AQ: Australian Quarterly

Slowing down; keeping up

Ideas – or more specifically, the capacity to imagine that which is not there – are the driving force of human history. This central premise of Felipe Fernández-Armesto’s 2019 Out of Our Minds: What We Think and How We Came to Think It1 might seem unremarkable, except that in this sweeping history of the human imagination, the author finds that most of the ideas humans have are quite wrong.

In it, he finds most of the handful of enduringly good ideas humans have had, were had tens of thousands of years ago, when culture and thought were almost static and technology almost non-existent. These are the ideas that respond to the deepest human dilemmas: How do we tell truth from falsehood? How should we mediate the Promethean power of technology? The best responses are more like heuristics – they caution against certainty and allow humans to live with uncertainty.

Most of the ideas added to this small corpus of worthwhile thoughts have been horrendous failures. Many of them, however they started out, have been steered to familiar ends – the quest to deceive, exploit, and dominate other humans.

At heart, Homo sapiens is a projectile-hurling primate with an intractably restless mind, oscillating uneasily between unreliable reflection and over-resourced anticipation, and combining and recombining the two into every imaginable folly.

The evidence of history is clear. No overall progress should be expected in human affairs. While science and technology yield an accumulation of power for some humans over others – these selective fruits of the human imagination cannot be generalised. In human affairs, the good and the bad are permanently intermixed.

Contrary to a common contemporary belief, Fernández-Armesto notes that our best ideas have come from periods of long stability and little discernible innovation – the longest lived and most successful human cultures are like this too. If we take a view of history unimpeded by the absurdity of modern hubris, the only conclusion can be that imagination is a dangerous evolutionary gamble, and that the gamble has not and likely will not pay off.

This is, of course, a modern heresy. We live in an era of mind-numbingly rapid technology-driven change, where equally mind-numbing buzz-words like ‘innovation’, ‘disruption’, and ‘transformation’ have become not means-to-ends, but literally ends-unto-themselves.

If the Pied Pipers of the San Fransisco Bay area are to be believed – and they are believed by enormous numbers of otherwise reasonable people – the game of technological innovation and disruption resembles an all-out evolutionary struggle. Like

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