Personal experiments: fueled by innovation?

Another way personal experimentation might be worth it for me, yet not used up by those before me: there is so much innovation that there are constantly new things to test, even if people experiment a lot. Beeminder and Workflowy are new. The abilities to prompt yourself to do things with a mobile phone or eat Japanese food or use your computer in a vast number of ways are relatively new.

I doubt this explains much. The question applies to many things that have been around and not that different for a long time, e.g. wheat, motivation, reading, romantic arrangements. And even if Beeminder is new, many of the basic ideas must be old (e.g. ‘don’t break the chain‘). As a society we don’t seem to have a much better idea of the effects of wheat on a person than we do of Beeminder.

Another way innovation could explain the puzzle is if all kinds of innovations change the value of all kinds of ancient things e.g. prevalence of internet use changes the effects of going to bed early or sitting in a certain way or doing something with your hair or knowing a lot of stories. If this is the case, experimentation is worth less than it seems, as the results will soon be out of date. So this goes under the heading ‘I’m wrong: experimentation isn’t worth it’, which would explain the puzzle, except the bit where everyone else perceives this and knows not to bother, and I don’t. I will get back to explanations of this form later.

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  • http://juridicalcoherence.blogspot.com/ srdiamond

    Experimentation is gambling; you expend mostly futile resources trying things out in the hope that you’ll hit the jackpot and arrive at rare improvements. It appeals to the same instincts as other forms of gambling, to risk-seeking and the drive for excitement. A sense of inner desperation, of impending loss, impels gambling, regardless of whether the sense is justified.

    Regard your excessive experimentation as a neurotic symptom.

    • John Maxwell IV

      Just because it’s a gamble doesn’t mean the expected value is negative.

  • John Maxwell IV

    Katja, have you done useful self-experimentation regarding things that *don’t* depend on innovation?  For example, have you done useful wheat-related self-experimentation?

    The “don’t break the chain” blog post was published in 2007.  Since then, “don’t break the chain”-style web apps have become popular… I’ve seen at least 4.  So at what point does something transition from being self-experimentation in to being a standard technique that people use?  I’m really not sure what point you’re trying to make here.

    “Another way innovation could explain the puzzle is if all kinds of innovations change the value of all kinds of ancient things e.g. prevalence of internet use changes the effects of going to bed early or sitting in a certain way or doing something with your hair or knowing a lot of stories. If this is the case, experimentation is worth less than it seems, as the results will soon be out of date. So this goes under the heading ‘I’m wrong: experimentation isn’t worth it’, which would explain the puzzle, except the bit where everyone else perceives this and knows not to bother, and I don’t. I will get back to explanations of this form later.”

    I think that knowledge workers will find self-experimentation more useful for improving their productivity than manual laborers, partially because knowledge work is newer and less well-understood.  Maybe it’s a waste of time for knowledge workers to improve their productivity, though, because in the future they will be displaced by some new kind of worker?

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=723726480 Christopher Chang

    It’s worth distinguishing “more innovation” from “more effective communication networks”.  Over the last 20 years, the Internet has largely replaced top-down publishing with horizontal idea exchange; thus, even if the rate of “actual innovation” has not changed, you’re now exposed to a much larger share of others’ ideas that are potentially interesting/useful to you.

  • chepin

    I think experimentation may be more fruitful through exaptation, using optimized inventions in novel ways. 

  • http://www.gwern.net/ gwern

    > The question applies to many things that have been around and not that
    different for a long time, e.g. wheat, motivation, reading, romantic
    arrangements.

    Something like the Duhem-Quine thesis might apply here: wheat may not be much different (although actually I seriously doubt it, given the ongoing Green Revolution which has increased yields like fivefold or something?), but the surrounding context may be extremely different.

    > If this is the case, experimentation is worth less than it seems, as the results will soon be out of date.

    Something more rigorous would be good here… At a normal discount rate like 5%, anything past 20 years is close to worthless, so it doesn’t matter if an experiment delivers a result that is good for only 20 years and then the effect disappears. It won’t be much less valuable than an effect which will be in effect (if you’ll pardon the phrase) indefinitely.

  • Michael Vassar

    Might the value of experimentation grow exponentially with certain personal factors including intelligence, so that some people had, for instance, a million X advantage in personal experimentation relative to the average person, as is the case in, for instance, writing novels, doing theoretical physics, or selecting an excellent chess move?  If so, like some people should write novels, some people should self-experiment?  

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