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A Creative Culture Requires A Leisured Elite

Trying new things is a luxury.  A wild animal that tries to play with its default script probably ends up dead.  Human societies, though, are actually required to try new things or else a more inventive society outcompetes them.  How a society manages its creative output is a matter of existential importance.

The greatest breakthroughs and masterpieces have always come from those who can labor at their work without distraction and who have significant creative freedom.
The ancient world produced works of genius that still stand out today.
This is completely astonishing when we consider that population size, wealth, and the distribution and storage of information were pathetic compared to now.
Surely the works of Ancient Greece ought to compare to our own as petroglyphs compare to Renaissance painting.  This may hold true if we consider technology, but not in the realm of culture and creativity.  Even when we consider technology, it’s amazing what they could accomplish with limited knowledge and resources.  Amazingly, much of what we have now is merely derivative of what the Greeks had 2500 years ago.

If we look at the creativity of societies in the past, one thing we must notice is that the creators weren’t ordinary people who worked on philosophy or poetry after a day in the fields.
Without exception, the people who produced the best and highest culture came from a small but leisured and insulated class of individuals.
For most of history, 90%+ of people were subsistence farmer peasants, yet so long as even a tiny fraction of 1% had the freedom to be professional creators, it was enough to create enduring culture.

Modern American culture idolizes the myth of someone who can work full time, take night classes, raise a family, and write the next great novel all at once. Thousands of years of human experience, however, tells us that the highest quality creative work requires complete devotion just like any other discipline.

There are of course professional creative people today—far more by numbers and proportion than there ever were in previous societies. There’s a big difference though. Modern creators are still paid workers.

The most creative people in older societies were invariably allowed to live free from the concerns of the market economy. They belonged to a leisured, aristocratic class that would have seen such affiliations as vulgar, even if they lived an ascetic lifestyle. They understood that if you depend on the next paycheck you can’t say what you really think. You have to give your audience what it wants right now or else you’re broke.
When it comes to modern creative talents people throw around the words “authentic” and “sellout.” These distinctions are an illusion when everyone lives in the market economy. Everyone is a sellout when everyone has to sell themselves.
This conflict of interest ensures that great creative work is scarce when everyone is busy earning a living. The market will produce plenty of what sells right now, but precious little anyone cares about 100 or 1000 years from now.
The market knows only the present, so a high quality creative class requires some degree of insulation from its caprices.
In the past, most advancement came from the few people who didn’t have to worry about wealth. Even where they did not have talent themselves, they might become patrons. Patrons were not really the same as employers because they were not directly trying to turn a profit. Moreover, patrons were a single person whom an artist could reason with. Artists like Michelangelo and Leonardo both negotiated with their patrons in the middle of the creative process and had some measure of control.
There is no arguing with market demand. The many wants what it wants right now. So when the market prevails we will never see epic works that take half a lifetime to produce, nor works that don’t ape today’s popular taste. Worst of all, the market forces creative people to answer to the masses.

In the past, the few professional creative people were protected by forming tight knit peer groups.
Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle represented three generations of master and apprentice, each of them supported in leisure by their society within a school of their making.  We might also consider that Pythagoras or Epicurus thrived as well within their own tribe of students.
In the past, ascetics and mystics formed another sort of leisured aristocracy.  Consider Diogenes who lived on public charity, or that the very name ‘dervish’ originally means a beggar,  or the experiences of John the Baptist, Jesus, any number of saints in the wilderness.   Across the planet, societies that nurtured their mystics have developed lasting spiritual traditions.
Even consider how modern science and education was largely pioneered by monks who had the rare leisure to study and question within the protected environment provided by the clergy.
A universal market economy, though, by its nature has no place for such “low productivity” slow growing endeavors.

Consider how the Romanticist poets all knew each other, most all of them from leisured aristocratic backgrounds.
Tolkien and C.S. Lewis knew each other, both academics with tenure at a university that still had a strong aristocratic tradition.
Robert E. Howard and H.P. Lovecraft profited richly from corresponding though both suffered terribly from being trapped in the market economy.  It speaks volumes that like their spiritual predecessor, Edgar Allen Poe, they had to sacrifice themselves to create enduring work.   Imagine what they could have accomplished had they been leisured aristocrats.
One small group of creative peers who needn’t fear for money are a more powerful force than an entire modern hive cluster of hundreds of millions where everyone is slave to money.
Constant busyness at pointless jobs is one of the biggest drains of productivity, the slayer of creativity in a population. The overworked do not tolerate idle creativity in others. Like-minded people are the substrate on which the individual grows. Just as guerilla insurgents cannot survive without a sympathetic population to harbor them.

