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The Virtuous Circle of Fantasy


It has long been observed that progress depends on the outliers among us. Shaw’s quote sounds a true today as it did in the past:

“The reasonable man adapts himself to the world: the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man.”

I have never heard anyone argue against this observation. Progress depends on individuals who break free from the status quo.

But another undeniable observation has been that progress is accelerating. You can see this effect everywhere. Changes come faster and faster, and they are ever more drastic. I was taken aback this year when I read that smartphones were ubiquitous among Syrian refugees. Smartphones went from something for the rich kids in California to a necessity for the poorest among us in more or less 7 years.

Logically, if progress is accelerating, and progress depends on unreasonable people who act as outliers, then we must have more and more unreasonable people over time.

Richard Florida made a name for himself some years ago with his “creative class” theory. He hypothesized that economic progress was driven by what he called the “creatives”. There is some anecdotal evidence that the world is becoming more tolerant, and especially more so where it is also becoming richer. The number of people who declare being outside an organized religion is growing. Homosexuality is increasingly accepted, at least in the West.

I think that there is a virtuous circle at play. The richer we get, the more easily we can afford to tolerate unreasonable people, the more we can afford fantasy. In turn, fantasy makes genuine progress possible.

Think about a world where starvation and misery is around the corner. You are likely to put a lot of pressure on your kids so that they will conform. Now, think about life in a wealthy continent like North America in 2015. I know that my kids are not going to grow up and starve no matter what they do. So I am going to be tolerant about their career choices. And that’s a good thing. Had Zuckerberg been my son and had I been poor, I might have been troubled to see him dropping out of Harvard to build a “facebook” site. Dropping out of Harvard to build Facebook was pure fantasy. No parent afraid that his son could starve would have tolerated it.

This blog is also fantasy. Instead of doing “serious research”, I write down whatever comes through my mind and post it online. My blog counts for nothing as far as getting me academic currency. I have been warned repeatedly that, should I seek employment, having a blog where I freely shared controversial views could be held against me… To make matters worse, you, my readers, are “wasting time” reading me instead of the Financial times or an Engineering textbook.

The more fantasy we allow, the more progress we enable, and that in turn enables more fantasy.

There are people who don’t like fantasy one bit, like the radical islamists. I don’t think that they fear or hate the West so much as they are afraid of the increasing numbers of people who decide to be unreasonable. Unreasonable people are like dynamite, they can destroy your world view. They are disturbing.

There is one straightforward consequence of this analysis:

Fantasy is growing exponentially.

A lot of beliefs that appear insane today will be soon freely entertained. And the rate at which this happens will only accelerate to the point where the frontier between “that’s crazy” and “it might work” is going to disappear. Anyone who tries to hold the fort with a “that’s crazy” posture will soon be overrun. And, of course, this can only serve as encouragement for unreasonable people.


Daniel Lemire has a B.Sc. and a M.Sc. in Mathematics from the University of Toronto, and a Ph.D. in Engineering Mathematics from the Ecole Polytechnique and the Université de Montréal. He is a computer science professor at the Université du Québec (TELUQ). He has also been a research officer at the National Research Council of Canada and an entrepreneur. He has written over 45 peer-reviewed publications, including more than 25 journal articles. He has held competitive research grants for the last 15 years. He has been an expert on several committees with funding agencies (NSERC and FQRNT). He has served as program committee member on leading computer science conferences (e.g., ACM CIKM, ACM WSDM, ACM SIGIR, ACM RecSys). His open source software has been used by major corporations such as Google and Facebook. His research interests include databases, information retrieval and high-performance programming. He blogs regularly on computer science at

This article originally appeared here, republished with permission.