The Human Advantage
Imagination is what separates us from the
rest of life on Earth. It is through imagination that
we create the worlds in which we live.
We can also re-create them.
In many respects, we humans are like most of the rest of life on Earth. We are made of flesh and blood, and ultimately our lives depend on what the Earth provides. If all goes well, we grow from tiny seeds, through infancy and maturity, to old age, and ultimately we die. Like all living things, we rely on the bounty of the Earth to live at all, and we survive and flourish in certain conditions and wither and fade in others. There is one way, however, in which we are remarkably different from the rest of life around us, and that is our unique powers of imagination. It is because of our ability to imagine that we don't live in the world as other creatures do, we create the worlds in which we live.
This is not to say that no other creature on Earth is capable of imagination or has any form of imaginative ability, but certainly none comes close to showing the complex abilities of imagination that humans have. While other creatures communicate in their own distinct ways, none comes close to the virtuosity of human speech. Some may sing and dance, but they don't perform spoken-word poetry or multi-act ballets, or coordinate flash mobs. They may gaze at the night sky, but they don't estimate the negative energy of black holes or build miraculous craft to travel in space. We do. So far as we know, we are the most inventive creatures ever to walk the Earth. In cosmic time, our lives are as brief as the beat of a wing. Yet we are endowed with immense powers of imagination, through which we can transcend the limits of space and time.
Imagination is the ability to bring to mind things that are not immediately present to our senses. With our imaginations we can step out of the here and now: we can speculate, visualize, and suppose. We can revisit the past, anticipate the future, see as others see, and feel as others feel. Imagination is multifaceted. It includes the ability to have mental experiences that can be described as imaginal-bringing to mind images drawn from real experiences, for example, your mother's hair or what you ate for lunch yesterday; imaginative-bringing to mind images of things you have never experienced, such as a green dog on roller skates, or a vision of how you might spend your next vacation; and imaginary-confusing imaginative experiences with real ones, like in a vivid dream or hallucination. Because our imagination allows us to envision the future, it is an essential part of being able to shape and build it.
You could be imaginative all day long without doing anything about it, and as such, nothing would ever change. To make use of our imaginations we need to take them one step further: we need to be creative. If imagination is the ability to bring to mind things that are not present to our senses, then creativity is the process of putting your imagination to work. It is applied imagination. Imagination allows us to envision alternative possibilities, and creativity equips us with the tools to bring them into existence.
I define creativity as the process of having original ideas that have value. This definition is based on the work of the All Our Futures group, and it includes three key terms to note: process, originality, and value.
1. Creativity is a process, which means it includes a relationship between two main aspects that bounce off each other: generating ideas and evaluating ideas. Creative pursuits involve swapping back and forth between the two: generating a new idea, trialing it, evaluating it, using this evaluation to generate an alternative new idea, or amendment to the original idea, trialing this new version, evaluation, and on and on. While possible, it is rare that a final product-be it a piece of art, a scientific discovery, or a recipe-is conceived in its finished form. More often than not, ideas come half-baked and are chiseled and tweaked, scrapped and thrown away, then resurrected in new forms, before the best outcome is discovered. This is true of even the most renowned: it is believed that it took Leonardo da Vinci four years to complete the Mona Lisa; and when describing her writing process, Maya Angelou famously stated, "It takes me forever to get it to sing. I work at the language." Ideas in this process are vulnerable. An idea with potential may be damaged beyond repair if criticized or dismissed too early. Misunderstanding the process is why many people become disillusioned and think they are not creative.
2. Creativity involves originality. There are different ways to categorize originality in this context, and each is valid: if it is original in relation to the creator's previous work; if it is original in relation to the work of the creator's contemporaries; or if it is original in relation to all of history, if a piece of work is the first of its kind to ever be created.
3. Creativity involves making judgments of value. What is considered to be of value depends on the nature and the purpose of the work-if something is useful, beautiful, valid, or sustainable, etc. For example, beauty is one aspect of value to aim for when designing a building, but it soon becomes irrelevant if the structure of the building is unsound. For an original design of a building to have value it must be both aesthetically pleasing and be fit for purpose. In this sense, and across all three points, the creative process depends heavily on the ability to think critically.
The capacity for creativity is inherent in all of us. Imagination and creativity are at the heart of all uniquely human achievements, and those achievements have been dazzling. Look around-we have generated numerous languages, elegant systems of mathematics, revelatory sciences, revolutionary technologies, intricate economies, soul-searching art forms, and a vast diversity of cultural beliefs and practices.
Call and Response
There is a myth that we often hold to be true: that our lives are linear. This myth tells us that we are born, we grow, we go to school, and if we work hard and pass the tests, we graduate and go on to university. In university, if we work hard, we will earn a degree and go on to employment. Once employed, if we work hard, we will work our way up the ladder of success. One day we will retire and live out our days worry-free, basking in the glow of a life well lived. While it's a pretty story, it is for the most part fictional. Life may work like this for a small group of people. And yes, we may all begin as babies and grow at roughly the same rate as one another, and there may be various milestones we all aim to hit at certain points along the way, but the actual flow of our lives is much more fluid than this story would have us believe. For most of us, the only time our lives look this sequential and intentional is when we sit down to write our rŽsumŽs, at which point we do our absolute best to hide the total chaos we've been living through in order to make it seem like we've been following an elaborate life plan.
