The hottest movie, both at the box office and in critical terms, is Tom Cruise’s “Top Gun: Maverick,” a sequel to a 1986 blockbuster. Publishers are still on the lookout for the next Malcolm Gladwell. Politicians are caught up in the battles of yesterday – over abortion in America or imperial measures in Britain. The 17th century sage Francis Bacon was once called the “buccinator novi temporis” – the trumpeter of new times. Many of the loudest trumpeters these days are from the past.
If that sounds impressionistic, consider the quantitative evidence on the productivity of ideas. A study found that research productivity declined sharply in software, agriculture, and medicine. A second study found that the average age of Nobel laureates has steadily increased and the size of the teams involved in science has increased. A third study — there’s no shortage of studies — found that the average age at which academics publish their first paper in a prestigious publication rose from 30 in mathematics in 1950 to 35 in 2013.
American researchers have been performing what is called the Torrance test of creative thinking since the mid-1960s. A study of the data by Kyung Hee Kim found that while various measures of creativity and originality increased in line with average IQ until 1990, since then they have steadily declined. “The results indicate that creative thinking declines over time among Americans of all ages, particularly in kindergarten through third grade. The decline is steady and persistent.
How to explain this withering of the imagination? More people than ever before are living in cities, the supposed engines of creativity, and more people are attending universities. Giant corporations such as Google and Facebook are spending untold billions inventing the future. Each PC contains all the tools you need to write a book.
One explanation lies in the sheer burden of knowledge and the resulting dictatorship of specialization. Academics are taking longer than ever to reach the frontiers of knowledge – and when they finally get there, they tend to crawl around with a magnifying glass rather than stand and look through a telescope.
Academic metrics play their nefarious role: research bureaucrats look for safe ideas that match their predefined metrics rather than genuinely innovative ideas. The same goes for Brandolini’s Law, which states that it takes an order of magnitude more energy to refute bullshit than to produce it. Given the industrial scale of churning out toxic guffs by PR firms and consultancies these days, that’s a hell of a lot of effort.
The Germans have an evocative phrase to describe what is happening in the wider culture: das Verschwinden der Zukunft — “the disappearance of the future”. A large majority of parents expect their children to be worse off than them — with a margin of 80% to 15% in France, 76% to 15% in Japan, 61% to 19% in Italy and from 57% to 33% in traditional countries. optimistic Americans. Young people are especially pessimistic about liberal truths such as democracy and freedom of speech.
For all its narrow utilitarianism, neoliberalism was at least a theory of the future – a vision of a more prosperous world combined with a set of policies designed to bring that world into being. The eclipse of neoliberalism has led to a retreat into nostalgia or nihilism among the political elite. Boris Johnson’s government is talking about reintroducing imperial measures and imposing steel tariffs. Extinction Rebellion describes capitalism as a cancer. Even the sci-fi fantasies that remain popular with the tech elite are mired in the 1960s and 1970s—”Star Trek” stuck on endless repeat.
Can anything be done to improve the world’s ability to imagine a desirable future? A new book by Geoff Mulgan, “Another World Is Possible: How to Reignite the Social and Political Imagination,” sparkles with ideas. Mulgan is a veteran of this world in every possible direction – up and down, down and sideways. He worked in Downing Street as director of Tony Blair’s strategy unit, then head of policy. He was chief executive of Nesta, the British foundation for innovation, and then of the Young Foundation. He is now Professor of Collective Intelligence, Public Policy and Social Innovation at University College London (chair titles seem to be growing even as the number of people needed to write the average academic paper multiplies) .
Mulgan shares the peculiar flaws of his futuristic tribe. He recounts spending time in a Buddhist monastery when he was 17 and extols the wisdom of pre-industrial peoples. The virtues of dance are discussed along the way. But he also gives plenty of sound advice based on what he calls “a lifetime’s involvement in realizing ideals.”
