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Back to the future – mankind’s new ideas that aren’t new at all

Rethink: the Surprising History of New Ideas by Steven Poole reviewed.

When Steven Poole writes a book review, he likes to lie to himself. His only conscious decision is to jot down a few notes as the deadline approaches. There is no pressure to think deep thoughts, he tells himself, or to reach the required word count. Then invariably, in a few hours, he has written the entire review. This happens time and again. No matter how many times he convinces himself he is merely jotting and thinking, the result is a finished article.

Human beings are extraordinarily good at deceiving themselves and possibly never more so than when they think that they have had a new idea, as Poole makes clear in this fascinating compendium of new ideas that aren’t new at all. He digs deep into subjects as various as cosmology, economics, health care and bioethics to show that, as the writer of Ecclesiastes put it (long before Poole), “There is nothing new under the sun.” This is demonstrated in the re-emergence of ideas such as therapeutic psychedelic drugs, inherited traits that aren’t programmed into the genome, cognitive behavioural therapy, getting our protein from insects, and the multiverse.

Poole explores these propositions deftly enough, but they are not what interest him here. Rather, his subject is the way that we have seen them all before. He ties together what he concedes is a “highly selective snapshot of the looping evolution of ideas” with the observation that: “Any culture that thinks the past is irrelevant is one in which future invention threatens to stall.” Originality, he argues, is overrated.

The book might be something of a downer for those who like to gaze at “progress” with wide-eyed admiration. The starkest takeaway is that we are clearly hopeless at putting good ideas to work. In his discussion of artificial intelligence, for instance, Poole mentions the emerging idea of a universal basic income, which is likely to become a necessary innovation as robots take over many of the least demanding tasks of the human workforce. Yet he traces it back to 1796, when Thomas Paine first published his pamphlet Agrarian Justice.

Maybe this tells us something about the limits of the brain. It has always innovated, thought through its situations and created solutions. But those solutions can only be drawn from a limited pool of possibilities. Hence we get the same ideas occurring ­inside human skulls for millennia and they are not always presented any better for the passing of time. Richard Dawkins and his ilk provide a salient example, as Poole points out: “Virtually none of the debating points in the great new atheism struggles of the 21st century . . . would have been unfamiliar to medieval monks, who by and large conducted the argument on a more sophisticated and humane level.”

So, perhaps we should start to ask ourselves why so many proposed solutions remain unimplemented after what seem to be thousand-year development programmes. It is only through such reflection on our own thinking that we will overcome our barriers to progress.

Sometimes the barriers are mere prejudice or self-interest. After the Second World War, Grace Hopper, a computer scientist in the US navy, created a language that allowed a computer to be programmed in English, French or German. “Her managers were aghast,” Poole writes. It was “an American computer built in blue-belt Pennsylvania” – so it simply had to be programmed in English. “Hopper had to promise management that from then on the program would only accept English input.”

It is worth noting that Hopper was also a victim of postwar sexism. In 1960 she and several other women participated in a project to create COBOL, the computing language. Critics said there was no way that such a “female-dominated process” could end in anything worthwhile. Those critics were
wrong. By the turn of the century, 80 per cent of computer coding was written in COBOL. But this is another unlearned lesson. A survey in 2013 showed that women make up just 11 per cent of software developers. A swath of the population is missing from one of our most creative endeavours. And we are missing out on quality. Industry experiments show that women generally write better code. Unfortunately, the gatekeepers only accept it as better when they don’t know it was written by a woman.

Solving the technology industry’s gender problems will be a complex undertaking. Yet it is easy to resolve some long-standing difficulties. Take that old idea of providing a universal basic income. It appears to be a complex economic issue but experimental projects show that the answer can be as simple as giving money to the poor.

We know this because the non-profit organisation GiveDirectly has done it. It distributed a basic income to an entire community and the “innovation” has proved remarkably effective in providing the means for people to lift themselves out of poverty. Projects in Kenya, Brazil and Uganda have made the same discovery. As Poole notes, even the Economist, that “bastion of free-market economics”, was surprised and impressed. It said of the scheme: “Giving money directly to poor people works surprisingly well.” You can almost hear the exclamation “Who knew?” – and the slapping sound of history’s facepalm.

Michael Brooks’s books include “At the Edge of Uncertainty: 11 Discoveries Taking Science by Surprise” (Profile)

Michael Brooks holds a PhD in quantum physics. He writes a weekly science column for the New Statesman, and his most recent book is At the Edge of Uncertainty: 11 Discoveries Taking Science by Surprise.

