About the Author
Steven Poole is the award-winning author of Rethink, Unspeak, Trigger Happy, You Aren’t What You Eat, and Who Touched Base In My Thought Shower?. He writes a column on language for The Guardian, and his work on ideas and culture also appears in The Wall Street Journal, The New Statesman, The Atlantic, The Baffler, The Point, The Times Literary Supplement, Edge, and many other publications. He was educated at Cambridge, lived for many years in Paris, and is now based in East London.
Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.
Introduction: The Age of Rediscovery
An invasion of armies can be resisted, but not an idea whose time has come.
(i) To think about an idea again;
(ii) To change how you think about it.
The electric car is the future. And it has been the future for a very long time. The first known electric car was built in 1837 by an Aberdeen chemist named Robert Davidson. It is now all but forgotten that by the end of the nineteenth century a fleet of electric taxis—known as hummingbirds for their characteristic engine sound—worked the streets of London. The commissioner of the Metropolitan Police approved of their potential to solve the city’s burgeoning traffic problem, since they took up less than half the road space of horse-drawn cabs. Similar taxis also touted for trade in Paris, Berlin, and New York; by the turn of the century, more than thirty thousand electric cars were registered in the United States. They were much more popular than gasoline-powered cars. They were less noisy and had no polluting exhaust. The twentieth century was obviously going to be the electric century.1
Yet in a little more than a decade, production of such vehicles had slowed, and then eventually stopped. The drivers of London’s horse-drawn cabs had mounted a vigorous campaign pointing out breakdowns and accidents in their electrically powered rivals, and so put the London Electric Cab Company out of business.2 (The electric taxis did suffer technical problems, but they were exaggerated by their rivals, just as the taxi drivers of modern Manhattan and London are keen to paint Uber in as bad a light as possible.) Meanwhile, discoveries of large oil reserves brought the price of petroleum tumbling, and Henry Ford began to sell gasoline-powered cars that were half the price of electric ones. The construction of better roads in America encouraged longer journeys, which electric cars could not manage on their limited battery power. So it was the internal-combustion engine, after all, that won the century.
And then, at last, came the tech entrepreneur Elon Musk, who made a fortune from cofounding PayPal and then plowed it all into building elaborate machines in California. In 2004 he became an early funder and chairman of a Silicon Valley start-up called Tesla Motors, when almost everyone still thought that electric cars were a bad idea. “It is frequently forgotten in hindsight that people thought this was the shittiest business opportunity on the planet,” Tesla cofounder J. B. Straubel remembers. “The venture capitalists were all running for the hills.”3 But Musk was able to act as his own venture capitalist. He soon became Tesla’s CEO, and in 2008 Tesla launched the first highway-capable electric car, the $109,000 Roadster. It ran on lithium-ion batteries, of a similar kind to those used in laptops and phones, and it could go more than two hundred miles between charges. Most important, it didn’t look like a clunky eco-vehicle; it looked like a flashy sports car. Musk had delayed the car’s development by insisting that Tesla’s first model should have a carbon-fiber body and be able to accelerate from zero to sixty in less than four seconds. In doing so, he made the electric car desirable. It was a status symbol for the eco-savvy wealthy. George Clooney, Matt Damon, and Google’s Larry Page and Sergey Brin bought themselves Roadsters.4
Tesla’s next product was a slightly more sober-looking car for the mainstream market, the Model S. The S was short for “sedan” or “saloon,” but it also had a hidden historical message. Henry Ford, famously, made a Model T; well, just as S comes before T in the alphabet, so electric cars came before Ford’s gasoline cars. “And in a way we’re coming full circle,” Musk told his biographer, “and the thing that preceded the Model T is now going into production in the twenty-first century.”5 The Model S was a hit: it was also the safest car ever tested by the American highway safety authorities.6 By 2015 Tesla was selling fifty thousand cars per year. In the meantime, established car companies such as Nissan and BMW had begun producing electric vehicles too. In 2016, Tesla announced its Model 3, with a base price of only $35,000. Within twenty-four hours the company had taken preorders worth more than $7 billion. “Future of electric cars looking bright!” Musk exclaimed on Twitter. Maybe the second time around, the idea would stick.
The modern electric car is a great idea, made more viable by new technology—but it is not a new idea. And what is true in the consumer tech industry is true in science and other fields of thinking. The story of human understanding is not a gradual, stately accumulation of facts, a smooth transition from ignorance to knowledge. It’s more exciting than that: a wild roller-coaster ride full of loops and switchbacks. We tend to think of the past as less intellectually evolved than the present, and in many respects it is. Yet what if the past contained not only muddle and error but also startling truths that were never appreciated at the time? Well, it turns out that it does.
