True innovation Disappearing from our society

Peter Watson

Next month, in Christie’s sale of valuable books and manuscripts, the highlight is a rare offprint of the famous volume 17 of Annalen der Physik, in which Albert Einstein’s three great ideas — on the special theory of relativity, the law of mass-energy equivalence, and the Brownian Theory of motion — were revealed. The occasion marks the 100th anniversary of Einstein’s breakthrough.

But the sale of Einstein’s papers recalls to mind that they were not the only remarkable event of that remarkable year. Matisse painted Luxe, calme et volupte and Les Fauves were born. Cezanne produced Les Grandes Baigneuses, whose lozenges of colour first pointed to cubism and abstraction. Lenin published Two Tactics, EM Forster wrote Where Angels Fear to Tread, the first regular cinemas opened, Richard Strauss unveiled Salome and Freud followed The Interpretation of Dreams.

The year 2005 can’t begin to compete with 1905 in terms of important innovations. Last week’s announcement that British and Korean scientists have successfully cloned human embryos only reinforces the point. What else of real importance has happened this year? Writing a history of ideas over the past three years, I have been struck time and again by the fact that, contrary to what we tell ourselves all the time, our present world is nowhere near as interesting and innovative as it thinks it is.

Yes, we are dazzled by mobile phones, cameras, iPods, satellite-digital-interactive television, laptops and the www, by laser-guided surgery and bombs, by DNA fingerprinting, and now by cloning. These are not small things but do they change the way we think in important — in fundamental — directions? Going beyond the 1905/2005 comparison only reinforces this: 1907-1909 saw Picasso’s Demoiselles d’Avignon, Schonberg’s atonal Second String Quartet, Paul Ehrlich’s ‘Salvarsan’ treatment for syphilis, Pavlov’s studies on reflexes, the first steel and glass building, the invention of Bakelite (the first plastic), Conrad’s Secret Agent, Bergson’s L’Evolution creatrice and William James’s ‘Pragmatism’ 1900 saw the simultaneous unveiling of the quantum, the gene and the unconscious. Further back, Darwin’s startling 19th century idea produced probably the biggest transformation of all time. It replaced a static world by an evolving one, refuted the idea of a purpose in the universe and destroyed the idea that the world had been designed.

Finally, going backwards, think of the immense change in the so-called Axial Age, what Karl Jaspers called ‘the most deep cut dividing line in history’, between 750 and 350BC when people stopped believing in the Great (fertility) Goddess, in sky gods and sacred stones, and turned to a largely abstract god, creating modern religion.

Richard Southern, the Oxford university historian who died last year, thought the most interesting times in history were 1050-1250AD and 1750-1950AD. The latter saw the amalgamation of Aristotelianism and Christianity, fashioning the possibility of a secular world; it saw crop rotation, cathedrals and varsities, the invention of the experiment, the rise of accuracy, the introduction of equal hours and silent reading.

The latter period saw the introduction of the factory, the steam engine, a change in the experience of work, the birth of modern chemistry and electricity, the rise of America, the link established between Sanskrit, Greek and Latin, Romanticism, research concept, the rise of sociology, geology, evolution, statistics, modernism in all its guises, particle physics, Freudianism itself. For the first time people thought ‘new’ things better than old ones.

Each of these periods transformed our understanding of ourselves radically. They provide the standard by which important change may be judged. In this regard the first half of the 20th century was as stimulating as any other time. But what great ideas or transformations have been introduced in the half-century since 1950? A measly two stand comparison with the quantum, the gene, the unconscious and all the other great innovations of the past. These are the pill and the internet. All the others you might name — the transistor, the structure of DNA, space travel, beta-blockers, immunosuppressants, John Rawls’ theory of justice, postmodernism, superstrings — are consolidations of existing ideas. Cloning has the potential to transform our understanding of disease and ageing, so it could have an impact to rival the pill. That would still make just three advances in more than 50 years.

Does it matter we are not living in interesting times? Not immediately maybe. One of the points of late capitalism is that everyone gets to sample the fruits of earlier innovation. But the sheer lack of fundamental innovation now may explain the tenacity of traditional religion, and why contemporary art seems so flat, why television and movies are obsessed with safe repeats and feel-good endings and why fiction, as John Banville commented recently, is likewise lacking in edge. — The Guardian