He’s back, and he’s out with a new book, Imagine: How Creativity Works. I am talking of course about Jonah Lehrer, the enfant terrible of cognitive neuroscience. OK, perhaps more Wunderkind. In any case, I was struck by this post on his weblog, The Cost Of Creativity:
There is a serious complication to this triumphant narrative of cliff edges and innovation, however. Because our lifestyle has become so expensive to maintain, every new resource now becomes exhausted at a faster rate. This means that the cycle of innovations has to constantly accelerate, with each breakthrough providing a shorter reprieve. The end result is that our creativity isn’t just increasing the pace of life; it is also increasing the pace at which life changes. “It’s like being on a treadmill that keeps on getting faster,” West says. “We used to get a big revolution every few thousand years. And then it took us a century to go from the steam engine to the internal-combustion engine. Now we’re down to about 15 years between big innovations. What this means is that, for the first time ever, people are living through multiple revolutions.”
Needless to say, such revolutions aren’t fun. They’re unsettling and disruptive. But they appear to be the inevitable downside of our ceaseless ingenuity, for creativity comes with a multiplier effect: new ideas beget more new ideas. The treadmill is going fast. And it’s getting faster.
In Greg Bear’s Foundation and Chaos you learn that R. Daneel Olivaw, the immortal humanoid robot who has been guiding the destiny of our species for 20,000 years, has seen to it that a particular disease is endemic to the human race which results in drab dullness of mind. One of the few individuals who never became sick from this illness is Hari Seldon. Why would Olivaw attempt to dampen human creativity? Because societies which hurtle toward bright efflorescence tend to rapidly burn out. Perpetuation of the species requires a more staid disposition. The same premise underpins David Wingrove’s Chung Kuo science fiction future history. In this world a neo-Confucian world government based on Chinese cultural principles maintains a relatively low technology human civilization, constrained and bound. The explicit rationale of the ruling mandarins is that such steadiness and conservatism is necessary to maintain order and harmony.
Interestingly all of this ties back to some of the arguments that Jonathan Haidt was making about human flourishing. A particular Whiggish sensibility might wonder what good could come out of restraining cultural creativity and innovation. Does not the human spirit wish to fly high? But sometimes the light burns bright indeed, and the incandescence of human cultural creativity can blind and disorient. What might be bracing and awe inspiring for some might be terrifying for others.