This book is about ideas whose time has come. They were born hundreds or thousands of years ago. But their time is now. Many of them spent a lot of time being ridiculed or suppressed, until someone saw them in a new light. They are coming back at the cutting edge of modern technology, biology, cosmology, political thought, business theory, philosophy, and many other fields. They are being rediscovered, and upgraded. Thought of again, and thought about in new ways—rethought. Creativity is often defined as the ability to combine existing ideas from different fields. But it can also be the imaginative power of realizing that a single overlooked idea has something to it after all. We are living in an age of innovation. But it is also an age of rediscovery. Because surprisingly often, it turns out, innovation depends on old ideas.
Just in time
Old is the new new. Many personal trainers have abandoned weight machines and now recommend old-school exercises such as gymnastics and kettlebells. In the food industry there is a trend for cooking elaborate feasts that the aristocracy might have enjoyed five hundred years ago. In the age of music streamed over the Internet, the coolest way to release your new album is on vinyl. Bicycle-powered rickshaws ply the streets of Manhattan and London. Adults buy coloring books. Even airships are back. (The British-made, helium-filled, hundred-meter-long Airlander 10 is designed to compete with helicopters for moving heavy cargo; others foresee a return to passenger airships in our skies, and NASA has developed concepts for airships that could resupply a space station floating in the clouds of Venus.)
Alongside this multifaceted cultural turn to the past, however, there is also a tremendous focus on the new. Smartphones, smartwatches, fitness trackers; start-up culture and a new global skyscraper race; Uber and WhatsApp—the pace of change, we are routinely told, is greater than ever before in human history. The past is just one long roll call of mistakes. We now know better. History is old hat; the future is just around the corner. “Conformity to old ideas is lethal,” says a former executive editor of Time magazine. This is “the age of the unthinkable.”7
But these opinions about our culture—the retro and the futuristic, “old is the new new” versus “the age of innovation”—are themselves very old. And so is the tension that arises from holding them at the same time. The pace of technological change today is impressive, but hardly more so than that of the nineteenth century. The twenty-five years between 1875 and 1900 saw the invention of the refrigerator, the telephone, the electric lightbulb, the automobile, and the wireless telegraph. (Not to mention the paper clip, just squeezing into the century in 1899.) Yet, in the same era, the Arts and Crafts movement was pushing a decidedly romantic return to older ideas of traditional craftsmanship and design; poets were reworking Arthurian myth; and the Renaissance was being rediscovered and hailed as the crucible of modernity. The late nineteenth century was looking both forwards and backwards, in ways that seemed unprecedented then as well.
Perhaps every age imagines itself as having a uniquely complex relationship to the past and fails to recognize that every previous era—at least since, say, the Renaissance itself—has done so too. But what are the consequences in our day when we fail to recognize an idea as an old one? The widespread assumption that it is necessary to start afresh with our uniquely modern wisdom is encapsulated in the “Silicon Valley ideology,” which insists that venerable social institutions (such as higher education) positively need to be “disrupted” by technology companies. The concept of innovation here is reduced to a curiously thin idea: a picture of the maverick young entrepreneur having a flash of inspiration and inventing something from nothing, to change the world. The old ways of doing things must everywhere be replaced. It is the philosophy of Snapchat, the photo and video messaging app whose messages are deleted permanently after a few seconds. What is past cannot help us; it must vanish completely.
This Valley dream of disruptive invention was beautifully satirized by a one-day event at New York University in 2014 called the “Stupid Shit No One Needs and Terrible Ideas Hackathon,” whose entries included a Google Glass app to make the user vomit on command, and a version of Tinder—for babies. If no one’s had an idea before, that might be because it’s an unprecedented stroke of genius—but it also might be because the idea’s just not worth having. Elon Musk, for one, does not consider himself to be in the business of disruption. “I’m often introduced onstage as someone who likes to disrupt,” he has said. “And then the first thing I have to say is, ‘Wait, I don’t actually like to disrupt, that sounds . . . disruptive!’ I’m much more inclined to say, ‘How can we make things better?’ ”8
As we’ll see, innovators can often make things better by resurrecting and improving the past—as with the Tesla electric car. The philosopher of science Paul Feyerabend observed, “No invention is ever made in isolation.”9 Either isolated from other thinking people, or isolated in time. What other forgotten ideas might one day be rediscovered, with the help of a little rethink?
