” “Jonah Lehrer, a regular contributor to Radiolab, is now on a book tour, touting his new best-seller Imagine. Its a book that explores creativity and the brain. The other day at a book signing, he bumped into a fourth-grader who asked him if theres such a thing as too much creativity. “Isnt it possible,” the 9-year-old asked, “that humans are too creative?”
(Jonah attracts worried 9-year-olds. Its his curse.)
Jonah says he mumbled something about brilliant minds creating terrible weapons, and the kid gave him a “thats all you got?” look, and they went their separate ways. But, Jonah being Jonah, he kept rolling the question around in his head until last week, he came up with a better answer, which hes just published on his blog, Frontal Cortex……
….New Ideas Create Scarcity
There is always a tension, says West, between what we want and the resources available. We want to move, see, explore, hunt. To do that, we need more food, more fire to cook food, more wood for those fires, more animals to ride. When trees got scarce, when horses clogged our streets, we invented engines — steam engines, then coal engines. Then oil, then gas. And when those fuels got scarce, we tried nuclear; and when nuclear got too dangerous, we invented hybrids. And soon we’ll have electric cars until we run out of lithium for the batteries. Human history, says Professor West, is the story of new ideas creating scarcity. We create, we build, then we run out of what we need. Then we invent something new.
Every time we come to the brink, when we run out of resources, we innovate. “The only solution to the problem of human innovation is more innovation,” says Jonah.
“These major innovations completely changed the way society operates,” West says. “It’s like we’re on the edge of a cliff, about to run out of something, and then we find a new way of creating wealth. That means we can start to climb again.”
But then the new solution creates yet another shortage, and we’ve got to innovate to keep from collapsing. “So here’s the paradox,” says Jonah. “Creativity is the only solution to the very real problem of creativity.” ”
At some point, this cycle of more-ness — our increasing whale-ness — is going to hit the wall.
“Because our lifestyle has become so expensive to maintain,” Jonah writes, “every new resource now becomes exhausted at a faster rate. This means that the cycle of innovations has to constantly accelerate, with each breakthrough providing a shorter reprieve. The end result is that our creativity isn’t just increasing the pace of life; it is also increasing the pace at which life changes.”
“It’s like being on a treadmill that keeps on getting faster,” West says. “We used to get a big revolution every few thousand years. And then it took us a century to go from the steam engine to the internal-combustion engine. Now we’re down to about 15 years between big innovations. What this means is that, for the first time ever, people are living through multiple revolutions.”