Prefer simple ideas to the development of blueprints: The “right to buy” (HLM) and the “net zero” were successful because they were capable of endless iterations. Building bridges between different worlds: Universities should focus much more on solving the problems of their host communities than on storing bodies of knowledge. Play with extending ideas: Just as neoliberals have thrived pushing markets into new areas, progressives could thrive by redefining legal personality to include natural entities. Learn to forget things: “Forgetting, not learning, is the real — and devilishly difficult — trick,” said Dee Ward Hock, the founder of Visa, who realized that the bank is a network of protocols rather than an institution defined by physical buildings. .
Mulgan also asks productive questions. Why does every major city have a museum and a public library but no forward-looking institutions? (Exceptions are Singapore’s Center for Strategic Futures, Dubai’s Museum of the Future, and, something Mulgan doesn’t mention, Israel’s Start-Up Nation Central.) Why do so many public inquiries focus on the past ? Mulgan describes Kevin Rudd’s Australia 2000 project which involved thousands of Australians in thinking about the big issues facing the lucky country. Why not follow Sweden in creating a Psychological Defense Agency to protect against Russian psychological attacks or follow Finland in teaching all school children to recognize fake news and misinformation?
It’s all very exciting. Mulgan’s overall approach is optimistic – he has spent his entire career in problem solving rather than, like this columnist, in the problem-solving business. Many of the ideas he suggests wouldn’t be horribly expensive – an Australian-style inquiry into the future might be cheaper than, say, the current inquiry into the causes of the Grenfell Tower disaster. But my fear is that the solutions of our futurists are too bland to address the problems they are meant to solve.
Mulgan rightly points out that imaginative breakthroughs tend to occur when rival intellectual traditions collide, battle, and to some extent merge. Bismarck fused traditional nationalism with a welfare state and modern administration. Tony Blair combined a pro-market economy with a commitment to the welfare state. But confrontation and fusion become more difficult in a world where politicians are divided into tribes over identity and where heresy hunters happily drive unorthodox thinkers out of public life.
Universities have practically abandoned their role as generators of new political and social ideas for a quasi-religious role of imposing a single orthodoxy. Academics are now massively cut from the same left-liberal fabric, with conservatives disappearing from business schools in the same way they have long since disappeared from arts faculties. This is bad in itself: as the French sociologist Émile Durkheim has pointed out, “it is, indeed, a universal fact that, when a conviction of some force is held by the same community of men, it takes inevitably a religious character. Worse still is the drive of many activists, aided by a burgeoning diversity bureaucracy and a group of student activists, to root out heterodox thinking. This means that it is virtually impossible to explore some of the most interesting emerging intellectual opportunities, including the implications of modern genetic research for social policy.
As a true progressive, Mulgan is also surprisingly reluctant to explore the issue of monopoly. Declining confidence in the future is strongly correlated with the rise of big data monopolies in Silicon Valley. In the optimistic 1990s, the Valley was synonymous with freewheeling capitalism where start-ups competed to invent the future. Today it is ruled by information platforms vying to dominate every possible corner of the new economy.
These platform giants aren’t just gaining a virtual monopoly of people with the talent and knowledge to seriously think about the future of technology. They also ensure that you do not have access in the future without selling information about you to people who make no secret of their desire to use this information to shape your behavior.
So let us by all means build intellectual bridges, investigate the future, create museums of the future, revive our minds, and do all the other sensible things that Mulgan suggests. But to rekindle the social and political imagination, we must do more than that: we must revive the spirit of classical liberalism and apply it to new circumstances. This will require hand-to-hand combat with some of the most powerful vested interests in the knowledge industrial complex. We must challenge the academic clergy who prevent the possibility of research in promising new areas. We need to stimulate the supply of intellectual talent by reaching the underserved. And we must break the information monopolies that are doing so much to turn a once-bright future into a dystopian nightmare.
More from Bloomberg Opinion:
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This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the Editorial Board or of Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Adrian Wooldridge is a global economics columnist for Bloomberg Opinion. A former writer at The Economist, he is the author, most recently, of “The Aristocracy of Talent: How Meritocracy Made the Modern World”.
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