The Mission- Weekly Newsletter
The Decline and Resurgence of Innovation
I’m back in California after a 10 day trip to Maryland. My wife and I had a great workcation, and visit with our families and friends.
One morning during our visit, I went for a run at the old prison grounds of my elementary school. I made peace with the place, and even the military propaganda on the playground.
For me, it’s one more reminder of how innovation in our society, culture, media, and education system are in decline. To be more candid, we’re in a new dark age/dystopia where those with imagination are actively marginalized or scapegoated.
This week’s newsletter contains one of the most powerful pieces of media to stir your courage, imagination, and help catalyze a resurgence in innovation.
It’s also a short riff on the: what (1), who (2), when (3), where (4), and why (5) of the decline in innovation, followed by a glimpse into a future where we build solutions to our problem(s), versus one where we do not…
Sprinkled throughout the newsletter are several of my favorite articles, studies, quotes, and books that are worth sharing. So what is that single piece of media to help understand and face the reality of our dystopia?
It’s a research paper by Jonathan Huebner, a physicist at the Naval Warfare Institute. The paper is called, ‘A possible declining trend for worldwide innovation.’ In it, Huebner states that:
The rate of innovation peaked in the year 1873 and is now rapidly declining.
From an article at NewScientist.com discussing Huebner’s report,
‘The global rate of innovation today, which is running at seven “important technological developments” per billion people per year, matches the rate in 1600. Despite far higher standards of education and massive R&D funding… it is more difficult now for people to develop new technology’
Again from the NW article,
‘Extrapolating Huebner’s global innovation curve just two decades into the future, the innovation rate plummets to medieval levels. “We are approaching the ‘dark ages point’, when the rate of innovation is the same as it was during the Dark Ages,” Huebner says. “We’ll reach that in 2024.”’
There are plenty of ways to interpret Huebner’s paper, and there are a few decent arguments against it. But what if everything around us that is called, ‘progress’ is not? Are we, as so many writers have hinted at, living in a regressive dystopia?
Does our culture and society slowly silence or crush those with the courage and imagination necessary to innovate?
I think the answer is, without a doubt, yes.
The Hunger Games is an example of a creative genius articulating one of the boldest statements I’ve ever seen about the actual state of the United States. In The Hunger Games trilogy, Suzanne Collins carefully renames the U.S. to, ‘Panem,’ after the Latin saying, ‘panem et circenses’ (bread and games), two things rulers use to keep the public doped and distracted. For those interested in exploring the idea that the most radical and dangerous truths are always hidden in fiction, I recommend Leo Strauss’ excellent work, Persecution and the Art of Writing.
1. What is the macro and micro proof of the decline of innovation?
The Macro Proof -
First, the financial proof- there is roughly $10 trillion dollars in bonds with negative yields. This signals no ideas, faith, courage, or convictions amongst (most) investors.
There are plenty of existing systems that could help turn that capital into innovations and new jobs, but they’re generally bemoaned in the media because they don’t provide 100% guarantee of steady 10% returns with 0% ‘risk’. The system of wealth and job creation that I’m referring to is venture capital and startups. VC is still a small industry compared to the larger financial world, yet it creates a disproportionately large share of new technology and jobs.
During the past three decades, startups in the United States have created nearly 40 million American jobs, all the net job creation in the country over that period. –Steve Case
The economic data supporting this thesis is strong in the Bay Area, where each new tech job leads to the indirect creation of 4.3 new jobs. On a national level, venture backed startups that become successful technology companies are powerful economic growth engines. If we look at venture capital-backed technology company investments between 1970–2008, their revenues in 2008 accounted for ~$3 trillion of US GDP, and for every $1 invested, they returned $6.36.
The Micro Proof -
The local proof of decline and dystopia is something we’ve all felt when we’ve attempted to present great ideas. The best ideas are often met with scorn. Why is this?
There are many answers, but this is one of the most simple ways to describe the phenomena of what happens when (most) people encounter great ideas. Here’s the rest of Hugh’s brilliant take on this,
Good ideas come with a heavy burden. Which is why so few people have them. So few people can handle it. — Hugh Macleod
So who are those who manage to shrug off, ignore, or use criticism for inspiration? As author Ursula K Guin writes,
The creative adult is the child who survived.
