The Eiffel Tower Principle — Why people resist innovation (at first)

How would you feel if someone decided to build a 300 metre tall tower in your neighborhood?

Excited? Upset? Outraged?

Most of us think this is crazy. We understand that the Eiffel Tower has helped to attract millions of visitors to Paris over the last century and a half, and there are few who think of it as anything other than one of the most beautiful human-made landmarks in the world.

But back when there were no towers sticking up in the middle of Paris, when there was no idea of what this structure would be, many resisted it. How could anyone have resisted something that has always been a net positive for Paris?

Protests against the Eiffel Tower

Many were worried that the Eiffel Tower would be an eyesore! It’s easy to laugh at now, because when we build a 300m tower in our neighborhood, we can compare it to the Eiffel Tower. We have a visual and recognisable comparison, a proof-of-concept.

But Parisians did not have this.

This is why 47 notable artists wrote a letter of protest to Gustave Eiffel and members of the World Fair, a translation of which I’ve copied and included below. They labelled it The Tower of Babel. They called it hideous. They worried it would ruin the Parisian skyline. They worried it would fall and crush the other grand monuments of Paris.

In truth it would come to define Paris’ skyline.

We have come, writers, painters, sculptors, architects, passionate enthusiasts of the hitherto untouched beauty of Paris, to protest with all our strength, all our indignation, in the name of the unknown French taste, in the name of art and of French history threatened, against the erection, in the heart of our capital, of the useless and monstrous Eiffel Tower, which public malignity, often marked by common sense and the spirit of justice, has already named of “Tower of Babel”.

The letter by the 47 artists goes on to discuss Paris’ unrivaled brilliance and beauty throughout the world. It begs the question, how could artists, of all people, protest against something that is so uniformly agreed to be beautiful today?

Let’s deconstruct some of the reasons.

Reason One — Metal

With hindsight, we know that the tall metal tower does not clash with the picturesque streets and Gothic architectural style. But you can appreciate how this idea, before it is a reality, creates concern!

Adolphe Alphand’s response to the artists adressed this:

Any object described as solid contains metal, so learn that the wood burns and breaks, and that the stone crumbles over the ages, we build Gentlemen, the memory of this time given to the future generations, when your houses and your buildings will be destroyed by the irreducible race of time, will rise then this proud symbol which will demonstrate its solidity, and thus that of Paris, in the eyes of the universe.

Reason Two — The Industrial Revolution

Let’s consider a modern example.

Sacha Baron Cohen’s joke to put a mosque in the centre of a redneck USA town called Kingman in his show Who Is America is comical in one sense, but scary in another. It shows their fear towards Muslims, in the same sort of paranoia these Parisians might have had to symbols of the Industrial Revolution.

The Tower was to them what the mosque was to the lovely folk of Kingman!

Reason Three — The Height Limit

Too tall, no?

Paris’ height limit is so uniform, with its own canopy so-to-speak, and the tower was a violation of that height limit that Parisians were used to. It was scary in that sense, making people afraid it would fall on and crush things.

Really, all the engineering was sound. Gustav Eiffel knew that, but he was an engineer. He got to play a role in the design. As Vitalik Buterin, co-founder of Ethereum points out, there are many ways human beings might come to determine that things are legitimate. One of them is legitimacy by participation — if you are involved in making the Eiffel Tower, you’re more likely to believe in it’s structural integrity than a lay person without engineering from the outside.

Legitimate can here be replaced with ‘trustworthy’. For the average Parisian, or Parisian artist, who does not have engineering knowledge and is used to buildings reaching 50–100 metres in height, rather than 300, it is too much of a violation too soon.

If you first built a 75 metre tall tower, then a 100 metre tall tower, a 125 metre tall tower and so on, this issue might have been avoided because people can get familiar with the new reality at a pace that suits them better. When exercising, you don’t go straight to the 10km run or 300kg squat… you go up in increments.

Human understanding and matters of the mind work in the exact same way — like a muscle. Those who are mentally fit can handle paradigm shifts more readily. This leads us neatly into reason four.

Reason Four — Box Thinking and Familiarity Bias

Outside the box still relies on the box.

But these were actual artists protesting! How could artists have protested to something we so uniformly love and adore today?

In another piece of writing I’m calling the ‘Poincare Principle’, I will discuss how the French mathematician Henri Poincare contributed a lot of concepts that Einstein used to arrive at his theories of relativity — despite being too attached to his old boxes of thinking to make the last leap himself. He didn’t reach the same conclusion as Einstein, despite having made large strides to get there. Why?

