Societies can suffer from famines of the mind as well as famines of the belly. Ideas wither on the vine; plants turn into husks; fields lie fallow; and before long the economic growth that ultimately feeds on the imagination stalls. This is what is happening to the world’s imaginative life, most notably in the West, which since the days of the Enlightenment has prided itself on the creative power of ideas.
The movie of the moment, in both box office and critical terms, is Tom Cruise’s Top Gun: Maverick, a sequel to a 1986 blockbuster. Publishers are forever looking for the next Malcolm Gladwell. Politicians are caught up in yesterday’s battles — over abortion in America or imperial measures in Britain. The 17th-century sage Francis Bacon was once called the buccinator novi temporis — the trumpeter of new times. Nowadays, many of the loudest trumpeters are of old times.
If that sounds impressionistic, consider the quantitative evidence on the productivity of ideas. One study found that research productivity has declined sharply in software, agriculture and medicine. A second study found that the average age of Nobel Prize-winners has risen steadily and the size of teams involved in science has increased. A third study — there is no shortage of studies — found that the average age at which academics publish their first article in a prestigious publication has risen — from 30 in mathematics in 1950 to 35 in 2013.
Torrance Test of Creative Thinking
American researchers have been running something called the Torrance Test of Creative Thinking since the mid-1960s. A study of the data by Kyung Hee Kim found that, although various measures of creativity and originality had risen in line with average IQ until 1990, ever since then they have been falling. “The results indicate creative thinking is declining over time among Americans of all ages, especially in kindergarten through third grade. The decline is steady and persistent.”
How can we explain this withering of the imagination? More people than ever before live in cities, the supposed engines of creativity, and more people attend universities. Giant companies such as Google and Facebook devote untold billions to inventing the future. Every PC contains all the tools you need to write a book.
One explanation lies in the sheer burden of knowledge and the consequent dictatorship of specialisation. Academics take longer than ever to reach the frontiers of knowledge — and when they finally get there they tend to crawl along with a magnifying glass rather than standing up and looking through a telescope.
Why does every great city have a museum and a public library but no institutions focused on the future? (Exceptions are Singapore’s Centre for Strategic Futures, Dubai’s Museum of the Future and Israel’s Start-Up Nation Central.)
Academic metrics play their malign part: Research bureaucrats look for safe ideas that fit into their predefined metrics rather than genuinely path-breaking ideas. So does Brandolini’s law, which states that it takes an order of magnitude more energy to refute bullshit than it does to produce it. Given the industrial scale of the production of toxic guff from PR companies and consultancies, these days that is an awful lot of effort.
The Germans have an evocative phrase to describe what is going on in the broader culture: das Verschwinden der Zukunft — “the disappearance of the future.” Large majorities of parents expect their children to be worse off than them — by a margin of 80% to 15% in France, 76% to 15% in Japan, 61% to 19% in Italy and 57% to 33% in the traditionally optimistic US. Young people are particularly pessimistic about liberal verities such as democracy and free speech.
For all its narrow utilitarianism, neoliberalism was at least a theory of the future — a vision of a more prosperous world combined with a set of policies designed to bring that world about. The eclipse of neoliberalism has led to a retreat into either nostalgia or nihilism across the political elite. Boris Johnson’s government talks about reintroducing imperial measures and imposing steel tariffs. Extinction Rebellion describes capitalism as a cancer. Even the sci-fi fantasies that remain popular with the tech elite are mired in the 1960s and 1970s — Star Trek stuck on endless repeat.
Can anything be done to improve the world’s ability to imagine a desirable future? A new book by Geoff Mulgan, Another World is Possible: How to Reignite Social and Political Imagination, fizzes with ideas. Mulgan is a veteran of this world from every possible direction — top down, bottom up and sideways on. He worked in Downing Street as director of Tony Blair’s Strategy Unit and then head of policy. He was chief executive of Nesta, the UK’s innovation foundation, and then the Young Foundation. He is now a professor of collective intelligence, public policy and social innovation at University College London (the titles of chairs seem to expand even as the number of people it takes to write the average academic article multiplies).
Mulgan shares the peculiar defects of his futurist tribe. He talks about spending time in a Buddhist monastery at the age of 17 and extols the wisdom of pre-industrial peoples. The virtues of dancing get a mention along the way. But he also throws out a lot of sensible advice based on what he calls “a lifetime’s involvement in making ideals real.”