This article first appeared in the 21 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The English Revolt

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Peculiar Ground by Lucy Hughes-Hallett asks how we shape history and how much is beyond our control

In Wychwood, a great house in Oxfordshire, the wealthy build walls around themselves to keep out ugliness, poverty, political change. Or at least they try to. 

The great cutting heads of the Crossrail tunnel-boring machines were engines of the future drilling into the past. The whole railway project entailed a crawl back into history as archaeologists worked hand in hand with engineers, preserving – as far as possible – the ancient treasures they discovered along the way. One of the most striking finds, relics of which are now on display at the Museum of London Docklands, was a batch of skeletons, unearthed near Liverpool Street Station, in which the bacteria responsible for the Great Plague of 1665 were identified for the first time. Past and present are never truly separable.

Lucy Hughes-Hallett’s ambitious first novel ends in 1665 in the aftermath of that plague, and it, too, dances between past and present, history and modernity. Like those skeletons buried for centuries beneath Bishopsgate, it is rooted in the ground. The eponymous “peculiar ground” is Wychwood, a great house in Oxfordshire, a place where the wealthy can build walls around themselves to keep out ugliness, poverty, political change. Or at least that is what they believe they can do; it doesn’t spoil the intricacies of this novel to say that, in the end, they will not succeed.

It is a timely idea. No doubt Hughes-Hallett was working on her novel long before a certain presidential candidate announced that he would build a great wall, but this present-day undiplomatic reality can never be far from the reader’s mind, and nor will the questions of Britain’s connection to or breakage with our European neighbours. Hughes-Hallett’s last book, a biography of Gabriele d’Annunzio, “the John the Baptist of fascism”, won a slew of awards when it was published four years ago and demonstrated the author’s skill in weaving together the forces of culture and politics.

Peculiar Ground does not confine itself to a single wall. Like Tom Stoppard’s classic play Arcadia, it sets up a communication between centuries in the grounds at Wychwood. In the 17th century, John Norris is a landscape-maker, transforming natural countryside into artifice on behalf of the Earl of Woldingham, who has returned home from the depredations of the English Civil War. In the 20th century a new cast of characters inhabits Wychwood, but there are powerful resonances of the past in this place, not least because those who look after the estate – foresters, gardeners, overseers – appear to be essentially the same people. It is a kind of manifestation of what has been called the Stone Tape theory, after a 1972 television play by Nigel Kneale in which places carry an ineradicable echo of their history, causing ghostly lives to manifest themselves through the years.

But the new story in Peculiar Ground broadens, heading over to Germany as it is divided between East and West in 1961, and again as that division falls away in 1989. Characters’ lives cannot be divorced from their historical context. The English breakage of the civil war echoes through Europe’s fractures during the Cold War. The novel asks how much human actors shape history and how much is beyond their control.

At times these larger questions can overwhelm the narrative. As the book progresses we dance between a succession of many voices, and there are moments when their individual stories are less compelling than the political or historical situations that surround them. But perhaps that is the point. Nell, the daughter of the land agent who manages Wychwood in the 20th century, grows up to work in prison reform and ­observes those who live in confinement. “An enclosed community is toxic,” she says. “It festers. It stagnates. The wrong people thrive there. The sort of people who actually like being walled in.”

The inhabitants of this peculiar ground cannot see what is coming. The novel’s modern chapters end before the 21st century, but the future is foreshadowed in the person of Selim Malik, who finds himself hiding out at Wychwood in 1989 after he becomes involved in the publication of an unnamed author’s notorious book. “The story you’re all so worked up about is over,” he says to a journalist writing about the supposed end of the Cold War. “The story I’m part of is the one you need to think about.”

A little heavy handed, maybe – but we know Selim is right. No doubt, however, Wychwood will endure. The landscape of this novel – its grounds and waters and walls – is magically and movingly evoked, and remains in the imagination long after the reader passes beyond its gates. 

Erica Wagner’s “Chief Engineer: the Man Who Built the Brooklyn Bridge” is published by Bloomsbury

Erica Wagner is a New Statesman contributing writer and a judge of the 2014 Man Booker Prize. A former literary editor of the Times, her books include Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of “Birthday Letters” and Seizure.

This article first appeared in the 25 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Why Islamic State targets Britain

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