We all love a good idea, but how can we tell whether an idea is good? Is an idea good because it’s useful, or because it will be financially profitable, or because it is morally praiseworthy, or because it inspires other thinkers? Is it an idea that helps others? Or is it an idea that merely revolutionizes one’s picture of the universe? Potentially any or all of the above, it seems. It is appealing to judge ideas primarily on their usefulness, but usefulness can be more narrowly or broadly conceived. Useful for what? To whom? And when? Dividing ideas into good and bad is a blunt approach. We can do better.
For one thing, our perception of an idea will change over time. And that drives rediscovery. The electric car was a good idea given the problems of congestion and (organic) pollution caused by horse-drawn carriages. But it was arguably not such a good idea given what cheap gasoline-powered cars could do. The first electric cars could run only about thirty miles on a single charge, and in the early twentieth century society had no pressing reason to wean itself off fossil fuels. Advances in battery technology, together with modern climate science, have turned a problematic idea into a very good one.
So what is an idea, exactly? Is it the same as a thought, or a proposition? Is it an initial inspiration or a final conclusion? Is it a spark of genius or the outcome of long, pedantic toil? We might not be able to pin down a precise definition of “idea,” but as the judge said about pornography, we know it when we see it. What counts as an idea is itself a subject for rethinking. And if we don’t rethink the way we think about ideas, we might miss out on extraordinary possibilities.
Everybody knows, though, that some past ideas were obviously bad. They were just plain wrong; they were permanently superseded by new discoveries. Now we look on them fondly as just funny mistakes. Of all the discarded ideas in history, perhaps one of the least reputable is alchemy. The notion that you could turn base metals into gold? Ridiculous. We regret that even Isaac Newton, for all his brilliance, was seduced by alchemical researches. To modern eyes, alchemy looks like wishful thinking at best, and esoteric fraud at worst. Alchemy is what people did before they discovered science.
Take the idea of the philosopher’s tree. According to obscure hints and scraps from laboratory notebooks of the seventeenth century, this was a precursor to the more famous philosopher’s stone, which would turn lead into gold. By planting a specially prepared seed of gold, so it was written, you could grow a whole tree of gold. That was the philosopher’s tree. A pretty fiction.
Except that, a decade ago, Lawrence Principe, an American chemist and historian of science, decided to see if it actually worked. He cooked up some philosophical mercury, a special form of mercury for which he found instructions in the secret alchemical writings of Robert Boyle, one of the founders of modern chemistry. Following a recipe that Principe reconstructed from seventeenth-century alchemical treatises and experimental notebooks, he mixed the philosophical mercury with gold and sealed the mixture in a glass egg. As he watched, it began to bubble, then rise like a baking loaf. Then it liquidized. After several days’ more heating, it had turned into what Principe called a “dendritic fractal,” a structure with ramifying branches. There, before his eyes, was a golden tree.10
Alchemy wasn’t so ridiculous after all. Historians now argue, for example, that Robert Boyle essentially “pillaged” the work of alchemists for valuable insights while denouncing the practice as nonsense in public. In other words, he was performing a kind of dishonest rethink, taking ideas from the past and presenting them as new, while ridiculing the earlier thinkers who had had them in the first place. Present-day studies have also confirmed the usefulness of ancient alchemical recipes for pigments and oils. Much of the occult weirdness, it turns out, fades away when investigators manage to translate coded terms in the old texts. According to a 2015 study in Chemical & Engineering News, for example, “Historians have now figured out that dragon’s blood refers to mercury sulfide, and ‘igniting the black dragon’ likely means igniting finely powdered lead.”11 Alchemy was not antiscience superstition; it was the best science anyone could do at the time.
When an old idea that was so obviously wrong turns out to have been right, we may be forced to rethink our ideas about the past—and our ideas about ideas themselves.
Elon Musk’s electric-car company is named after Nikola Tesla, the wizardly Serbian American engineer and inventor active in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, who pioneered the modern alternating-current (AC) electricity supply against Thomas Edison’s direct current (DC). (Tesla was hauntingly impersonated by none other than David Bowie in Christopher Nolan’s 2006 film, The Prestige.) In 1888, Tesla patented a design for the first AC induction motor—the kind that Tesla Motors engineers designed their first car around more than a century later.<...
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