At one point he remarked that satellites have been getting cheaper because they're like computers, while space launch rockets are like airplanes and that's why they're not getting any cheaper.
I agree with some aspects of this and disagree with others, but the important thing I took from the conversation is not about rockets and spaceships. It's about comparing things.
The question is:
What makes an analogy meaningful?
Before I dive into analogies, I'll inject a bit of TRIZ thinking.
TRIZ acknowledges that a primary hurdle on the road to innovation is psychological inertia.
Psychological inertia is everything you've learned, everything you know or think you know about the problem that helps you do your job and solve routine problems every day, but stops being useful and actually traps you when faced with a problem which requires innovation.
It's a natural part of innovation because innovation is by definition doing things differently than before. You cannot innovate without rejecting existing notions on how things work or should work. TRIZ helps identify and reject these early in the innovation process.
There's another lesson from TRIZ which will serve us here: along it's history TRIZniks have tested many methods of improving innovation, keeping and improving upon those that work and rejecting those that under controlled conditions are shown not to work.
When considering analogies we should keep in mind these two things:
That analogies can represent and contain harmful psychological inertia and that for analogies to survive as a tool for thinking and discussing problem they must be useful.
The Prologue Problem
Let's look at the Rocket ↔ Planes and Satellites ↔ Computers analogies.
First, it's an interesting case of using a double analogy to make a point, but I'll avoid commenting on that for now.
The first pair is more interesting since it's these two sets which have not been getting cheaper.
I call them sets because we're not comparing one specific system to another, we're comparing at least a family of systems to another family, or one super system to another. In fact I'll make the point later that what should be compared are something like meta-systems.
So how are rockets and airplanes connected, related or similar?
I'll start by naming the intuitive and obvious reasons:
- They both fly.
- Made by the same companies and engineers.
- They're big. There are small rockets and small planes but they do not immediately come to mind...
- They use a lot of fuel.
- They're complicated and have a magical or fantastical quality... even to people who understand how they work.
- They're both associated with war and military spending.
- When they fail they do so catastrophically.
For example, #2 and #6 are closely related and it's easy to point out that they're at least partially a result of a more fundamental technological similarity. Less obviously, rockets and planes have been strongly associated with each other and with certain organisations because of historical reasons.
It's interesting to note that right after WWI rocket research was more likely to be financed by governments for meteorological research while planes were used early on for postal deliveries.
Reason #1 is also related to #2 and #6 but is far more interesting because it is both very superficial and very significant.
Reason #3 suggests that the sets being compared are often poorly defined and suffer from a selection bias... you might be comparing just the expensive rockets with just the expensive planes!
Can you think of other similarities and connections between rockets and planes? Can you think of good reasons why they should not really be considered similar?
Think about this and come back soon to find out where these thoughts led me...
To be continued...