Ideas come in many shapes and sizes, great and small, good and bad, priceless and worthless, powerful and pitiful, rare and plentiful. But whatever they are, they all emerge from the same source: us. They are given form by you and me, by people down the road or on the other side of the world. How we give birth to those ideas is a product of who we are, who we aren’t, where we are, what we know, what we don’t know, what we see, what we don’t see, the prevailing culture of our time, the forces and beliefs that prevail around us and the things that surround us.
What this means is that ideas are often the product of their time and their culture. Today, our world is constrained by the forces of commerce, business, technology and innovation. Those forces act as a limitation on the scope of our ideas. For example, people spend millions of hours working on producing smartphones that are a different size with a better camera and more screen only for that effort to be discarded and superseded within a year or so – if they’re lucky. And that effort is duplicated across a number of companies producing smartphones. Every day of every year.
Imagine how much resource could be devoted to generating worthwhile ideas to make the planet a better and safer place for us if we were capable of thinking outside the box that consumerism and the market has wedged us in to so tightly. If people spent as much time coming up with ideas to counter real problems, such as world hunger, climate change, pollution, homelessness and over-population, we could probably eradicate many of them. Of course, it’s not just about ideas, it’s about turning them into reality and devoting the energy required to put them into action. But that’s the point, ideas are only the start of the journey.
The problem we face today, is that ideas on big issues such as how to save the planet and ourselves are being killed at birth or discredited and disparaged because they are somehow ethereal and don’t take account of “the real world”. Well guess what, the real world is everywhere you look when you’re not staring at your smartphone. And the real world is suffering because of a lack of ideas and action to try and protect and preserve it. Why? Because right now, the currency of ideas is profit, efficiency, cost – and distraction. Those are the areas where ideas can make money. So those are the areas where ideas, anemic as they are in the great scheme of things, are allowed to develop and grow.
Essentially, we get the ideas the market is prepared to pay for. The biggest idea today, the one that has been elevated to the status of religious belief, is that the market will create the optimum environment. If something goes wrong, the market will correct it. But if we allow the market to become the straitjacket for our ideas and actions, our creativity and imagination, what are we left with? You only have to look at the government’s feeble response to the homelessness crisis afflicting Ireland to see the result.
In an environment where the market and commerce are elevated above so much other human endeavour, what kind of ideas are most likely to be created? What ideas are likely to be favoured in a world where people and governments have ceded so much control of our today and tomorrow to market forces?
Looking at that tomorrow, what happens to ideas in a few years time (assuming it takes that long) when the application of artificial intelligence and big data generates its own insights and creates its own time and culture? Who decides what ideas are the right ideas for that age? Who sets the conditions against which some ideas are nurtured and encouraged and the rest are discarded? Human beings or AI? More importantly, who gives birth to those ideas? Human beings or AI?
Philip K Dick’s sci fi novel of 1968 famously asked Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep?, so perhaps we should be asking ourselves: will AI form the ideas of the future? AI might do a better job of generating ideas that help to solve the world’s real problems. But it might not. If AI‘s foundations are based on the principles of the market and it suffers from the same restrictions on imagination, creativity and vision, do we really believe those ideas will be any more effective than they are today? We might also want to ask ourselves if there’s any reason why those ideas should include us.
Which leads to another question: is there a point where the idea dies? If an idea isn’t created by a human being, can it still be an idea? In other words, will the idea die if we die? Or will it live on through technology? An idea created by what was once an idea.
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