strong case on both sides. But he knows these are the kinds of questions that we will soon have to answer.

Now that he’s had some time to reflect, Scheerbart worries that the machine — which he’s now calling a “perpet” — will cause problems for human motivation. To us, this might seem outlandish and silly. But I encourage you to reflect on how much of Silicon Valley is currently fretting about implementing a universal basic income because our industry’s technological brilliance risks ending human toil.

He worries that economic expansion is bad for the arts, including his beloved literature. He worries both that the perpet will enable militarism and make it obsolete. Certainly it will be the end of the nation state, though he’s only sort of worried about that. He begins to hope the machine won’t work at all. But he can’t let it go.

And he doesn’t want to get ahead of himself—that’s the mark of a dilettante, as he wisely notes. Wheel C is stubborn. It’ll be amusing if this doesn’t work out! Though he’s now spent two weeks on it.

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He refactors and simplifies, but ultimately decides this direction is a mistake.

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He manages to get rid of wheel C (it had always been a problem).

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This is the first one that goes to the patent office. But obviously friction would be an issue…

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…so he adds wheel S, which is meant to be quite heavy. Alas, he also adds D1, which, as we will see, would cause no end of trouble.

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After consulting with a mechanic he makes some refinements and resubmits to the patent office.

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He’s building a whole product line: locomotion and fixed power generation. Today we’d call these SKUs and ask Paul about his Go To Market strategy.

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While taking a break from the details of his latest design, he hauls out an old prototype and has a revelation about inset wheels. It’s so much simpler than he thought! Why didn’t he see it before? He’s convinced he’s finally cracked it.

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He couldn’t quite get this one working…

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But that was no reason not to adapt it into a suspended design, for use on airships and boats.

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In the fall of 1908 — we’re almost a year in — he redoubles his efforts. He’s pretty much broke, but that’s normal for him. He’s somehow still finding money to get models built. And his own fabrication skills have improved, which cuts down on the expense (though the results still aren’t operative). At this point he’s begun hiding the work from his wife.

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He talks to engineers and even physicists — he fucking hates physicists — but frankly their responses don’t strike him as very constructive.

He’s also spending some time thinking through the business model. He does some envelope math on the likely royalties and it’s pretty clear he’s going to be a billionaire. He solemnly reflects on how his wealth will probably become a prison.

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He also anticipates considerable problems with the banking and automobile industries, since he’ll have so thoroughly disrupted them. Ninety years before Christensen, Scheerbart penned a chapter titled “The Great Disruption.”

Unlimited energy will have substantial effects on the monetary system, of course. Scheerbart anticipates this, too. He knows that the value of gold will be affected— after all, the perpet needs weights, and gold is remarkably heavy.

He has now spent more than a year alternating between frantic iteration, daydreaming about the perpet’s implications, and occasionally composing magnanimous speeches that he will give once he has shown what a bunch of jackasses physicists are.

His thoughts now turn outward and become more philosophical. He rhapsodizes about the “Earthstar” and the work it will do — already does! — for us. He urges humanity to be humble. He anticipates free energy spurring a spiritual revelation that will displace all religions. He expresses his hope for a day when we can gain sustenance through less “ridiculous” means than eating.

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He comprehends the unimportance of our mortal existence. In truth, he sees, it doesn’t matter if the perpet works.

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But this produces not apathy but a serene recommitment. He returns to the work, newly at peace. I realize you’ve all been waiting: when is he going to realize that wheel D is his problem and address it? Friends, the time is now. He moves through designs quickly with the help of a plumber.

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22 is the real breakthrough. From there it was a matter of a few simple refinements…

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And at last a happy ending:

“On 12 July of the year 1910, after introducing a new factor, I succeeded in solving the problem flawlessly; unfortunately I must keep silent about my discovery, since this would invalidate the applications I have submitted to the patent offices of various countries.

But I did reach a satisfactory conclusion.”

It had been two and a half years of nearly constant work.

So: why isn’t the screen you’re reading this on powered by perpets? Personally, I can only blame the Scheerbart estate and what must have been a epically bungled commercialization plan.

But failure doesn’t make Scheerbart’s account less compelling. The superficial appeal is obvious: Scheerbart’s work combines a level of grandiosity and engineering absurdity that would make even a blockchain evangelist wince. But I find him more empathetic than I do ridiculous.

Haven’t you ever gotten stuck on a problem and been unable to put it down — at work, at a meal with your family, lying in bed at night? Haven’t you succumbed to daydreams about its impact? The accolades you would win, the scores you could settle — always cautioning yourself that of course maybe none of this will work out. But what if…

I have. I’ve done it again and again. Paul Scheerbart captured it so well, and with so little modesty, that he’ll always have a place in my heart.

But I don’t love Scheerbart’s story just because I can relate to it. He spent two and a half years in the throes of his quest. That’s deeper than I’ve ever been. I find it silly but also deeply moving. In other domains I think we have conceptual tools to understand this feeling.

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Photo by Beth Wilson

This is The Orange Show, an installation in Houston, Texas.

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Photo by Marilyn Oshman

It’s the work of this man, Jeff McKissack. He mostly worked as a postal carrier, but during the Great Depression he trucked oranges around the country. And I guess it made an impression. From 1956 to 1980 he toiled, by himself, to construct a definitive monument to this great fruit.

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Photo by Beth Wilson

It’s a mix of welded-together found objects, poured concrete, mosaics and bright paint. There are poems, models, infographics—all of them about oranges. I can’t find a photo online, but I remember one nook holding a rusted sort of ball-and-stick chemical-looking sculpture labeled RIBOFLAVIN.

