Explaining technical change (Elster, 1983) takes us on an incredible journey, at times more fleeting than we would wish, where flexibility to adapt to changes and reinvention are almost an obligation. This technological development faces constant contradictions such as how to solve -at this stage- the environmental problems generated by the combustion engine or polymer synthesis. We continue to innovate, but sometimes only to correct the mistakes of previous innovations.
“A book has more range than a tablet”, suggested an amusing piece on YouTube, because the former will last longer without a battery. Which is perhaps a form of paraphrasing that old Socratic theory: I think with insecurity, because it’s the safest kind of thought. The habit of retreating and then moving forward is a piece of advice from the legendary School of Athens. Aristotle knew that he had to describe the world scientifically, but he preferred to fall back on various occasions before undertaking such a task. One of those famous retreats is given in his Organon, where he establishes a manual of good thought. A similar strategy would perhaps be a good idea in the midst of the effervescence of inventiveness that surrounds us.
The innovation fever can be traced back to the economic sciences and its sources can be found in Joseph Schumpeter and his theory of innovation (1939), which in turn might be related to the classic Hegelian tension between opposites that solve a conflict. Those who have continued this tradition include, among others, Christopher Freeman (1992) and his contributions to the Schumpeterian theory, whose echoes have reached the Kennedy School at Harvard University.
The idea itself can be found in the roots of history. Although not all scientists have been innovators, their discoveries have been used by some inventors whose theoretical training was not as clear-cut. Watt improved the steam machine from a technical rather than a scientific perspective. Steve Jobs resorted to the developments in processor microarchitecture with a practical and curiously esthetic mentality. So the transfers between technique and science are a classic in the narrative of invention.
In the origins of scientific thought, the Greeks talked about discovering, while their modern successors refer to the experimental. To this tradition, technical knowledge was inferior to theoretical knowledge. But innovation is a complex process, as Schumpeter himself imagined. Something like the tip of an iceberg that is based on cross-cutting relationships between science, technique and even chance. Discovering its structure is a complex task, not to say titanic. Only at the end of the 19th century did some philosophers attempt to discover the structural alchemy of scientific developments. These included the neo-positivist philosophers of the Vienna Circle who spoke about a linearity of progress, an assertion soon rejected by Karl R. Popper. The subsequent analysis was conducted by authors such as R.H. Hanson, Paul Feyerabend, Stephen Toulmin or the famous Thomas Kuhn. There is one issue that perhaps has been neglected, namely intuition, which curiously enough was better addressed by the economists than by the philosophers of science.
Innovation and the search for beauty
Freeman himself, in a 1998 article, acknowledges some manifestations of Nietzsche’s ideas in Schumpeter, quoting authors like Andersen or Svedberg and their work over the final decade of the last century. The risk-taking by entrepreneurs, that Schumpeter admired, suggested the Nietzschean idea of the Superman, but the roots and connections can be even more revealing. In his early years, the great influence of the young Nietzsche was music, and particularly Wagner. Behind his break with moral tradition and the search for the frontiers of the human there are also connections with the destructive creation upheld by Schumpeter. This journey along ethics, with the esthetic counterpoint, has been one of the master strokes of the thought of Saxon philosophers, whose titles are already a declaration of reflective intent on the forces that strike humankind. Therefore, if we talk about innovation, then we should mention the search for beauty (and not only by Nietzsche), because in the history of art the cycles when tradition is overcome trigger reflections on the human being’s need to look into new ways of expression. It is interesting, however, that Schumpeterianism should describe a history of scientific development and transfer between technology and science, but disregarding the links with esthetic intuition.
R&D centers should make a note of this element, perhaps imitating very creative periods of history such as the Renaissance or the Industrial Revolution. There is no strategy on matters of esthetic identity, even when -in many cases- it determines today’s products. I would only recommend education in and on the history of art, that will later contribute to the innovative process. Jobs was well aware of this, as he attended a course on calligraphy at Stanford. However, today many universities segregate their teachings and turn what should be communicating vessels into watertight compartments. It is said that the façade of Plato’s Academy read: “Let no one ignorant of geometry enter”. It was surely a call for rigorous knowledge of proportions, but also for good taste.
Ángel Pérez Martínez
Researcher at Universidad del Pacífico, Lima
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