Poincare clung too dearly to old assumptions and ideas, which were integral to his worldview. In the same way, these artists had a narrow view of art based on the art they’d made a career of producing. Imagine those proud Parisians, being presented with a big metal symbol of the Industrial Revolution to be placed in the heart of their city!?

So we learn an interesting lesson here. Those who are most knowledgeable (or perhaps the better term is, invested in a particular idea or box of thinking) are often disadvantaged by their knowledge. People who build their identity around one ‘box’ or idea, are actually less likely to see change coming in their industry or field of expertise if the change defies the principles of their box. That’s what I will go on referring to as the Poincare Principle.

Reason Five — A narrow and one-dimensional perspective

Part of Gustav Eiffel’s response

For the moment we are dealing only with the aesthetic merit on which the artists are more particularly competent. I would like to know on what basis they base their judgment. Because, notice, sir, this tower, nobody saw it and no one, before it was built, could say what it will be. It is known until now only by a simple geometrical drawing; but, although it has been printed at hundreds of thousands of copies, is it possible to appreciate with skill the general artistic effect of a monument after a simple drawing, when this monument is so much of the dimensions already practiced and already known forms?

He goes on…

There remains the question of utility. Here, since we leave the artistic domain, I will be allowed to oppose to the opinion of artists that of the public. I do not think I am vain in saying that no project has ever been more popular; I have every day proof that there are no people in Paris, however humble they may be, who do not know him and are not interested in them. Even abroad, when I happen to travel, I am surprised at the repercussions he has had. As for the scientists, the true judges of the question of utility, I can say that they are unanimous. Not only does the tower promise interesting observations for astronomy, meteorology and physics, not only will it allow wartime to keep Paris constantly connected to the rest of France, but it will at the same time be a striking proof of progress.

Don’t look at what it is now. Look at where it’s going.

One of the biggest mistakes in judgement we make is to focus too much on measuring the present as a pose to understanding where things are headed in the future. This applies to people, technology, and the natural world. It is the cornerstone of all investing.

  • Most people did not react with enough caution to COVID-19. When they first heard about it, they couldn’t 1) see the severity with their eyes and 2) because of field dependence, they compared it to less severe epidemics (e.g. SARS, swine flu, ebola) — they lacked the mental software to assess it as a threat unique to their prior experiences and concepts.
  • Which student has more potential? The one who is always at the top of the class but never improves, or the student who has thus far scored lower, but jumps positions with each test as they go. Which of these students would you rather hire to work with you?

As a symbol, the Eiffel Tower brings four ugly corners together on level one and keeps building up and up and up until it converges at a point that stands high — high above all else that has come before it. It heads toward a state of beauty that it does not possess when half-complete.

All the famous, funny and sad stories of people who could not see big innovations coming often fall into the trap of focusing too much on the now, on the half-completed first level. They pay less attention to where things are going.

This is why people will usually change their mind when it’s done.

  1. Looking at the new innovation from just one lens — the artists thinking of the tower purely from an artistic perspective (and a limited perspective of art at that).
  2. Box thinking — holding onto an idea just because it is familiar, and central to our existing worldview — the old ideals about Paris and resisting anything that symbolised the Industrial Revolution.
  3. Field Dependence — relying on existing comparisons and proofs, rather than the ability to assess something as a single case — we would celebrate an Eiffel Tower being built in our city, because we can compare it to the existing Eiffel Tower. For these Parisians, a 300m tower looming over a city with a low height limit is such a violation from the familiar.
  4. Not being able to update one’s thinking at a pace one can handle — if you try to lift 300kg on your first gym session, your muscles will fatigue and give up on you. You might walk away completely, instead of trying to build up your strength at a more natural pace. Thinking and understanding work the same way.
  5. Short-term thinking — assessing something based on it’s half completion, without the ability to see where it is going.
Doesn’t look good yet? Doesn’t mean it won’t.

So what happens when the tower is finished?

  • Seeing others adopt the technology gives more confidence, and allows boxes of thinking to expand, compromise, and accept the new.
  • Field dependence is overcome, because the new thing is now completed and exists. In the case of the Eiffel Tower, it is visible and tangible, despite defying the previous expectations and norms of 1) architecture, 2) art and 3) Paris. Instead of relying on outer world information to judge something that’s not yet tangible, the new innovation is now part of the outer world (in this case at least).
  • Short-term thinking is permitted, because the technology or innovation now exists.

