When, How and Why Does a Civilization Innovate?
The crucial innovation is technological innovation. The rest, even science, follows. What brings technological innovation? New findings in science (oops). New findings in science, in turn, depend upon advances in philosophy. Advances in philosophy, in turn depends upon a friendly and encouraging mood of inquiry set-up by the State… And advances in philosophy depends upon new science, and new technology. Quite a bit of a vicious, or virtuous, spiral is at work, because nonlinear effects are at work: the product reinforces the cause. This high nonlinearity explains why civilizational progress was always highly concentrated: Sumerian cities, Egypt, Mesopotamia, Phoenicia, Crete, Greece, Rome, Western Europe… China…
All of this, history shows. And logic supports. (Some day, as university professor Asimov foresaw in “Foundation“, all of this will be part of mathematical, fully computable psychohistory!)
The converse also works: a state keen to destroy advances in philosophy, or thinking in general, becomes dysfunctional: this is what happened with the Roman empire, and it happened quickly. After Theodosius I established Christianism as the state religion (complete with the state having the choice of executing heretics, that is, those who made a choice), the Roman state lost control of its north-west borders within less than two decades (the Franks were given [“Roman”] military control of three provinces in 400 CE: the two Germania and Gaul; as the Franks were, then, non-Christian, this changed history, for the better; meanwhile, civilization collapsed.)
An earlier, and famous example with China: The first emperor who unified China, Qin Shi Huang, following his Prime Minister’s advice, ordered most previous books and records burned to avoid comparisons of his dictatorship with an innovative past. After the emperor’s death, from ingesting immortality conferring mercury pills (210 BCE), the wise PM had the emperor’s eldest son and top general connived into killing themselves, and the Qin dynasty and its unification work crumbled.
Some will sneer: that was long ago, this is now. Not, not at all: mental patterns recur. On being compared to Qin, the First Emperor, Mao, the “communist” dictator, responded:
“He [Qin] buried 460 scholars alive; we have buried forty-six thousand scholars alive… You [intellectuals] revile us for being Qin Shi Huangs. You are wrong. We have surpassed Qin Shi Huang a hundredfold. When you berate us for imitating his despotism, we are happy to agree! Your mistake was that you did not say so enough.”
Modern China is still profiting from the breakthroughs the West did. That made the Chinese very satisfied, they are the most satisfied people in the world, as living standards quickly improved.
But what when it runs out of breakthroughs? However, can the West go on with breakthroughs? I suggested to call the University of California the “Breakthrough Univerity”, because it was long the world’s best financed state university (however Ronald Reagan endeavored to destroy this, by introducing tuition, that is, a decrease of state financial support).
Mental breakthroughs depend upon massive support for thinking beyond the edge of official thinking. That means, state support.
Just to look at a small portion of (world) history and its greatest innovators: Rabelais, Montaigne, Copernicus, Bruno, Kepler, Galileo, Descartes, Leibniz, Huygens, Bullialdus, Isaac Newton, all enjoyed state support (that does not mean that the state, their own state, or other states, did not try to terrify and, or kill them; for example, Rabelais, was a top doctor, and Sorbonne professor, and some of his friends and collaborators were burned alive, after the Sorbonne decided so). Even Blaise Pascal profited from the state, and tax collection is why he invented the first general purpose computing machine (the Greeks had some for astronomy).
Bill Gates went to see Trump today, and they talked about “innovation”. It is not clear to me what Gates understand of the subject. For the primitives, Gates is science itself. For the thinker, Gates is someone without a college degree. That does not mean he cannot think. But can he think in a way which understands how breakthroughs are produced? That’s unlikely, because his success was from exploiting others’ ideas (Microsoft arose from an IBM program which used MS-DOS, a university programming language; Gates mother was an IBM director, and he got a dream contract from IBM).
Tomorrow the great geniuses of “Silicon Valley” are going to see Trump. They are geniuses in gathering money for themselves. Not in finding ideas for us all to enjoy. And their connection with the state has nothing to do with fundamental breakthrough in thinking (but more like breakthroughs in spying and corruption). Sheryl Sandberg, a sort of girlfriend from Lawrence Summers, was parachuted at Treasury under Clinton, then Google, then Facebook. Now she is a billionaire. Armed with her relationships, she is now viewed as a brain. Does greed have a brain? Yes! But not of the most superior sort.
Billionaires, at Facebook alone, have a wealth worth more than ten times what the budget for research on various disease signed by Obama, December 13, 2016, has.
Civilization innovates when the state has decided to support deep innovation. This is why Sparta failed, and Athens succeeded.
Athens succeeded because we are following, however imperfectly Athenian ideas, not Spartan ones. And Athens was a choice, but also the natural choice. The human choice. Humnity innovates, that is what it does best. The corporate fascist state, be it encouraged by Louis XIV of France, Mussolini, or Obama, is an innovation killer, if carried just a bit too far. (Louis XIV financed Huyghens, and even Molière, and many a writer; thus it is not as if Louis was unwares of the danger of fascism; still he fully indulged in it.i
If one wants productivity and progress to perk up, the state has to become as smart as it was, when John F Kennedy was president: fully supporting deep research as much as possible.
Where else are people going to get jobs, anyway?