The duplicitous conceit of innovation

Words can, by their nature and temperament, be quite exact, vague or expansive things. They can also be wounding, playful and beautiful. Take for instance “intercourse”, “union”, or “climate”. There is a duplicity, a little obscure danger to these seemingly innocent words, which as language give life to whole cultures, a wider sense of human interactions and consciousness.

 We know what a graceful person is or is supposed to be, have heard of promiscuous flirts, and if we tap into our primal brains, instinctively understand what could constitute erotic magic. Words can also be sensual, formal, deceptive and downright serious. Words like “innovation” are so full of purpose and self-importance. They are not playful at all, not like say: love bite, dreamer or nudist.

 In exploring and taming the meaning of words, therefore, whether Mickey Mousey or Winston Churchilly, one often has to bear in mind that there are in the spoken, written or thought-about realms of words, lurking inner membranes of the emotive, a necessary and complex terrain of overall human architecture.

  So: innovation can be defined as the innate desire of human beings to explore the full extent of their humanity in relation to the complexities and, in some instances, limitations of the universe and, most ambitiously, the very sense of being or becoming.

For believers, this licence is expressly awarded and articulated in Genesis 1:26-28: “And God said, ‘Let us make man in our image, after our likeness: and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth.’”

  Over all the Earth. That is some mandate. To be politically correct, humankind has, however, exceeded the parameters of this mandate countless times: in our exploratory, organised, and groundbreaking thought and knowledge systems that have given rise to various sciences including in aviation and space exploration, advances in medicine, in military affairs, in architecture and construction.

  So complex and limitless is the depth of humanity’s capacity to dream and imagine newer, faster, greater, equitable, preservatory, dangerous and destructive creations (for innovations are essentially creations, or additions to and the betterment of existing creations) that one would be forgiven for chuckling, a tongue in cheek wink that borders on the blasphemous, that God, for his own amusement, omitted to state that “over all the earth” was not a permit for greed and foolishness.

  In a sense we, human beings, are diminished versions of the master innovator, who had the foresight of a possible palace coup had he left the full powers to truly and irreversibly “subdue the earth to those created in his likeness”.

  Think for a moment what a Donald Trump would, if he could, have done to weather systems and patterns of people in shithole countries, what dictators in coastal countries could do with readily available ocean waters if the Enola Gay, Little Boy and Fat Man are anything to go by.

   Scripture, however, paints the grand scale of God as so unknowable that it is futile trying to place penicillin, Albert Einstein, Alexandra Graham Bell, Apple or Credo Mutwa in God time or perception. Thinking and commenting on innovation, a somewhat grand conceptual paradigm, is by design and outcomes, an evolving and non-conclusive quest. For instance: the Ford Model T and original Remington typewriter are mild and yawn-inducing creations by today’s standards, even though one cannot think of present-day supercomputers and bullets-on-tarmac BMW M3s without the cranky cars and ink ribbons of yore.

  One has to tip a hat to the Paul Austers and Javier Maríases of this world, still rumoured to use and prefer typewriters over computers, the irony of which is that innovation in and of itself can be worthless.

  What is the point of entrusting an M3 to an ill-equipped driver who will drive it off Chapman’s Peak? It can be argued that innovation is both a blessing and a curse, relatively speaking. Jet air travel is wonderful, but not when you were employed at the original Twin Towers on September 11. Enriched uranium can be pontificated about, but not when in the hands of rogue states. Viagra is to some a wonderful innovation, but not so for exhausted wives of 22 years (matrimonial time) who would much prefer quietude and some Vivaldi in the background while absorbed by a Susan Sontag gem. An AK-47 assault rifle is a “celebrated” and dependable weapon of war and symbol of revolution, but not so during cash-in-transit heists in shopping malls or public spaces.

  The combination of humanism, capitalism and consumerism, of the information age and of shifting power blocks in geopolitics have cast interesting contrasts on the purity of human endeavour. Spiritual leaders warn of the excesses of worldly possessions often resulting from innovation (think smart phones, Rolexes and Ferraris), while consumers and legislators are suspicious of even well-intentioned innovations in commerce, in governance or in politics: for the promise of new does not always mean the reality of better.

  Humankind can be domineering, beautiful, conceited, vulgar, narrow-minded, prejudiced and saintly. It might follow, therefore, that the inventions and innovations from beings that can possess and project these character traits will, in some instances, distil their virtues or ills into the very innovations they endeavour to will into existence.

  A tension exists between innovation being perceived and practiced as a vice for the betterment of societies, while having the potential to overreach, to undermine, to even corrupt. Birth control in all its manifestations (the pill, condoms and injections) is for example a contested theme in modern politics or religious formations. It is a “responsible” intervention for family planning, population and disease control, but we cannot ignore that the noble intentions of such medical science encroach on God territory or promote, at some level, promiscuity of varied kinds. It is scientifically brilliant or morally questionable, depending on who you are speaking to, or what they stand to gain or lose.

  Approached from another direction, it is worth pondering that the world is, at least on emotive and thought planes, generally and typically populated by three kinds of people: pessimists, optimists and the spineless, undecided whether to sulk or be jolly. There is, across all three personality types, a case to be made on the reach and cumulative value of innovation across time, civilizations, cultures and even places.

  Take the history of flight, from jumping off towers to the Montgolfier and Wright brothers and up to Boeing and Airbus of today. It is unlikely that Leonardo da Vinci designing his wing, or the Wright brothers designing their aircraft had a sense that aviation innovation would reach and surpass Concorde possibilities. Likewise that splitting atoms and nuclear fission would result in the Cold War, or that penicillin would almost eradicate the scourge of polio.

  Innovation is by its very nature an evolutionary reality. As a framework of thought, it permeates every crevice of human existence and society; how to live and function and self-destruct better. The progressive instincts that form the bedrock of human intelligence and by implication advancement, are a back and forth endeavour because of the inherent failures, detours, delays and limitations that result in creative dead-ends, obsolete inventions, or remarkable leaps in homo sapien ingenuity.

  Because of the multidisciplinary and collaborative nature of innovation, human foolishness and pettiness are often thwarted in favour and pursuit of the bigger picture which, in its essence, is meant to give them “dominion over all the earth”. It is from this root, the supposed divine origins and mandate to be temporary landlords of the earth, with daring scope creep into other avenues of the universe, that humans continue to develop thought and knowledge systems that extend the possibility and capacity of what it means to be human: the preservation, destruction, and expansion of a species.

This article was produced as part of a partnership between the Mail & Guardian and the Goethe-Institut, focusing on various aspects of innovation.

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Nthikeng Mohlele
Nthikeng Mohlele
Nthikeng Mohlele is a South African novelist whose novels include Michael K (Picador Africa, 2018),a rewriting of J. M. Coetzee's Life & Times of Michael K.

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