Thursday, September 1, 2011

Standing still requires creative effort

In competitive track cycling, there's a curious technique—in the two-person racing format known as sprinting—that consists of standing still on your bike while hoping that the other person will be forced to head off first. The general idea is that it's preferable to remain in the second position at the start of a sprint, since you can take advantage of the first rider's airstream.

Funnily enough, standing still on a track bicycle consumes quite a lot of physical energy, because the rider has to be constantly pressing back and forth on his pedals to avoid moving forwards down the track (or backwards, in certain situations). I know what I'm talking about because, back in my days of track cycling, I used to master this technique quite successfully… but mainly just for fun. Let us refer to this spent energy as status quo (SQ) energy. In other words, it's the energy you need to spend in order to stay exactly where you are.

In our everyday life, we often encounter people who appear to be spending enormous amounts of SQ energy in order to remain more-or-less immobile. I'm thinking above all of bourgeois folk who are obsessed by their status within such-and-such a peer group to which they belong. Even though the Joneses may in fact evolve imperceptibly at a social level, simply keeping up with them can be a relentless and arduous full-time job for neighbors who make this their mission. Most often, SQ energy is used in the hope of demonstrating that one is perfectly normal with respect to one's particular milieu. Members of social groups such as political parties, civic associations, religious bodies and sporting clubs will often devote a lot of SQ energy towards furthering the impression that they are ordinary trustworthy members of the group in question, with no imaginable reason to be ostracized. In another context, you might say that a young man asking for the hand of the girl he loves is often called upon to expend much SQ energy in the context of his future parents-in-law. In La Cage aux Folles, poor Albin had to exploit with talent a maximum of SQ energy in order to prove that "she" was, as expected, an ordinary and acceptable wife/mother.

It would be a mistake to consider that SQ energy is negative, or wasted, because it might indeed be important—for citizens preoccupied by their social status, no less than for a track cyclist—to remain in the same place, with the same status as before. But we would probably not be too wrong in referring to SQ energy as nonproductive, in the sense that it gives rise to nothing new. That's to say, it's not at all the kind of energy that a society might use in its quest for innovation.

Now, the reason I'm talking about SQ energy is that this question has arisen in one of the many ingenious explanations in The Beginning of Infinity by David Deutsch, in a chapter entitled The Evolution of Creativity. Deutsch set out to explain a puzzling era in human prehistory and history. For countless generations, humanity's progress could be represented by an almost flat graph. That's to say, there was no perceptible social or technical innovation whatsoever. In a general sense (excluding calamities, all too frequent, such as warfare, plagues and natural catastrophes), every day tended to be a copy of the previous day. Then, all of a sudden, at an epoch designated as the Enlightenment, the old world order exploded, and innovation burgeoned. Well, Deutsch envisages the existence of a common force behind the immensely long period of negligible human progress and the prolific age of the Enlightenment, and he designates that common force by an unexpected term: creativity.

• During the preliminary era of near-zero progress, individuals who were sufficiently endowed genetically with creativity were able to expend SQ energy enabling them to survive in primitive so-called static societies that abhorred all forms of innovation.

• When the tide turned with the Enlightenment, this same endowment of creativity enabled the descendants of the static societies to abandon their SQ preoccupations and to promote all kinds of innovation.

Here's the pivotal paragraph from Deutsch:

Hence, paradoxically, it requires creativity to thrive in a static society — creativity that enables one to be less innovative than other people. And that is how primitive, static societies, which contained pitifully little knowledge and existed only by suppressing innovation, constituted environments that strongly favoured the evolution of an ever-greater ability to innovate.
The Beginning of Infinity, page 414

As in a track-cycling sprint, the same forces that have enabled a rider to stand still can then be unleashed to make him win.

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