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Photo via Atlas Obscura

The Orange Show wasn’t open to the public during decades when McKissack was building it. But he was confident its appeal would be obvious — he estimated that 90 percent of the country would be interested in visiting. Those crowds didn’t show up for the 1979 grand opening, and he died a few months after.

The Orange Show was my introduction to outsider art — sometimes more accurately called visionary art. For a little while my sister worked for the nonprofit that administers it (and books bands in it for concerts).

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But The Orange Show is mostly a regional attraction. Henry Darger is a much more famous outsider artist. Maybe the most famous.

After his father’s death, young Henry was sent to an orphanage outside of his native Chicago. It was by all accounts a cruel place, and Darger eventually succeeded in running away. He walked back to Chicago — more than 160 miles, a trip during which he saw a tornado. Except for a stint in World War I, he worked as a menial laborer in Catholic hospitals for the rest of his life.

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This was the room he lived in for most of that time. Henry was an odd guy who kept to himself. He avoided most social interaction. He worked. He went to mass, often several times a day. And he wandered the streets of Chicago, collecting odds and ends he found and hoarding them in his room. We know about this from the accounts of his landlords.

The way they tell it, they took an increasing role as caretakers as Henry aged. Eventually, when Henry realized he couldn’t get up and down the stairs very well, he asked for their help, and they secured him a spot in the same nearby nursing home where his father had died. When he moved there he bequeathed the contents of the room to those landlords. It was only when they started to go through the mess that it became apparent what Henry had been up to.

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He is now most famous for paintings like these, but they are merely illustrations, we think, for the 15,000 page novel he left behind—all of it densely typed after first being written by hand.

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Darger’s work is sprawling but not subtle, returning again and again to children in bondage, warfare and cataclysmic storms. Three horrors that Darger had experienced and which he couldn’t stop turning over and over in his mind.

Here’s what’s most telling to me about this: we don’t actually know for sure if these illustrations are from the book. Nobody’s read all of it, including people who study Darger professionally.

Don’t get me wrong: he’s celebrated. There are permanent displays. That room is meticulously recreated in a Chicago art museum. If you look at the Wikipedia article for Darger the sheer number of songs and other references to the Vivian Girls — the heroes of Darger’s work — it’s overwhelming.

But people are more focused on the story of how his work came to be than the story it tells. And I’ll come out and say it: I think it’s because it’s not that good, in the same way that The Orange Show isn’t that good. But that doesn’t mean these works aren’t moving, or that they aren’t important.

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And that brings us to Elizabeth Holmes. I suspect many of you have read the John Carreyrou book or watched the HBO documentary by Alex Gibney. If you haven’t: Holmes dropped out of Stanford to found Theranos, a secretive startup that aimed to use microfluidics for blood tests, requiring dramatically less invasive blood draws than conventional labs. They hired 800 people and raised $400 million on an estimated valuation of $9 billion. They signed contracts that put Theranos machines and retail tests in Walgreens stores. And none of it worked. It was all a scam.

There are multiple ways to read this story — which is true of everyone in this talk, incidentally. The Gibney documentary highlights Dan Ariely, who makes the case that Holmes was practicing a fake-it-til-you-make-it approach to being a startup CEO. I buy that. But I think we should consider whether Holmes’ zeal was genuine, not just a cynical CEO survival trait. After all, she was already pitching bad microfluidic medical ideas at Stanford before she dropped out to pursue them on a larger scale. And the number of people who mention how she doesn’t blink seems suggestive of… something. We should consider: is Elizabeth Holmes what would have happened if Paul Scheerbart had gotten into YCombinator?

Theranos is a tragedy for the people who worked there, who used their tests, or who invested in it. But I think it’s also kind of a staggering artwork. Michael Heizer’s been driving bulldozers around the desert since 1979, working on a monumental earthwork called City. And I’m sure it’ll be astounding when it opens next year. But even that can’t compete with the admittedly ephemeral pop scale of Theranos.

And it’s funny! She got Henry Kissinger on her board. Thanks to Elizabeth Holmes, we’ve got tapes of that flaccid old war criminal making an ass of himself. Andy Kaufman couldn’t dream of working at this scale.

Also, Holmes is a woman. And while I’m not an expert, it seems to me like outsider artists who obsessively pursue monolithic projects usually aren’t — probably because for much of history our social roles didn’t give them the chance, outside of religious examples like Mary T. Smith or Joan of Arc, anyway. Holmes is a pioneer. And, taken as art, her project is not only impossibly large but also an incredibly biting commentary on our era. Her obsession wound up telling an important story. It moved history! And, just like many of these other artists, she will suffer for it. So I have a weird admiration for her. Though I would never give her my money or blood.

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OK. Last one. Franz Reichelt. A successful Parisian tailor, and another person fascinated by the dawn of human flight. Early parachutes had shown some promise, but they clearly needed to be much better. Reichelt dreamed of a suit that aviators could wear that would allow them to descend safely. In 1910 he began building prototypes. It was the same year that Scheerbart’s project concluded.

Reichelt has some early success while running tests with dummies, but he couldn’t replicate it. An aeronautical society turned his idea down. He began making test jumps off buildings into bales of hay. It still didn’t work. He broke a leg. But he was undeterred.

Convinced that low altitude was his problem, he applied for permission to conduct a test from the Eiffel Tower. On the Fourth of February, 1912, he arrived with several friends and members of the media, including a film crew. Officials had understood that he would be using another dummy, but upon arriving he surprised everyone by declaring his intention to jump himself. His friends tried to dissuade him, but he persisted, declaring to the assembled journalists his absolute faith in his invention.

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So he ascended

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turned

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and leapt.

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I hope none of us ever learn what it’s like to believe something this deeply. To have no choice but to surrender yourself to it. But it’s a mystery that deserves consideration and, I think, even a sort of respect.