The Paradox of Innovation

As they develop, all human civilizations become increasingly dependent on the very innovations that fueled their original growth. Eventually, these technological or other innovations are integrated into the bedrock of the civilization, becoming essential building blocks that the civilization simply cannot live without:  Fire, metal working, intensive agriculture, electricity, money, personal transportation, a regulated working force.  With each stage of civilizational development, the list of innovations that are part of this bedrock increases: at each era, additional innovations emerge that depend on the previous innovations e.g. internet depends on electricity, electricity depends on fire.  The key observation to make here is that the list of essential components that a modern civilization needs in order to simply function becomes longer and longer with each stage of civilizational evolution.  Starting as a simple wheelbarrow, the civilization eventually becomes this super-expensive car, with thousands of parts that come from various countries and manufacturers.  It is much easier to fix a broken wheelbarrow than a Rolls Royce.

Three decades ago, we could imagine a modern world without e-mail, but today we wouldn’t even know where to begin in imagining such a world.  This change demonstrates the paradox of innovation: even though innovations bring about capabilities and advancements, they hold civilizations hostage to their own success:  once you have electricity, there is no option to EVER go back, unless the entire society collapses.  Today internet is just as important as the discovery of fire by early humans.

But it gets worse, once one realizes that each innovation is in fact another Achilles’ Heel.  Innovations are useless without the ecosystem in which they operate.  Most innovations in fact are not even innovations:  they are usually a synergy between two facets of technology that already existed separately.  All innovations form a treacherous interdependency web.  They become so dependent on each other that failure in one, can bring failure in all the others.  And while the web itself forms to create synergies between the innovations, the synergy can also work in reverse when just one of the innovations suddenly fails.  Whether it is a supply chain, or the supply of electricity to various appliances, failure in one often means failure in all.  Together we stand, divided we fall.  The downward spiral comes out of nowhere, for the simple reason that the civilization had taken for granted the synergy between the innovations as well as the innovations themselves. There was never an emergency plan in place for example, if the world ran out of energy or internet, as this scenario is existentially challenging to even imagine.  The innovations are now part of the essential fabric and identity of the society, not to be questioned by anybody.  The civilization dies, and with it dies any memory or retrospective perspective over what led to the collapse.  The erroneous conclusion is often that it wasn’t the haphazard web of innovations that was the problem, but extraordinary “outside” events.  The cycle begins again, with the next civilization making the same mistakes, inventing its own long list of innovations.  Its own long list of Achilles’ Heels.

(from the upcoming “Little Book of Doom”)

George is an author, researcher, podcast host, chemist, molecular biologist and food scientist. You can follow him on Twitter @99blackbaloons , listen to his Spotify podcast George reads George, sign up for blog alerts below, or enjoy his books

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