The audio version of this essay is read by Wendy Stolyarov. You can also download this audio essay as an MP3 file here.
One frequently encounters the identification of human creativity and inventiveness as driving forces for progress in technology and society. In part, this identification is correct: it is through the human creative faculty – the ability to bring forth new combinations of matter and new ideas – that improvements to the human condition arise. But while creation is a necessary component to progress, it is not a sufficient component.
Consider that the human creative faculty has existed since the emergence of our species; even cave dwellers exhibited it, to the extent that they could take even a little leisure time in their highly dangerous, subsistence-based lives. Cave paintings and tools from several tens of thousands of years ago show clearly that our remote ancestors had the ability, and the desire, to reshape the world in an attempt to improve their condition. And yet, for the vast majority of human history – up until the 18th-century Enlightenment and the subsequent Industrial Revolution – real progress has been so slow and minuscule as to be virtually imperceptible within an ordinary person’s lifetime. This was the case despite the fact that every generation had its share of great thinkers, artists, and even mechanical tinkerers.
The other necessary component of progress is maintenance of what has already been created. While creation is an ever-present ability within human beings, there are also destructive forces that counteract and diminish its fruits. Nature itself is the source of many such forces: disease, decay, and death are omnipresent unless counteracted by arduous and continual human effort. Just as billions of lives have been lost in complete oblivion to the ravages of “natural causes” – from catastrophic disasters to senescence – so have innumerable works of art, architecture, literature, and technology been lost to these perils. Consider that even the extant works of great known philosophers such as Aristotle or composers such as Georg Philipp Telemann are a fraction of what these great men of the past are known to have created, but which was buried by the sands of time. Imagine, also, what the pitifully short lifespans throughout most human history did to diminish the output of creative geniuses, who, in better times, might have continued to innovate for decades more.
Maintenance is the ability to preserve and transmit existing knowledge, techniques, and objects. It can be performed through sheer effort of will – but only to a point. A European monk or an Arabic scholar in the Middle Ages could spend a lifetime meticulously copying by hand a single book from centuries before his time, only to have it vandalized by one of his successors some generations hence. Even the work of Archimedes was subjected to such savage mistreatment.
Since the Industrial Revolution, and especially since the Information Revolution, the techniques for the preservation of physical goods and knowledge have become tremendously more reliable than was possible in premodern societies. The ability to make multiple copies of an object and potentially inexhaustible copies of an idea – and to maintain detailed visual, textual, and auditory records of particular times, places, and activities, with little effort by historical standards, has preserved many of the accomplishments of prior and current thinkers for the creative faculties of humans to expand upon.
It is doubtful that we, in our time, are inherently more creative than our ancestors. But we do have a much more diverse and advanced subject matter to which to apply our creativity. Where we are free to do so, we may arrange these building blocks of innovation in much the same way that our ancestors arranged sticks and stones – except that the consequences of our actions are much more powerful, life-enhancing, and durable. Our infrastructure and our methods for maintaining and transmitting knowledge separate us from our ancestors to the extent that, to them, we would be as gods.
And yet, none of the wonders that enable progress in our time are ever guaranteed to continue, though not due to inanimate nature and lower life forms alone; those have always been in a steady retreat wherever human reason and productivity were unleashed at anywhere near their fullest extent. But the folly, ignorance, sloth, and envy of other men can all too easily slow the growth of progress-nourishing infrastructure to a crawl, or even reverse it and usher in a new Dark Ages. Coercive policies, economic misconduct and capital consumption, massive wars, widespread prohibitions on peaceful and productive activities, superstitions and irrational taboos, pervasive and disproportionate fears – as embodied in the environmentalists’ progress-killing “precautionary principle” – and a desire for “security” over liberty, for “tradition” over growth, and for stasis over innovation, are all forces that counteract and threaten the maintenance of our civilization. In most times and places, only a handful of people have been immune to deleterious anti-progressive beliefs and their consequences, but there is no reason why we cannot all rise above such anti-life thinking. We all have the creative faculty in us, and we can all think.
The importance of maintenance to human progress can be carried into the life of the individual with profound consequences that can produce massive personal growth and productivity via a change of habits. A mere creation of reproducible records of one’s past achievements – and their publication on the Internet, where possible – can create a formidable store of knowledge to which the creator and others can refer and which they can build upon. The concepts of open-source software and distributed computing, for instance, are built on this elementary principle, but it can be applied to so many more areas of life. The creative faculty is with us every day, and every day it produces original ideas and methods for improving our lives. But, without adequate maintenance – including the establishment of a concrete form for these innovations – these gifts from within our minds will fade away into insignificance, much like the ruins of antiquity. Developing an improved infrastructure for the products of one’s own mind may be the first step toward revitalizing the infrastructure of civilization itself.