Never before in its history has humanity built a civilization that had at its disposal so many different technologies to accurately monitor, measure and predict its own impending collapse – yet has been so incapable to do anything about it.
Civilizations always experience sudden, breakneck-speed growth when they encounter innovation. Fire, metalworking, intensive agriculture, electricity, money, transportation, a regulated workforce and so on, have all in turn, completely transformed what used to be a species of nomadic foragers. While these indeed are “innovations” when they first emerge, they soon become integrated into the bedrock of the civilization much like the gears and hydraulics in a car: invisible from the outside, but vital to its daily function. At one point simply “good to have”, now they have become integrated into the bedrock of the civilisation in a symbiotic relationship: the innovations need the civilisation to exist, and the civilisation simply cannot carry on without them. It has become hostage to the innovations it invented, almost like an organism giving birth to its own parasite.
With each stage of civilizational development, the list of innovations that are part of this essential bedrock becomes longer. Each era brings 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 daily becomes longer and longer. What started as a simple wheelbarrow, is now a super-expensive car consisting of thousands of parts.
The issue is that it is much easier to maintain and repair a wheelbarrow than a Rolls Royce. The very manufacture and existence of a Rolls Royce depends on the health of an entire economic and political machine: the supply chains for the import of foreign-made parts, mining companies that supply the rare earth minerals, labor unions that protect the employees, universities that churn out engineers, politicians that endorse big manufacturing investments.
Three decades ago, we could still imagine a 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 ever to go powerless again, 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 for the civilisation. Like the algae living inside a coral, innovations are sensitive to perturbations. They are not only useless without the environment that the civilisation provides for them, but they depend on a fragile, intricate web of other, equally fragile innovations. In fact, an innovation is rarely ever a genuine game-changer. It is 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 impossible to even imagine.
Yet it doesn’t mean that it is not likely. The 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. These myths rely on other myths, and so on and so forth, creating an interdependency web of myths, also known as culture, which is similar to the web of 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. 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, the mission we have been looking 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’s 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.
When a civilization dies due to a sudden fault in one or more of its innovations, with it dies any memory or retrospective perspective over what led to the collapse. The erroneous conclusion is often that the cause wasn’t the haphazard, fragile web of innovations and supply chains, 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.
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”
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…
I’m in London for a couple more weeks. I was in Pelion in August after a 40-year absence..how long will you be? Let’s do that coffee.
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?
Park caffe sounds good. You’re a 15 min bike ride away! I’ll text you