The End of Ideas

I believe in intuitions and inspirations. I sometimes feel that I am right. I do not know that I am… I am enough of the artist to draw freely upon my imagination. Imagination is more important than knowledge. Knowledge is limited. Imagination encircles the world.

— from a remarkable and far-reaching 1929 interview, during which Einstein disavowed the existence of free will; photo above of Einstein with Neils Bohr CC0 via pixy.org

Yesterday I watched a video of a recent discussion between the late David Graeber (whose cause of death, suddenly, two weeks ago, at age 59, in Italy — CoVid-19?, poisoning?, suicide? — has still not been disclosed) and the vapid Peter Thiel, Trump-supporter and founder of the ICE-enabling Palantir data-mining corporation. Unsurprisingly, Peter Thiel had nothing interesting to say, while David, who was always a better writer than speaker, rambled on but made some fascinating and important points about the current state of the world.

One of the points he made is that, when technology companies switched focus in the early 1980s from technologies that deployed new scientific knowledge, to technologies that were all about information capture and reuse, it effectively spelled the end of innovation in western society. Indeed, this point has been made often by others, but David expresses curiosity about why this happened.

My sense is that it was mainly because the people with wealth and power at that time — the people with the resources to decide how money ostensibly for innovation was to be spent — were largely a group devoid of imagination. Often glamourized as alt-culture technology geeks, the current cohort of technology multi-billionaires (I needn’t name them) are basically kids who grew up with television, video games and other devices that offered them no practice in imagining anything daringly new. So IT is essentially an industry that makes its billions remixing old ideas and adding a high-gloss SFX varnish to them.

And in parallel to the unimaginative technology leaders we’ve had to deal with equally unimaginative financial system leaders, who seem to think innovation is repackaging worthless investments to look as if they actually have some value, to keep the existing dysfunctional financial systems and unsupportable financial valuations and debt loads going.

Our technology and financial “leaders” in the global dominant caste are not unique in this. They are a microcosm of a whole generation (or three) who simply can’t imagine anything really new or different, because they’ve never received any practice imagining anything. They’ve been passively fed novelty throughout their lives, so they have no need or want to create their own. I’ve written ad nauseam about the imaginative poverty of our current world, so I won’t go on about that here. I’m more concerned about what this imaginative poverty means for our capacity to deal with the accelerating crises posed by civilization’s current collapse, as an extension of the collapse of our global ecology, planetary climate, and global industrial “growth” economy.

Those with the wealth and power today to provide the needed space and resources to creatively address collapse are utterly lacking in vision, and lack the capacity to envision radically different approaches to dealing with current crises, as a result of their imaginative poverty.

A prime example of this is the incapacity of the technology sector to innovate one of the most important technologies in history — the ballot. Everyone appreciates that the current system of first-past-the-post representative democracy no longer functions (corporate interests make all important political decisions regardless of who the elected representatives are). Everyone appreciates that elections can be stolen by disenfranchisement, by rigged systems (gerrymandering etc), by hackable voting machinery, and by disinformation.

This is not a difficult problem to address with a little imagination. We don’t need to be held hostage to the precarities of elections every 3-5 years; there are many ways to engage and involve thoughtful citizen participation on an ongoing basis and in so doing inform and ratify political and economic decisions almost continuously. It would be a radically different system of “checks and balances” from what we use now. But it’s a challenge of imagination, not of technology.

Likewise a guaranteed annual income (like free universal health care and education) is a completely feasible and affordable idea, one that would save far more (in health, medical, police and other costs) than it would cost, if only we had the imagination to think it through to fruition — not as an incremental change to existing systems, but as a completely reinvented system that would render those doddering existing systems obsolete.

In short, I would argue that we are dying from a lack of imagination. Regenerating imaginative capacity would require us to invent wholly new ways (since we can’t simply turn back the clock) to enable children to develop imaginative capacity through continuous practice. Paradoxically, we don’t have the imaginative capacity to invent such a radically new way of enabling young people to learn and imagine; nor do we have the luxury of time to let that re-engendered capacity work its way through the systems that govern how things are currently done.

What does it mean to say that 1980 marked the end of a remarkable age of ideas — really the end of ideas for our whole culture? For what have we produced that is truly novel, rather than an obvious adaptation or incremental improvement (such as the Internet and its crappy, unimaginative “apps”), in the forty years since? How has technology actually made our lives better, healthier, happier, in all that time?

Because I see most of our centralized systems — social, political, economic, financial, legal, educational, health care etc — as in a process of rapid collapse due to their unmanageability, unsustainability, and incapacity to adapt to the evolving needs of the moment, my guess is that any true innovations from here on in will arise from the ashes of collapse, and are therefore still a ways off.

When our currency systems collapse, for example, we will need a system better than barter to replace them. In the absence of imagination, urgent need will probably drive us to try something that looks like currency — scrip for example, as was used after the collapse of the Soviet Union and has been used after currency collapses in hyper-inflationary nations. If we’re lucky (since by then it is at least possible that the current toys that deprive young people of imaginative practice will have become unaffordable and hence unavailable due to economic collapse), we will instead, or eventually, (re-)invent a “gift” or “generosity” economy, one that requires no currency at all. It makes far more sense than the systems we’ve been brought up to believe are the only systems that can work. At least, it makes sense if you have the imagination to appreciate how they could work, and why they’d be so much better.

