Innovation vs Status Quo in Science, the Arts and Business

The Visioneers: Skeptics Society Lecture at Caltech, Pasadena - Jan. 20, 2013

Jan. 20, 2013 Beckman Auditorium at Caltech, Pasadena –
The Visioneers, with author Dr. W. Patrick McCray, streamed online as shown here

First is the good news that the Skeptics Society at Caltech is now streaming their lectures live online. Usually I would prefer to be there in person, but in a pinch streaming is a great option for those who are not in Pasadena, or those who are, like me, but have not enough time to get over there early enough to get a seat, park, wait, etc.

Yesterdays lecture by Dr. W. Patrick McCray was derived from his research and book, The Visioneers: How a Group of Elite Scientists Pursued Space Colonies, Nanotechnologies, and a Limitless Future. If you are interested in the entire lecture, keep an eye on their website for when they make the DVD available – usually a collection of lectures.

I talk a great deal in this blog about the importance of having creative people join any discussion about science, ethical science, the future of science, etc. Dr. McCray made it clear why we also need the overview reflections of historians as we think about science and plan for the future of science. Those doing science are primarily, of necessity, bound up in the now of what they are doing; an historian is able to take the time and look from the vantage point of someone analyzing science with a perspective broad enough (history) to grasp implications of importance regarding what has gone before, what is happening now, and what might be in the future.

Dr. McCray’s Visioneers are scientists who “blended countercultural ideals with hard science, entrepreneurship, libertarianism, and unbridled optimism about the future… (from the Facebook page for event).” He discusses Princeton physicist Gerard O’Neill and MIT-trained engineer Eric Drexler. O’Neill explored the idea of space colonies, when that was all the rage in the 1970s as we began to realize that we were running out of earth (population explosion) and possibly destroying it (environmental damage by humans*1). Drexler came along in the 80s and pursued the idea of staying here on earth and fixing things via nanotechnology (the advent of computers and molecular biology allowed him to envision building little machines from atoms up that would do good things).

The support and controversy these men stimulated in our society, our government and in the scientific community itself make the lecture well worth watching and the book well worth reading. What I want to address here are the book-end observations made by Dr. McCray in his lecture, for I think they address the crux of what all of us need to be deliberating about.

The lecture opened with the statement: ” The challenge is how to differentiate between radical new ideas that are great, true and worth pursuing and those that are quackery.”

Dr. McCray cited what I consider a tired cliche: “We need to keep an open mind.”

I have spoken here before about the problem with new ideas in the Arts. How they are often (usually?) met with scorn and ridicule. Audiences fled the concert hall in reaction to the new sounds of Debussy.  Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake, today regarded as the pinnacle of ballet greats, was considered undanceable when it was written. The Impressionists, Cubists, and today many modern painters were/are scorned by the public and critics initially.

Seeing the parallels between reactions to new Arts and reactions to new Science is important. And it is not just “open-mindedness” that allows a few to appreciate new things, to grasp the difference between new that is valid and important, and new that is quackery.

When I began teaching graphic and interactive design to college students, I was confronted with this problem of innovation and open-mindedness in academia. My emphasis as a designer and, so it followed, as a teacher, has been on design innovation; why would I want to copy what is already out there rather than come up with new ideas? However, as a college teacher, I was confronted with the fact that not all teachers agree with my ideas about design and teaching; most, I discovered, teach (and I would assume design) what is popular, what is already out there.

This realization came to me first when I began to see what a portfolio teacher at the college where I taught was doing with the innovative designs some of my students had created: he was having the students throw them out or redesign them. One example stands out in my memory. A female student had designed what I thought was a great, creative and innovative visual identity and logomark for a new make-up company; but when she showed me her identity system after it had been “massaged” by the portfolio teacher the following quarter, the design motif she had developed was gone entirely and the logomark had become a simple (boring, cliched and unmemorable) pair of red lips.

As time went on, I came to some realizations about innovation in design. I believe there is a direct parallel to innovation in science, in writing, in business, in management, in anything. There are very few innovators. Most designers (and thus teachers of design) teach what is already out there. They teach students how to do the most beautiful variations of what is already out there. And that is okay. Because, the public probably couldn’t take all the innovation if all the designers were innovating! Imagine seeing everything in a magazine as new design, new products. Imagine going to concerts and never hearing anything that sounded anything like something you had already heard? We probably can only handle so much innovation in our lives.

So, maybe nature has selected for only so many innovators.

On the other hand, I have also concluded that innovation can be taught. And it really has only partly to do with keeping an open mind. It has to do with experimentation, it has to do with not being afraid of ridicule, of not needing peer and mentor approval all the time, it has to do with learning how to work with both hemispheres of the brain . . . . I could go on.

We may need to find ways to keep innovators in check, but I think the time has come, the problems (like global warming) are serious enough that we need to push innovation more, not rely on our very slow, naturally selected, tendencies toward innovation and toward acceptance of innovation.

Yet, if we are ever going to understand what is valid and worthwhile innovation, and what not, we need to understand innovation better. And we may not be capable of that. The slow grasping and assimilation of innovation may simply part of the evolutionary algorithm.

And that brings me to some statements made in Dr. McCray’s lecture conclusion.

“Radical” scientists Drexler and O’Neill did not fail. We may not have space colonies of O’Neil’s utopian dreams, and we may not have little molecular robots running around cleaning everything up and fixing everything for us, but those two scientists stimulated advances in science and discussion of science.

McCray also rang  warning bell. It was an off-hand comment, yet perhaps the most important moment of his lecture: He told us that it was probably a good thing that humans did not just jump full throttle onto the bandwagons of these innovators – that we have allowed them to stimulate discussion and scientific advances, that we have taken their ideas and created change at a reasonable pace, incorporated the useful of their innovations, and abandoned the unnecessary ones. O’Neil and Drexler worked with very small budgets, and they worked under the auspices of academic and government oversight, so there was in fact no way they could have advanced their ideas too quickly, or advanced ideas that would later prove to be not in the best interest of the science or the public. A danger he sees now is that many of the new 21st century innovators are technology and science billionaires, whose innovative ambitions are not limited by a lack of funds and resources.

Do we really want independent, Libertarian, private sector billionaire scientists and technologists experimenting with our future – unchecked?

While I believe that we need to give innovation some booster shots if we are to deal with the problems of our current world, and I believe that the ability to innovate can be taught, I agree that we need more checks and balances, more deliberation than we have ever needed as we venture forward.

To that end, I will be blogging about a space panel discussion and an interview with one of those space billionaires in coming weeks.

*1 Yes, this has been a topic of discussion and awareness for a very long time!

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