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Bounded Chesterton's Fence and sustainable innovation

Chesterton’s Fence

The Chesterton’s Fence principle says “don’t remove a fence until you understand why it was put there.”

The essence of what a lot of us in the space do on the day to day basis is innovation. I will leave the why behind our innovation to a future post, which is by no means straightforward: historically, innovation serves the broadest pattern in history, that of people expanding their realms and conquering other peoples; in modern times innovation brings fortune to their inventor by way of capitalistic and monopolistic forces. Yet decentralied technology at its philosophical core challenges precisely these forces. If not for conquest and not for monopoly, what drives the innovators at the core of this movement? But I digress.

The lesson of Chesterton’s Fence urges innovators to understand the contexts around the objects that are being improved upon or disrupted, pressumably, by their innovation. I realize a true following of this principle is practically impossible. Because contexts beget more contexts. And the Internet’s archival capacity is truly amazing - opening up a link to read spawns three more links that deserve investigation. The number of opened tabs in the browser follows geometric growth. Striving to fully understand contexts leads to serial rabbitholing that is thrilling but oftentimes frightening because it feels like a never-ending recursive fall. The same problem applies to first principle thinking - every why begets more why. There’s operational impossibility to follow Chesterton’s Fence and first principle thinking at their full rigor.

Sustainable innovation

This problem is particularly frightening when the original aim is to innovate sustainably. Motivations behind sustainable innovation are the following:

  1. Attention is limited at the civilization scale. By choosing a field to contribute to, a talent effectively rejects other fields. The distribution of attention of our talents shapes the trajectory of our civilization.
  2. Tech debts warrant paybacks. There is externality to an individual endeavor. Not building sustainably means operating on parochiality and shortermism - not considering the emergent behavior and complexity in space (ie one’s endeavor interacting with the environment and the system) and time (ie one’s endeavor leaving a legacy for future generations). Operating on parochiality and shortermism may optimize for self gain but creates tech debts for the field. Tech debts burden our civilization by at least two ways: requiring future talents to allocate their attention to solving and refactoring the old mess which prohibits them from innovating on more pressing issues, and slowing down the advance of a field which may slow down other related fields.
  3. Our civilization presently stands at around Type 0.73 on the Kardashev Scale and may be facing the Great Filter [1]. Every unit attention misallocated is attention not helping address pressing issues that may contribute to our civilization’s downfall.

Sustainable innovation requires operating on the principle of Chesterton’s Fence and first principle thinking.

Bounded Chesterton’s Fence

Similar to bounded rationality, we are limited by mental capacity and time and must operate on bounded terms of Chesterton’s Fence. Below are some suggestions in how to operationally bound the study of recursive contexts:

  • Set delivery checkpoints - can be in verbal or written forms.
  • Don’t think at the microphone or typewriter. Deliver unfiltered opinion and intuition.
  • Set temporary dont-fix items to be revisited.
  • Clearly state the known unknowns for the next study sessions.


[1] Jiang et al, Avoiding the Great Filter: Predicting the Timeline for Humanity to Reach Kardashev Type I Civilization.