Attitudes Toward Innovation, Part One Paul Kirkham Arts & Culture This post is in response to Hippo’s call for academic, historical, critical, and/or cultural essays that our readers might possibly “have lying around.” Is that you? Email firstname.lastname@example.org for a chance to be featured here. In my previous article, The Crisis of Proliferation, I wrote that we are exposed to so much stuff that we don’t know quite what to do. A related issue is that some things seem to change so fast that it is difficult to keep up whilst others creep up behind us almost imperceptibly. So this article will examine change, and attitudes towards innovation. The first thing to emphasize is that change is not the same as difference: Time and change are connected to place. Real change is best understood by staying in one place. When I travel, I see differences rather than change. —Andy Goldsworthy, Time magazine (2000) Gilbert White, author of the Natural History of Selborne (1789) writing against the background of the breathtaking new discoveries of his day, expressed a similar opinion, hoping that “stationary men would pay some attention to the districts on which they reside, and would publish their thoughts respecting the objects that surround them….” And so if we stay in one place and look around… “You may ask yourself, well, how did I get here?” —David Byrne, Once in a Lifetime (1981) And if you conclude, as one line of the lyric suggests, that it’s “same as it ever was,” you would not be the first. It is one of three distinct attitudes to change: optimism – this is better pessimism – this is worse fatalism – what will be will be These three elements, in varying proportions, can be found throughout our culture. We can caricature them as: things can only get better we’re all going to hell in a handcart same old same old We will take these in reverse order: “Plus ça change—plus c’est la même chose.” History repeating itself is the oldest of them all: The thing that hath beene, it is that which shall be: and that which is done, is that which shall be done; and there is no new thing vnder the sunne. —Ecclesiastes 1.9 KJV (1611) Empires may rise and fall, but the universe is seasonal: you should not expect permanency, only regularity. Marcus Aurelius (d. 180 A.D.) even gives a period to the cycle: “…those who come after us will see nothing new; our ancestors saw nothing more than we do. Such is the uniformity of the world that a man of forty who has any understanding at all may be said to have seen everything that has happened in the past as well as anything which may happen in the future” (Meditations, Book 11). Where you are personally depends upon your fate. The goddess Fortune turns her wheel and so you are sometimes high, sometimes low, but always moving. And there is no point arguing about it: Enforcestow the to aresten or withholden the swyftnesse and the sweigh of hir turnynge wheel? O thow fool of alle mortel foolis! Yif Fortune bygan to duelle stable, she cessede thanne to ben Fortune. I torne the whirlynge wheel with the turnynge sercle; I am glad to chaungen the loweste to the heyeste, and the heyeste to the loweste. —The Consolation of Philosophy, Boethius fl. 500 A.D. trans. Chaucer d. 1400 And this model holds up well for the nine hundred odd years between the original and the translation of this extract—non-seasonal change, when it occurred, was almost imperceptible. If we fit two generations into that span of forty years it would be perfectly normal for a father to pass on to his son unaltered the occupation he learnt from his father. Likewise mothers and daughters. Thus there can be no such thing as innovation. Apart from the Rota Fortunae we have no expectation that tomorrow will not look more or less the same as today until the end of time. Or at least until shortly before, of which more later. Alongside, and possibly as old, is the pessimistic tradition: “Fings ain’t what they used to be” Hesiod (fl. 600 B.C.) listed four previous ages of mankind, the golden, the silver, the bronze and the heroic, each declining in quality of life before arriving at what for him was a distinctly unsatisfactory present: “For now truly is a race of iron, and men never rest from labour and sorrow by day, and from perishing by night….” Furthermore, in what becomes a familiar complaint: “The father will not agree with his children, nor the children with their father….” Ovid (fl. 0 A.D.) missed out the heroic—possibly an understandable desire to keep the metaphor metallic. Modern perceptions are of the progression of increasing utility but from an alchemical point of view the succession is of declining purity—gold is incorruptible, silver tarnishes, bronze corrupts into verdigris, whilst iron will quite quickly rust away completely. If the philosophers’ stone transmutes base metals it is by reversing