One final micro level proof of the dystopia where living is:
More than 10,000 American toddlers 2 or 3 years old are being medicated for attention deficit hyperactivity disorder outside established pediatric guidelines… — NY Times
Those who don’t fit into rigid, societally-approved molds are being silenced earlier and earlier.
So how can we avoid being silenced, present our ideas, and spark a resurgence in innovation?
One answer is to study how to carefully present ideas and new initiatives in a non-threatening way. This is *gasp* also known as ‘sales.’ Selling great ideas in a society where they are despised is an extraordinarily difficult task. One of the best primers I’ve found on the subject is from Blake Master’s notes from one of Peter Thiel’s CS183 classes, ‘If you build it, will they come?’
2. Who is responsible for the decline in innovation?
It’s always easy to look and find people to blame. We can, and should, identify people or groups that are detrimental, or even diabolical, to progress (ex. Those who ‘medicate’ toddlers unnecessarily). But when we identify them, we should be careful to not allow this objective analysis to spiral out of control.
Whoever fights monsters should see to it that in the process he does not become a monster. And if you gaze long enough into an abyss, the abyss will gaze back into you. –Friedrich Nietzsche
We’ve all been guilty of mistakes and ignorance in the past. The challenge is to not let our attempts at objective analysis morph into viewing the perpetrators as being evil beyond redemption. The human tendency to find scapegoats to blame or take our aggressions and anger out on is strong.
Reflecting on Rene Girard’s work helps debug the mind viruses of scapegoating from our mental operating system.
Everywhere and always, when human beings either cannot or dare not take their anger out on the thing that has caused it, they unconsciously search for substitutes, and more often than not they find them. — Rene Girard
I’ve found that exploring this work helps me identify times in my own life where I’m being irrational, or coming off as angry towards innocent friends and family.
It’s easy to take our anger out on scapegoats- politicians, circumstances, co-workers, etc… But if we begin to identify when we do drift towards scapegoating, then we have a chance to pull back, and save ourselves (and others) from that vicious cycle.
As a kid, and even as an adult, I love going to visit my Dad’s work. On the wall, there is a large picture in a frame. The entire picture is covered by a large hinged door. Written on that hinged door is the statement, ‘Lift to see the most dangerous animal in the world.’ Inside the frame is a mirror.
Ultimately, each of us are our own biggest enemies. A resurgence in innovation won’t happen unless we’re willing to embrace that level of agency.
Looking to blame is easy, and sometimes it does help to objectively analyze situations and individuals so we can protect ourselves and those we love. If we’re going to create new and imaginative solutions to our global and local problems (and escape our current dystopia), we have to take agency, while refusing the pull of scapegoating.
3. When did this decline in global innovation begin and is a resurgence in invention inevitable?
Solutions to this challenge are not inevitable. If we think this, we’ll end up with a world of amusement streams and consumption on the road to extinction. Huebner’s paper points to the decline beginning around 1873, and if we look to history, we can see proof in the past…
Thomas Sowell’s work provides a glimpse at this decline by looking back to the 1920s. Almost all of our school-approved study of history is focused on wars or pop culture, however the amount of imagination and courage displayed by individuals was still formidable in the 1920’s. Dr. Sowell makes this point presciently by highlighting the rising tide of professors and scientists who were african american and women. These innovators were making strides in technological fields when the culture was anything but friendly towards them.
The second proof of how accepting society was in the past to bold ideas and intuitions is found in the work of Arthur Koestler. I won’t dive into too many details here, but if you’d like to explore for yourself, his book, The Roots of Coincidence is a fun place to start.
4. Where is this phenomenon of declining innovation most pronounced?
One of the places where this is the worst, is inside wealthy countries.
One of the reasons might be all of the comfort and opportunity we have as the result of inherited technological, philosophical, and scientific wealth.
You know what’s wrong with scientific power? It’s a form of inherited wealth. And you know what assholes congenitally rich people are. ―Michael Crichton
It’s almost impossible to properly value things we inherit by being born into our current time and place. What’s more, it’s hard to admit that sometimes it’s the absence of wealth, resources, and easy paths that spark innovation. Often times it’s those who face the most adversity who rise highest and overcome it.