So, once the tower is finished, these people haven’t necessarily grown or changed. All that has changed is the outer world situation. But this is why we start to accept and adopt the technologies and innovations we once shunned.

What’s interesting, and also a concern for caution, is that if we need to wait to see the ‘Eiffel Tower’ (which here is a symbol for all innovation and change) to believe in it, then we haven’t necessarily grown. We will still be a late adopter for the next technology to come along, if we have the five biases I’ve outlined.

People don’t know what they want until you show it to them. That’s why I never rely on market research. Our task is to read things that are not yet on the page. — Steve Jobs

Anti-Lesson — it does have to be good.

With innovation, we are always aiming at the gap between the teeth. If Henry Ford had never popularised cars, we may have continued using horses as our primary mode of transport for much, much longer.

“If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.”

This quote is dubiously attributed to Henry Ford — whether or not he said it, there is a lot of truth to this. If people could 1) imagine and 2) design the solution, they wouldn’t need the entrepreneurs and thinkers. We know based on human behaviour that people will want to have a faster way of getting around.

So, there needs to be a case that is well thought through with regards to why the Eiffel Tower is good. The clues from this example are clear — think holistically, long-term, and interpret what people will be willing to adopt. How do we interpret people? This sounds difficult and fickle — how is that better than the pseudo art of prediction and speculation?

Interpretation

Did you know your feet are the most honest part of your body? They point honestly

Humans can lie very easily with their mouths. But they can’t easily lie with their feet or hands. Take the example of body language — the value of body language lies in that people can’t consciously control their heart rate, their perspiration, or their involuntary foot and hand movements.

These cues are not direct explanations of what someone is thinking, but they are valuable and honest sources of information. Just because you are sitting someone down for a lie detector test, and that person perspires, does not mean they are lying. It does mean they are distressed. Your next job, is to understand why they are distressed.

My point is that people’s actions, behaviours, and latent psychology cannot lie. People are not what they say, but they are what they do. I guess in a cynical way, social media platforms have been very good at taking advantage of the aspects of our neurochemistry that we can’t control.

Takeaways from this section

  1. Think long-term. What do you have high levels of certainty about? (e.g. COVID will spread more in March 2020 than it did in January 2020, or that the Eiffel Tower is beautiful for those who don’t have a stubborn and narrow view of art)
  2. Think holistically and broadly (the tower has multiple benefits, lots of utility, and that will boost its stickiness)
  3. Understand which people will come around later, and base that assumption on traits of human nature and psychology that have been consistent over time, that are unchanging.
  4. Drop unsubstantiated assumptions, and think without-the-box. If you don’t understand clearly why a particular behaviour, standard, or trend exists, ask
  • When it came to be
  • Why it came to be
  • Who rendered it to be, and what their interests were.

Then you can look at it more clearly.

What are the Eiffel Towers of today?

Look at the role that trust plays in backing currency.

It’s not the artificial intelligence we have today that will determine our future. The question is, how will we be using it in the future? Where is AI going?

What about genetic modification? Where is that going? How will it be used in the future, knowing what we know about people?

And when you’re hiring, do you hire someone who has performed at a consistent level of capability for the last ten years? Or do you hire the Constant Student, who is improving at an exponential rate?

Is the internet a scam?

He emerged because of his ability to think and negotiate long-term. In a culture that is famous for judging quarter-to-quarter earnings, he asked his investors to judge him over a longer time frame. Because his team wasn’t building for next annual quarter, they were building for the next quarter of a century.

He built the everything store, and it is called Amazon.

Summary — how to avoid being like the artists

  1. Don’t take a narrow view. Don’t look at one part of a whole, and judge it as the whole (looking at the Tower just as a piece of art).
  2. Don’t obsess over what it is now. Look at what it will be.

For more, including full translations of the letters by the artists, Eiffel and Arphand, go here.

Special thanks to Oscar Wehbe for his review and feedback on this.

More writing by Joe Wehbe at www.withjoewehbe.com and my substack for more on Without-The-Box Thinking, Investing, Learning and Deep Truths.

I write about WILD — Without-the-Box Thinking, Investing, Learning and the Deepest Truths. Co-Founder of the Constant Student Learning Community.

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