Same for every other system. As the old systems collapse (though too late to prevent our ongoing global ecological collapse, with its ghastly consequences) we will have no choice but to replace them. We will try the familiar first, and will find that none of the familiar systems can work in a post-collapse world. Then, if we’re fortunate, we’ll be able to come up with some imaginative alternatives. Being able to do so has kept our species extant through many past crises, including drastic climate change and system collapses.

In the meantime, as collapse worsens, best be prepared for some really dumb, stale, unimaginative “solutions” to be proposed and tried. Our brains have been shrinking since the earliest human civilizations began self-domesticating, and we’re all doing our best with what capacities we have.

Once we’re liberated from our dependence on industrial civilization’s failed systems, my guess is that, over time, we will discover it makes no sense to repeat its mistakes. By then, I sense, we will have of necessity regained the capacity of imagination. And then, what we might create, in radically smaller, relocalized societies, is nearly unlimited. I feel this is right, but I don’t know it. I can only imagine.

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5 Responses to The End of Ideas

  1. GaGaLady says:

    Maybe the current pandemic will lead a few to reimagine life boldly but I cannot help but feel – like the author of this essay – that it will be a slow, bumbling, disastrous imagining that only a lucky few will see coming to fruition. Meanwhile for most it will be case of diminishing horizons. Bleak? Yes. Realistic? Sadly. I feel for my granddaughters and their children should the line hold out till then.

  2. James says:

    It seems they have developed the ability to store and sort massive amounts of information but there’s not really any profitable way to use it except in making “consumer” and behavioral dossiers on everyone connected to a smart phone or computer, to anticipate what type of ads to show them. Now they want the “internet of things” so their great computing and 5G can be made profitable by micro-managing peoples lives. Also blockchain and digital currency. This is very complex and costly without producing any more net energy to feed itself. In fact it is being introduced at a time of diminishing net energy. Perhaps it will feed itself by diminishing the prospects of what were semi-free humans and diverting that energy for its own use.

  3. Joe Clarkson says:

    And then, what we might create, in radically smaller, relocalized societies, is nearly unlimited.

    I disagree with the “unlimited” part. Radically smaller, relocalized societies are going to be greatly restricted in technological scope. The smaller the society, the fewer its options in all aspects of resource gathering and goods production and distribution. There are only a few paradigms for getting enough food to eat if it comes from within a few miles of one’s home. Even fewer if the food is produced by smallholders for themselves and even fewer if food is gathered from the wild.

    All of the viable options are available for scrutiny in the historical record, as are all the options for social and political organization. We may not be able to “simply turn back the clock” and rewind our complex civilization to a simpler time, but we are going to have to dive down, head first, into the pool of options that were available throughout early human history and which still exist all over the Global South.

    And if you have ever lived in one of those simpler and far more sustainable societies, it doesn’t take a lot of imagination to realize that they offer the same chance at happiness as modernity. What I do find hard to imagine is our moving gracefully from the modern world to the simpler world to come. I doubt it can be done without a lot of suffering by a lot of people. We need to gird our loins for a terrible transition struggle and prepare accordingly.

  4. Dave Pollard says:

    Thanks for the comments. When I say I think the opportunities for post-civ societies are unlimited, I’m referring to “technology” in the broad sense, not the narrow IT sense. Language is technology; paper is technology. Even without an internet, what we have learned in science about disease, about astronomy, about birth control, about physics and the nature of matter, about ecology and geography and the earth sciences, and softer learnings about how we learn, and the collaborative models we can draw on from our knowledge of history, could put us in very good position to build a sustainable, sufficient society and avoid the errors and excesses of industrial growth civilization culture.

  5. Joe Clarkson says:

    what we have learned in science about disease, about astronomy, about birth control, about physics and the nature of matter, about ecology and geography and the earth sciences, and softer learnings about how we learn, and the collaborative models we can draw on from our knowledge of history

    All this knowledge requires “knowers” to have any kind of practical existence; it’s like the tree falling in the forest that no one hears. Knowledge that is written in a book that nobody reads has no effect on life or culture. This means that even with heroic efforts to preserve human discoveries and knowledge acquired to date, much of it will never be utilized, particularly the most sophisticated and specialized knowledge that very few people understand even now.

    And much of the really practical knowledge that will be useful in a low energy future has been lost or has very few people who still have expertise. How many people know how to cut down a tree with an ax and hand saw? How many people know how to harness a horse to a wagon? Fabricate the wagon’s wheel? Will a treatise on quantum mechanics have any relevance at all? Good luck with making birth control pills on a craft basis (or even condoms).

    A rapid collapse of civilization will require starting over with an almost completely empty reservoir of experts with the knowledge needed post-collapse. It may take many decades or centuries to get to the point where even 19th century science will be useful. Perhaps a budding Hari Seldon will create a Foundation to preserve knowledge (and experts?) so that the coming dark age can be shortened at least a little. It’s going to take a lot of acid free paper and a campus of stout libraries to hold all that knowledge (I wonder how long it could last?). I certainly wouldn’t put everything on memory sticks.

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