The Paradox of Innovation

Never before in its history has humanity built a civilization that had at its disposal so many different ways to accurately monitor, measure and predict its own impending collapse – yet so incapable to do anything about it.  Technology doesn’t necessarily mean progress, and it definitely doesn’t mean wisdom. 

The growth of all human civilizations is usually fueled by a spurt of innovation: fire, metalworking, intensive agriculture, electricity, money, transportation, a regulated workforce and so on.  While these are all seen as “innovations” at the time when they first emerge, they soon become so integrated into the bedrock of the civilization that they begin to fade into the background.  It becomes easy to forget how essential they are, and that the civilization in fact simply cannot live without them.  It becomes a patient who has forgotten that they are on daily life support, hostage to their own innovations.

With each stage of civilizational development, the list of innovations that are part of this “essential bedrock” lengthens.  Each era brings with it its own innovations, which depend on all previous innovations e.g. internet depends on electricity, electricity depends on fire and fossil fuels.  As a result, the list of essential components that each successive civilization needs to simply function on a daily basis becomes longer and longer.  Starting as a simple wheelbarrow, the civilization eventually becomes a super-expensive car consisting of thousands of parts. 

The problem is that it is much easier to maintain and repair a broken wheelbarrow compared to a Rolls Royce.  The very manufacture and existence of a Rolls Royce depends on the health of an entire economic and political system: the supply chains, the labor unions, the universities that churn out engineers, the rare earth minerals coming from a faraway country.   The wheelbarrow doesn’t have these problems.

Three decades ago, we could still imagine a modern world without e-mail.  Today we wouldn’t even know where to begin in imagining such a world.  This demonstrates the paradox of innovation: although 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 powerless, unless the entire society collapses.  Today, internet is just as important as fire was to early humans.

Each innovation is in fact another Achilles’ Heel.  Innovations are useless on their own, without the ecosystem in which they operate.  This is because most innovations are in fact not even innovations:  they are usually a mere improvement, often the result of a synergy between two or more facets of technology that already existed.  Since they are built upon each other in this way like a house of cards, all innovations form a fragile interdependency web.  Failure in one can bring failure in all others.  And while the interdependency web itself forms to create synergies between the innovations, this works 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 can mean failure in all. 

What is interesting is that the civilization is always caught by surprise.  The downward spiral comes out of nowhere, for the simple reason that the civilization had underestimated the incredible co-dependency between the innovations – and taken for granted the innovations themselves in the first place.

For example, there will never be an emergency plan in place for the world running out of energy or internet.  Just like climate change, this scenario is existentially, politically, and socially simply impossible to even imagine.  Yet it doesn’t mean that it is not likely.  The sad truth is that civilizations never learn from their mistakes.  Rather, they repeat them using updated technologies, hoping that the outcome will be different this time around.

Our media systems also evolve and “innovate” in order to maintain social cohesion and faith towards the system: myths are constantly woven around the infallibility and resilience of our innovations. Innovations tend to be put on a pedestal without exception, becoming part of the essential fabric and identity of society, like religions that are never to be questioned by anyone.  They become part of our “mission”, whether it is to conquer other planets or become God himself. 

Yet it is not these innovations that will be the highlight of our “Curriculum Vitae”.  All the triumphs, discoveries, innovations and other milestones of the human race’s brief presence on Earth will only be fine print on our final legacy.  Our greatest achievement, putting much of the planet’s ecosystems permanently out of existence, will trump all previous achievements and milestones over the duration of our short-lived civilization.  Planetary destruction will become our greatest legacy: trumping every major discovery, every painting or sculpture, every musical masterpiece conceived.  We will finally find our elusive purpose.  It will give a dark, stark and surprising answer to the question we have been asking ourselves all along: “Who are we? Where do we come from? Where are we going?”  In our pointless obsession to have a “purpose” and a “mission” on a planet where all other species are happy to just exist, we will have finally gotten what we wanted, and “left our mark”.  The “purpose” and “mission” we have been searching for in these few thousand years is now finally clear, and it wasn’t at all what we had imagined.  The butterfly has suddenly woken up and realized it is a mosquito.  Whichever way one spins it, planetary destruction cannot qualify as either an achievement or a mission.  It is simply the accidental, blind side effect of arrogance and gluttony. 

Our new “emperors” are techno-narcissists the likes of Elon Musk and Mark Zuckerberg who pretend to know about innovation, physics and technology, but conveniently forget that stupidity is thermodynamically impossible. No space rocket or Metaverse will ever refreeze a melted arctic, revive a rainforest, or jump start the Gulf Stream.

The planet, and humanity, are being destroyed by innovation and capitalism. They are being destroyed by something that is not even another biological entity or life form. But it is almost sentient, as it is able to speak to us, manipulate us.  We have created a monster made of algorithms. As greed becomes digital and profit maximization becomes driven by AI, the worst is yet to come. These new “beings” can’t feel emotions or appreciate biological life.  They are made to be “efficient”, like any war machine.

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

4 thoughts on “The Paradox of Innovation

  1. Touché as usual Georgeyou keep on nailing it. . Are you still in London? Up for a coffee sometime soon? I go back to Pelion at the start of November…

      1. I was there too in August. I’ll spend most of November there as I’m having intensive dentistry.. I’m in Crouch End, good coffee spots, Highgate is nice, Muswell Hill too, or one of the parks cafes if weather permits. Finsbury or Highgate Woods or Waterlow Park.
        What would suit you?

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