Jonah Lehrer, science fiction writer

By Razib Khan | March 31, 2012 10:46 pm

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.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Anthroplogy, Culture
MORE ABOUT: Creativity
  • berick

    I’ve been hearing this “acceleration” idea for nearly fifty years. But I never see any real analysis to go with it. Certainly changes came more slowly a thousand years ago, but since 1800 or so, there have been quite a stream. And I haven’t seen any clear dissection showing that it is speeding up. Steam, rail, wireless, dynamite, telephones, recording, tubes, transistors, penicillin, inoculation, atomic power and bombs, computers, airplanes, lasers, fiber optics, the pill, and lots more… how do you measure the size and impact of each in order to estimate the pace of change? Without that work, I just don’t buy the “things are moving so much faster all the time” conceit.

  • Razib Khan

    #1, energy usage per capita.

  • Niklas S

    #2 Just one thought that springs to mind. For Sweden, the demand for electricity across all sectors, from industry to housing has roughly been stable since around 1985-1990, and oil consumption has decreased with 6%.

    At the same time as population has increased with 1 million, or around 12% and GDP has grown in real terms with 60%

    Just part of the equation, and highly localised. I am not trying to falsify you proposition, just noting that it might need (in future) be complemented. Maybe it will change sign? Sweden has since the 1990 been working focused (slowly) towards reducing energy needs.

  • Mark Plus

    Funny, how do you reconcile the accelerationist claim with arguments from Tyler Cowen, Peter Thiel and Neal Stephenson that progress has, in fact, stagnated over the past generation? This subject comes up a lot in the cryonics community, for example. Read what the “futurist” & cryonicist F.M. Esfandiary, who later changed his name to FM-2030, predicted about life in our mysterious, far-future year 2010 from his perspective back in 1981:

  • Al Cibiades

    The problem with generalizations cum hypotheses is that they are stepping-off points to fantasy. And extrapolationg from fantasy is just that much more fantasy.
    “‘…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 is not creativity which clogs the major roadways to cities for single car occupants on their way to work; It is not creativity which demands each worker spend more energy and time working for less; It is not creativity which depletes sea life…etc. – More to the point would be the increase in populations’ demands for goods which causes this deleterious result.
    Creativity COULD modify the demand – yeast-based foodstuffs; lower energy requiring products; mandated conservation, shared occupancy; better mass-transit, etc., but we are a society which usually takes the ‘low hanging fruit’ and captains of industry are progressively less mindful of 5 or 50 years into the future, than 5 days or the next quarters profits.
    The economist Keynes used to preface his hypotheses with the phrase – “ceteris paribus” – assuming things remain as they are. This has been adopted viscerally by most people as a standard assumption that things will continue to be as they are now, unchanging – with no global repercussions of any actions they take today.


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About Razib Khan

I have degrees in biology and biochemistry, a passion for genetics, history, and philosophy, and shrimp is my favorite food. In relation to nationality I'm a American Northwesterner, in politics I'm a reactionary, and as for religion I have none (I'm an atheist). If you want to know more, see the links at


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