The absence of stimulus and de-evolutionary entertainment heightens our imagination and mental capacities. My favorite example of this is from my friend Jesse Lawler’s Brain Breakfast newsletter about Helen Keller. Many of us are familiar with HK, but not many people know she wrote a book acclaimed by the best authors in the world (Mark Twain and others) when she was only 22. I don’t see many 22 year olds who have been raised on ~6 hours of T.V. per day creating lasting literary works…
We don’t yet have cultural and societally acceptable protocols for engineering adversity, fasting from stimulus, or many relationships where this type of experimentation is allowed and encouraged. I would go so far as to assert that our western society and most ‘relationships’ and ‘friendships’ are little more than unspoken pacts of slow suicide, where both parties drift together clinging to comfort, while attacking any deviations in behavior or movements towards adversity, new ideas, or agency.
We live in a world of frightful givens. It is given that you will behave like this, given that you will care about that. No one thinks about the givens. Isn’t it amazing? In the information society, nobody thinks. We expected to banish paper, but we actually banished thought. ―Michael Crichton
Do not allow those around you to censor or silence your novel ideas, insights, and opinions. Guard your ideas, develop them and yourself, and act on them. If those around you won’t allow you to do this, find new people to be around.
5. Why does a decline in innovation matter so much and how can we catalyze a resurgence?
By properly valuing ourselves and our ideas, we can make the first step towards catalyzing a better future.
People have asked what the mission of The Mission is, and one way of describing it is:
99.9% of all species go extinct. Extinction is coming. The Mission is a media company that helps show you how you can fight it. Our purpose is to mediate a future in which humanity thrives, where egalitarian and voluntary evolution are allowed to happen. That process doesn’t have to be miserable or ascetic. We can party while we do it.
We’re living in a stagnant dystopia, and innovation is in decline.
But it doesn’t have to remain this way. Each of us has the power to carefully chose the media we decide to consume, and mediate a better and brighter future for ourselves and our families. It won’t be easy, and we’re going to need (many) miracles along the way.
As the Grateful Dead used to sing,
I need a miracle every day.
If we’re going to transform ourselves and our world, we’ll need a miracle everyday. This might not be too tall an order, because after all,
We don’t have to look far for miracles because they’re all around us. Everything is astonishing. The universe on it’s surface is alive with mystery. –Terence McKenna
Sparking the philosophical reformation that leads us out of our dystopia will not be easy. But small local actions can help; we can connect more deeply with friends and family, we can travel, read, draw, design, code, tinker, find secrets, and ally our professional work with others who are doing the same. We can each discover, define, and create our own personal missions. The capacity to imagine, collaborate, and build a definitely better future is within our reach.
If you do embark on this path, it will be lonely at times, and many people along the way will try to scapegoat you or your ideas.
Nobody can tell you if what you’re doing is good, meaningful or worthwhile. The more compelling the path, the more lonely it is. –Hugh Macleod
Having the faith to participate in creation is tough. It’s not always fun or easy. But the stakes are higher than ever:
What motivates me to talk to groups like this is the belief that we do not have centuries of gently unfolding time ahead of us in which to gently tease apart the threads of the human endeavor and create a bright new world. That’s not our circumstance. This is a fire in a madhouse. And to get a hold on the situation, I think we are going to have to force the issue. One way of forcing the issue, or a chemical definition of forcing the issue when you’re talking about a chemical reaction, is catalysis. We want to catalyze consciousness. — Terence McKenna
One of the best books on how to build a better future is Zero to One, in it, Peter Thiel presents our possible futures:
Will we accept a fate of recurrent collapses, plateaus, or extinction?
Or will we accept full agency, master chance, and escape becoming (or participating) in society’s rituals of scapegoating?
If we’re going to create an innovative future, we only have one option– takeoff. The more I work in the Bay Area, meet people, and interact with readers of The Mission, the more I become inspired to work harder towards this pursuit.
This newsletter is a thank you to all those out there who are doing the daily work, taking prudent personal risks, those who have refused to become marginalized or silenced by our dystopia. They’re making things better for themselves and their families, and it’s my continued honor to help do what I can to help create a media company that serves them.
Extinction is coming, but there have never been more individuals brave enough to face this fact and begin collaborating together to fight it.
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