The story doesn't account for the highs and lows, the bumps and twists, the dead ends and backtracks, the starting again in new directions, the falling down and getting back up. It doesn't account for the unexpected opportunities, the impulse decisions, the learning and development, the situations out of our control, and the growth that comes from all of this. Life is rarely a straight line moving upward across a page. Real life is more like a beautiful scribble, looping across the page. Life is complex and unpredictable, and because of our powers of imagination and creativity we are able to navigate it.
It is because of the billions of scribbles that have interwoven across humanity's time on Earth that our world looks the way it does now. As a species we have continually created new tools and technologies to enhance our experience-be it the axe, the fishing rod, the wheel, the car, or the smartphone. One of our strongest assets is our ability to build upon the work of others, to be collaborative. When Tim Berners-Lee invented the World Wide Web, he began by standing on the shoulders of the giants who came before him, making use of the thoughts and developments of his peers and predecessors. His primary goal was to help academics share their work. He could not have anticipated the ways in which his invention would change almost every aspect of life as we know it. His technology lit a spark in the minds of others who took it and ran with it. His invention laid the foundations for others to build upon-from the serial entrepreneur running multibillion-dollar businesses, to the seven-year-old building worlds from scratch in Minecraft, to the home crafter finding a market for her creations.
Breakthrough technologies always have unintended consequences. When Gutenberg perfected his printing press in 1450, he didn't expect it to foment the Protestant Reformation a century later. His aim was to start a profitable small business. When Sir Michael Faraday explored the physics of electricity in the 1820s, he didn't anticipate nuclear power stations or death metal. The pioneers of the automobile didn't anticipate fracking or global warming. When Steve Jobs and the team were getting the bugs out of the iPhone in 2006, they didn't foresee the millions of apps or the mixed blessings of social media. How could they? That's not how creativity and culture work. Creativity is call and response: one idea can catalyze a multitude more in the minds of other people.
A Critical Pass
In many respects we are physically evolving at the same rate as other animals; culturally we are evolving exponentially, and in ways that no other species has shown capacity for. The rate of change in our societies and cultures today is unprecedented-in less than a generation our ways of life have become almost unrecognizable. We are more connected than any generation before us, we have access to information at our very fingertips, our lives are almost becoming as virtual as they are physical. We do not exist in the world as we find it, our lives are not limited to the locations or climates we are born into. We form ideas about the world around us and are therefore able to adapt it to better suit our interests. Over the centuries of human life, we have shaped and reshaped our existences. In doing so, we have reached a critical point in our evolution. It is time to take stock of what kind of a world we have created, and what it means to be human in it.
We Have Created
The human world is shaped by the ideas, beliefs,
and values of human imagination and culture.
It is created out of our minds as much as
from the natural environment.
Earth's position in the universe is small and relatively insignificant. It is dwarfed by its neighboring planets Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune, the size of a grape seed compared to the Sun, and just one of an infinite number of twinkles from a cosmic perspective. Yet as Carl Sagan so eloquently put it: "On it, everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives."
We're still searching for evidence of life on other planets. As far as we can tell, the majority of the ones we can reach orbit lifelessly in space. But our planet is teeming with life. One of the miracles of the natural world is the sheer variety of it: its ecosystems, species, and climates. The same is true of the human world, with its breathtaking diversity of cultures, belief systems, and traditions. Our world is not only shaped by its position relative to the Sun, the existence of water, and the topography of the continents, but also by the ideas, beliefs, and values of human imagination and culture.
The majority of the world that you and I recognize today is the result of human activity over centuries. The location of our cities, the ways in which our businesses and structures are run, how our education systems are designed, our modes of transport, and the law and order we are obliged to keep have all been carefully and strategically crafted by us. By that, I don't mean you and me specifically, but by other humans who came before us. While we inhabit a natural world, we exist in a devised one. Every generation lives through its own unique set of circumstances, and in doing so leaves indelible marks for future generations to make sense of. The unique set of circumstances we find ourselves navigating are in part born from the crosscurrents of three global forces: demography, technology, and ideology.
Human beings emerged as a species roughly between 150,000 and 200,000 years ago. Over the course of the time since, it is estimated that 100 billion people like you and me have lived and died on Earth. That's about 10,000 generations of humanity, of which we are the latest, and arguably the most attractive and well groomed.
For most of human history, however, populations were small, scattered, and slow to grow. Peckish predators, nimble prey, and harsh living conditions meant that life for most of our ancestors was a rather brief and unpleasant affair. In Europe that only began to change about 300 years, or fifteen generations, ago in the eighteenth century. The revolutionary period we now call the Enlightenment brought an enormous shift in human thought, first in Europe and eventually around most of the rest of the world. Challenging age-old dogma, philosophers and scientists argued that to understand the world around us, and our place within it, it was essential to elevate reason over superstition and evidence over belief. The cascade of discoveries and inventions that burst forth would eventually lead to the first Industrial Revolution, which in turn created unprecedented innovations in energy, manufacturing, transport, agriculture, hygiene, and medicine.
As conditions improved, populations grew rapidly. In 1800 the world population was 1 billion. In 1930 it was 2 billion. By 1960 it was 3 billion; it's now 7.7 billion, and we're heading for 10 billion by the middle of the century and over 11 billion by the end of it. We are by far the largest population of human beings ever to inhabit the Earth at the same time. Almost 10 percent of the 100 billion people who have ever lived are here right now.