97 We might predict events – not impacts (part II)

Posted on April 20, 2012 by


It’s time to introduce a new element: creativity.

I’ve tried to find an example of “pure” creativity: the invention of something we use or consume that did not exist before we thought of it. At the same time, it must not be an “enabler” – a good that allows us to do things we had not intended originally. It has proven more difficult than I imagined.

Robinson Crusoe invents a dish. He eats better than before: his daily routine is enhanced. That may be seen as pure “creativity”. Next step: he may create a tool for a specific purpose. Having developed the tool, he may then adapt it to a different purpose: the impact goes well beyond the original intent as he discovers new ways of using his tool. The tool has transmogrified into an “enabler”. There is no clear boundary between “use” and “enabling”: this process is a continuous one. Even his dish may “enable” him to work harder and build a sturdier hut, which allows him better shelter….

As soon as people “create” within a social setting, however, things get complicated. Take silk, first woven in China. It was a tissue to keep warm. That was the original intent. The immediate impact was the number of people who wove silk to stay warm. Soon enough, however, silk was used to pay taxes; the imperial court used silks to differentiate amongst ranks of Mandarins, and so on. Whatever is invented soon enough also turns into a “social enabler” – it allows inventor and/or user both to use and impart symbolic value to it: it tells “others” something about the owner.

In a social setting “pure” creativity no longer exists.  Next to use there is always a symbolic dimension. An object always also tells a “story”, and the “story” may often be more important that the invention. At least symbolically if not materially, anything we create is an “enabler” as well. Creativity always has twofold impact.

I’d like therefore to focus on “enablers”, which are “creativity with a twist of the unforeseen” – both functional and social. Here a grand “enabler”:

Innovation in transportation technology are among the most powerful causes of change in human social and political life. The introduction of the private automobile created suburbs, malls and superhighways; transformed heavy industry; generated a vast market for oil; polluted the atmosphere; scattered families across the map; provided a rolling heated space in which young people could escape and have sex; and fashioned a powerful new way to express personal status and identity.”[1]


(my dream car at the time – I only got to wash and polish it for a rich uncle)

The author of this splendid book then goes on to show how the domestication of the horse, riding it, the cart, the chariot, and other means of transport transformed over millennia the world of the steppe and made it one of the most important drivers of human civilization (I’ll revert to it in the next post). Whoever first rode a horse, or conceived of a wagon, could not possibly imagine or foresee the impact of his creative gesture.

Let’s take other examples. Google is a search engine – typically an “enabler”. The twist is that the firm gets paid through advertising it delivers collaterally to the search service. Who would have imagined that this weird combination would be a success? Not its inventors, who unsuccessfully tried to unload the concept for 1.4 million US$ – and failed. They persisted. Now they are “top of the world”.

MS-DOS was a “quickie” Bill Gates did for IBM. He was able to retain copyright, for IBM thought it would be superseded in no time flat… Once established, however, MS-DOS and its subsequent avatars turned out to be irreplaceable “enablers”. That’s how Bill Gates became the richest man in the world or thereabouts.

Think of how many different ways you use the “post-it” sticker. How many uses have we invented for “post-it”? 3M has made a fortune from: what?…  A “post-it” is nothing but scrap-paper – but one which is not lost in our daily confusion (the distinctive yellow helps).

Whenever confronted with a new “enabler” human imagination “goes ballistic”. Either humans discover new uses, or they attach symbolic meanings to it, or both. Anyway – an irrepressible and irreversible dynamic is set in motion – a “path-dependent outcome”. We may predict the event. But the impact: go figure it out!

[1]           David W. ANTHONY (2007): The horse, the wheel, and language. How bronze-age riders from the Eurasian steppes shaped the modern world. Princeton University Press, Princeton. P. 459