Prefer simple ideas to elaborate blueprints: The “right to buy” (of council houses) and “net zero” were successful because they were capable of endless iteration. Build bridges between different worlds: Universities should focus much more on solving the problems of their host communities than storing bodies of knowledge. Play around with extending ideas: Just as neoliberals prospered by pushing markets into new areas, progressives might prosper with redefining legal personhood to include natural entities. Learn how to forget things: “Forgetting, not learning, is the real — and fiendishly difficult — trick,” said Dee Ward Hock, the founder of Visa, who realised that banking is a network of protocols rather than an institution defined by physical buildings.
The [Silicon] Valley was synonymous with a freewheeling capitalism in which start-ups competed to invent the future. Today, it is ruled by information platforms that are battling it out to dominate every possible corner of the new economy.
Mulgan also asks some productive questions. Why does every great city have a museum and a public library but no institutions focused on the future? (Exceptions are Singapore’s Centre for Strategic Futures, Dubai’s Museum of the Future and, something that Mulgan doesn’t mention, Israel’s Start-Up Nation Central.) Why are so many public inquiries focused on the past? Mulgan describes Kevin Rudd’s Australia 2000 project which got thousands of Australians involved in thinking about the big problems facing the lucky country. Why don’t we follow Sweden in creating a Psychological Defence Agency to protect against Russian psychological attacks or follow Finland in teaching all schoolchildren to recognise fake news and disinformation?
This is all very exciting. Mulgan’s overall approach is optimistic — he’s spent his entire career in the problem-solving rather than, like this columnist, in the problem-wallowing business. Many of the ideas he suggests wouldn’t be horrendously expensive — an Australian-style inquiry into the future might be cheaper than, say, the current inquiry into the causes of the Grenfell Tower disaster. But my fear is that our futurist’s solutions are too bland to deal with the problems that they are designed to solve.
How breakthroughs occur
Mulgan rightly points out that imaginative breakthroughs tend to come when rival intellectual traditions clash, battle and, to some extent, meld. Bismarck fused traditional nationalism with a welfare state and modern administration. Tony Blair combined pro-market economics with commitment to the welfare state. But clashing and melding is getting more difficult in a world where politicians are divided into tribes over identity and where heresy-hunters happily drive unorthodox thinkers out of public life.
Universities have all but abandoned their role as generators of new political and social ideas for a quasi-religious role of imposing a single orthodoxy. Academics are now overwhelmingly cut from the same left-liberal cloth, with conservatives disappearing from business schools in the same way that they long ago disappeared from arts faculties. This is bad in itself: As the French sociologist Emile Durkheim pointed out, “it is, indeed, a universal fact that, when a conviction of any strength is held by the same community of men, it inevitably takes on a religious character.” Even worse is the drive by many activists, helped by a burgeoning diversity bureaucracy and a cadre of militant students, to stamp out heterodox thought. This means that it is all but impossible to explore some of the most interesting emerging intellectual opportunities, most notably the implications of modern genetic research for social policy.
As a progressive in good standing, Mulgan is also surprisingly reluctant to explore the question of monopoly. The decline in faith in the future is highly correlated with the rise of great data monopolies in Silicon Valley. In the optimistic 1990s, the Valley was synonymous with a freewheeling capitalism in which start-ups competed to invent the future. Today, it is ruled by information platforms that are battling it out to dominate every possible corner of the new economy.
These platform giants are not only acquiring a near monopoly of the people with the talent and knowledge to think seriously about the future of technology. They are also ensuring that you don’t have access to the future without selling information about yourself to people who make little secret of their desire to use that information to shape your behaviour.
So let’s by all means construct intellectual bridges, conduct inquiries into the future, create museums of the future, rewild our minds and do all the other sensible things that Mulgan suggests. But in order to reignite the social and political imagination, we need to do more than this: We need to revive the spirit of classical liberalism and apply it to new circumstances. This will require hand-to-hand combat with some of the most powerful vested interests in the knowledge-industrial complex. We need to challenge the academic clerisy that is preventing the possibility of research into promising new areas. We need to boost the supply of intellectual talent by reaching neglected populations. And we need to break up the information monopolies that are doing so much to turn a once-bright future into a dystopian nightmare.
Adrian Wooldridge is the global business columnist for Bloomberg Opinion.