I read an article, over the weekend that argued, convincingly, that human progress has ground to a halt. The age of breakthroughs appears to be over. We seem to be creating, but only the most trivial, derivative things. Here is the article and I recommend reading it:
I’m somewhat persuaded by the argument, because of what it takes for creative breakthroughs to happen. Like a garden, breakthrough creativity requires certain conditions for it to flourish and it must be carefully tended, in order for the fruits to blossom. The article seems to have missed these obvious reasons why progress may have been stifled, in recent times.
Firstly, fertile ground for creative ideas is an environment where you’re free to explore seemingly crazy ideas. For that, you need some privacy. You also need some degrees of freedom, in your life, to enable you to pursue those wild and crazy notions, undisturbed and unexamined. What you cannot tolerate is constraint or opprobrium. Judgementalism kills nascent ideas before they’re even evaluated. You also shouldn’t have to justify your curiosity.
Secondly, creativity requires a tolerance and ideally a celebration of our precious cranks and eccentrics. Uniformity of thought and approach is anathema to unbounded creativity and diversity of learning and backgrounds is important, rather than the rigid, regimented products of a standardised learning system who occupy research posts today. If we don’t protect the dissenters and the curmudgeonly people that insist we have it all wrong and that a better way can be found, we cannot expect them to discover amazing things that nobody suspected were possible.
Thirdly, you need the peace and tranquillity for genuine concentration, not the frenzy and constant distraction, coupled with the “cult of busy” and perpetual rush of more recent times. The faster everybody is whipped into going, the more intellectually exhausted we become. Intellectual exhaustion is no place to start, when seeking breakthrough creativity. Ironically, being exhorted to go faster just makes everything worthwhile go slower.
Maybe we are all too controlled, monitored, surveilled, regimented, propagandised, homogenised, distracted, obedient and culturally dumbed down, now, to replicate the creative feats of the Golden Quarter. Perhaps the wriggle room that we need just isn’t there, anymore. This reminds me of Soviet Russia, where the more the regime tried to assert its control and lock ideas down, the fewer the genuine innovations produced by its society. Could we be living in such an oppressive state of mind today and is the cost of that the destruction of our capacity for breakthrough creativity?
We don’t nurture our cranks and eccentrics, today. Instead, we medicate them; from an early age, too. We take the daydreamers and the kids frothing with curiosity and energy and diagnose them as ADHD sufferers. We then destroy that spark with drugs. We want them to be placid and docile; receptive to the dogma and orthodoxies that their teachers will tediously filter into their brain cells, over a period of years. Whatever intellectual difference exists, we seek to smooth it over and take off its edges. That process wasn’t quite so efficient and industrialised, a generation ago. Some of our cranks slipped through the net and thrived.
Today, they’re not being allowed, let alone encouraged, to think in their own peculiar, idiosyncratic ways. They’re examined and punished for any failure to intellectually conform, through low grades and sidelining. We don’t value the gifts they have, but instead reward the styles of thinking we prescribe.
Square pegs no longer have anywhere to go, where they can make a modest income, enough to survive, while they pursue crazy notions and curiously explore uncharted intellectual territory. How would we produce a Turing? The irony of the Turing test is that no human being could pass themselves off convincingly as Turing, I feel. Turing was a local boy. I can see the vestiges of the life he must have known, in his formative years, preserved as anachronistic features of the local area, but I can also observe how these vestiges of an intellectually fertile time are all being washed away, replaced by corporatisation, globalisation and chain stores. All the stuff that fed your brain and provoked your wonderment are slowly being destroyed and taken away.
Another aspect of the all pervasive power of corporatisation, in all spheres of intellectual life, is that only sure bets get funded. The things that have an easily demonstrable path, from exploration to commercial return, get the money. The strange ideas, that nobody knows what they’re good for, languish for want of resources. In fact, they’re never even proposed. Why go to all the trouble of promoting and explaining a crazy idea, whose ultimate benefit to humanity is unknown or obscure, when you know it’s going to get shot down in flames and rejected? We’ve become risk averse in what we choose to investigate. Had we been as risk averse, in earlier times, there would be no lasers. Initially, nobody knew what a laser was good for. Today, we cannot live without them.
Even while we have more opportunities and tools for creativity and for distributing our creative works more widely, for practically no money, than ever before, in all of history, it’s like we all stare at the blank canvas presented to us and we don’t know what to paint. We’re too afraid to make a mark, for fear of it being the wrong mark.
Education has now become so regularised, homogenised and industrialised, batch processing children by date of manufacture, that we crush creativity and curiosity brutally. We might not even be aware that we are doing so. I am sure that teachers, working within that rigid system, beholden to Ofsted inspections and detailed, prescribed curricula, aren’t deliberately constraining the modes of thought of their pupils. They wouldn’t want to do that. However, that is the net effect of what the education system is doing and like the metaphorical boiled frog, with each incremental stripping away of just one more intellectual freedom, so the process of homogenisation of thought cements itself, unnoticed and unremarked. Each new straightjacket binding is banal, routine, expected and on its own, declared to be harmless, but the weight of all of these curiosity killers is onerous.
Creative thinkers once looked to alternative cultures, to inspire new modes of thought. They could travel to far off lands and immerse themselves into lifestyles and ideas very different to what they grew up in. Today, there are few outside influences. The dead hand of globalisation has infected culture, too, so that the same chain stores and corporations have a globally uniform presence, no matter where you are in the world. The same sitcoms and the same consumer products, fads and trends and shared, the world over. The weird old traditions, belief systems and communal celebrations have all but gone. Today, there is no sufficiently different culture to give your creativity a whack on the side of your head.
I regret to say that maybe we are thinking and creating less. I think the commercial, material gains we have indulged our biggest global investors and corporations with have come at a massive cost. We’ve noticeably and demonstrably lost the conditions under which creative breakthroughs are grown. We’ve torn up the fertile, intellectual farm and laid down a tarmac parking lot in its place.