change rather than achieving novelty. The Golden Age is a type of utopia or paradise and they are as immutable as gold. They cannot be further purified, any change from them is bound to be corruption—the only way is down. If we add to this the Judaeo-Christian tradition of the Fall we have an overriding sense of a general lowering of standards, further evidenced by what happened to Rome. We are left with the impression that throughout the “Dark Ages,” knowledge from the classical world was not added to in the West. For example, from around the sixth to the sixteenth century the basilica of Hagia Sophia in present day Istanbul was the largest building in the world. For the best part of a thousand years if you wanted an arch you had a Roman arch. The farmer Virgil describes in Georgics is little different from Langland’s Piers Plowman—the oxen, the plough and the harrow are much the same. When knowledge from the Graeco-Roman civilization which had been preserved in other places, notably the Arab world, was re-discovered by western Europeans it came with an unchallengeable authority as “ancient wisdom.” Change brought about in this way is not innovation so much as re-introduction. This is not to say that there was nothing new: a sailor did not sail the same ship nor a soldier wear the same armor. But perhaps the rate of change was such that many innovations went by almost unnoticed. Some can be traced which met with genuine approval, even by those we now think of as deeply conservative: an example would be the polyphonic singing and musical notation which spread throughout Christendom with no great resistance from authority. Other novelties were less well received. The Second Lateran Council, held in 1139 under Pope Innocent II, tried to limit the deployment of the latest weapons of mass destruction. In future crossbowmen and archers were only supposed to be used against non-Christians, and animals. Artem autem illam mortiferam et Deo odibilem ballistoriorum et sagittariorum, adversus christianos et catholicos de cetero sub anathemate prohibemus. [Canon 29] (Under threat of anathema we forbid the use of that murderous and God-detested art of crossbowmen and archers against Christians and Catholics.) The bigotry is uncomfortable for modern sensibilities but the questions prompted are relevant—is a more efficient method of killing an “improvement”? Might it not be a symptom of decline? Maybe invention is the consequence of a necessity which did not exist in a less tarnished past. “An Aristotle was but the rubbish of an Adam, and Athens but the rudiments of Paradise,” wrote the preacher Robert South (1634 – 1713). The secular equivalent is the noble savage. If you are expecting the world to end at any moment, the idea of improving the present is unnecessary and the new-fangled is bound to be suspect. Shakespeare’s King Henry IV rails against “hurlyburly innovation” as does Michel de Montaigne when he says, “Je suis desgousté de la nouvelleté, quelque visage qu’elle porte….” Montaigne quoted with approval the idea that anyone who proposed to abolish an old law or introduce a new one should wear a noose around his neck so that he could be hanged just as soon as anything went wrong. But on the other side of the English Channel, Francis Bacon, a man without Montaigne’s sense of humor or irony, wrote that clinging to the status quo could be “as turbulent a thing as an innovation; and they that reverence too much old times, are but a scorn to the new.” Because trade had prompted an age of discovery, and clearly some new technologies, especially the big three— the magnetic compass, gunpowder and printing—were unknown to classical civilization. There must have arisen the genuinely strange and unsettling suspicion that the accepted wisdom was the wrong way round. Bacon was one of the first to express this new opinion: And to speak truly, Antiquitas sæculi juventus mundi. [Antiquity is the youth of the world] These times are the ancient times, when the world is ancient, and not those which we account ancient…. —The Advancement of Learning (1605) The grandest theory of world cycles—that the entire history of the universe has been and will be repeated endlessly in every detail—is of course unaffected by whether we are rising or falling, but for practical purposes the idea that we’ve seen it all before loses its attraction and is more suited to intangibles than hard facts. We know that innovation does happen, and that for many of us at least some of it is desirable. This is an enormous shift—a discontinuity, a complete reversal, a marker between ages as great as any, and ought to be regarded as the opening of a new epoch as much as any single invention or discovery. It is a new approach, one which we will look at next—progress. Featured image: The Bathers, by Jose de Almada-Negreiros. Courtesy of Wikiart.org.