A hundred Shakespeares

byStuart_Armstrong 8mo11th Dec 20184 comments

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In his post on science slowing down, Scott said:

  • "Are there a hundred Shakespeare-equivalents around today? This is a harder problem than it seems – Shakespeare has become so venerable with historical hindsight that maybe nobody would acknowledge a Shakespeare-level master today even if they existed – but still, a hundred Shakespeares?"

I'd argue that there are way more than a hundred Shakespeares around today, and there were several in Shakespeare's time. By Shakespeares, I mean authors who could have produced works of comparable quality to Shakespeare, by some reasonable measure of quality.

This seems surprising; there do not seem to be hundred living authors that are almost universally agreed to be must-reads in the same way that Shakespeare was.

But this lack hints at a resolution of the paradox: we just don't have space for a hundred authors with the same fervour as we make space for Shakespeare. Neither as individuals nor as cultures can we fit these in. Shakespeare was a literary superstar. And superstars are rare, due to network effects and the power law of fame.

So my thesis would be that:

  • There are many non-superstars who could plausibly have become superstars, and if they had done, they would produce works of comparable quality to the superstars.

Part of this is the halo effect: superstars just get judged as better than anyone else.

Also, just by being famous, the interpretation of their work is altered. Bits of Shakespeare have permeated popular culture, and many articles and theories have been created about him. When we watch a Shakespeare play, we don't just see the words; we see the layers of cultural meaning and interpretation that have accumulated on it.

I'd argue that, just by knowing that a play is by Shakespeare, we assume that it's deep and meaningful, and read in deeper interpretations and symbolism than we would otherwise. If we rediscovered two old plays, and they were word for word identical, but one was believed to be by Shakespeare and the other by some forgotten minor playwright, I'd expect that the first one would be a better play, just by what the audience would bring to it.

Apart from those effects, superstars have the unique ability to focus more on their own vision. They have great self-confidence, and they can afford to trust that their audiences will have the patience to follow them where they want to go - rather than expecting immediate literary gratification. This would tend to result in works that are better than the average work of someone of equivalent skill, and more likely to be "deep", "insightful", or "timeless". This effect might be even more obvious with bloggers than with authors.

So, though the number of superstars is severely limited, the number of potential superstars of equivalent skill can and most likely does increase with population.

Superstars in science

I'd argue that there's also a superstar effect in science. But here it combines with Scott's explanation 3: low hanging fruit. Newton did not come up with general relativity; Einstein didn't find quantum field theory; Tesla didn't invent the laser. You can't develop an idea until certain pre-requisites are met.

And, unlike those solitary geniuses, most of science and technology is collaborative. Superstars get to be part of the best teams, interact with the best other scientists, and are more free to focus on the biggest, sexiest problems. I expect that there are many non-superstars who would have developed a certain part of theory, if a superstar hadn't got there first. It seems plausible to me that a single scientific superstar could have done the equivalent of derailing a hundred promising careers, just by getting to the key insight faster - without necessarily being much smarter (if at all) than the ones they preempted.

Then, as discoveries pour in from superstars, and the far less productive non-superstars, the domain of science changes, and new avenues of discovery open up. And these new avenues are going to be claimed by the next generation of superstars, who will get there first. I expect that if we removed every single superstar of science in the last two hundred years, that we'd get roughly comparable scientific progress, with alternate superstars rising to the fore.

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