Not long ago, societies could only afford to have a tiny number of people trying new things. But like efficient bodies honed by evolution, they made the small amounts of energy they spent on their R and D departments count so they were not subsumed by their competitors.
Now with greater modern wealth, we may do well to observe the successful practices of leaner times and apply them on a larger scale.

See also: Smart Socialism,
How the Middle Class Used to Be Affordable

Civilization is Human Domestication

Human civilization is a fancy word for a survival strategy in which people get to together in hives and crush peoples living in smaller hives.
In the course of adopting such a strategy, we are no longer heavily selected for our abilities to survive as individuals but for those traits that allow us to thrive in groups.  We become more dependent on the communal barn for feed, ever less able to think or act on our own.
When I look at definitions of what fundamentally sets humans apart from animals, the ability to talk is always near the top of the list.  Talking, at its most basic level, though is just an ability that allows groups to coordinate better.  It is a highly sophisticated behavior.  But sophisticated behaviors are commonplace in nature.  How about eels, salmon, and numerous birds that can migrate with extreme precision, or parasitoid jewel wasps that can disable one precise part of a cockroach’s brain with its stinger, or any number of creatures that can make precise, powerful strikes in fractions of a second?  To name a very few…

A perfectly civilized state does not mean a race of enlightened of beings, it means a colony of eusocial insects, highly efficient but without consciousness or agency.
On another extreme we have impotent individuals never associating, easy prey to even the most dissolute enemy groups.

The accomplishments and qualities we associate with the best qualities of humanity, though, are not completely civilized but represent the Aristotelian golden mean between the virtues of individualism and the collective.
Individualists are easy meat for more organized foes.
Eusocial Zerg and Borg are vulnerable to reasonably cohesive groups that retain qualities of creativity and conscious will.

Robert E. Howard, the creator of Conan understood something basic about humanity.  Our modern day barbarian trope is of a grunting musclehead, but a Howard-style barbarian while sparing with words is smart and quick.  Conan is a simple man compared to a merchant but he readily perceives that civilization promotes corruption and complacency of the spirit rather than greatness.
In real life, is it any surprise that the things we call the greatest accomplishments of civilization can be only a limited number of generations away from barbarism?

Barbarians in their natural state accomplish nothing.  Perfectly civilized people live in sophisticated stagnation.  But when history chances on a certain Aristotelian golden mean between the two states, we see great accomplishments and conquests.
But on its path to civilized domestication, a people always passes up the golden mean and sinks into a stable state where much remains the same for centuries and the few new ideas are crushed.

The early Mesopotamian peoples, the first to be civilized, lived in a system of highly dynamic city states making innovations for the first 1000 years or so.  They became relatively stagnant in their progress by 1000 BC
The Egyptians followed a similar, perhaps slightly later trajectory.
Then we see Chinese, Indians, and Greeks rise simultaneously to their heights between 400-200 BC, then stagnating ever since.  Today it amazes us that the Buddha, Confucius, Lao Tzu, Socrates, Plato were contemporaries, their world-changing ideas packed into just a couple human generations, coming from human populations that were puny compared to now, with far less wealth and technology.

If we likened innovation to a flame, we must notice it consumes its hosts and moves on to another, always to some barbarian neighbor on the fringes of the old civilization. The price of openness to change is instability.
When the Mediterranean world was thoroughly spent and domesticated, the forces of creativity moved into Northern Europe, and eventually into America, a colony of Northern Europe.  In the past there always seemed someplace new for these forces to move on to but is it so anymore?  Now there are no more new frontiers, the entire world has been explored.  Modern weapons prevent the easy rise of opportunistic conventional barbarian armies.  The same system of finance has spread across the entire planet.  Most of the world speaks a few standardized languages.  Never has humanity been more civilized and centralized.
One might wonder if the world is bound to sink into thousands of years of stagnant slumber.  Perhaps the future could be more like Dune or Star Wars where technology and political systems remain unchanging for thousands of years.
Maybe in 5-600 years the world is colonized and revitalized in the great African enlightenment?
But the same question remains until we progress to some sort of singularity event — who then raises civilization to its next stage when all the races of the world have been spent?

This leads us to wonder: why do civilizations after a certain point cease to innovate?
My guess is that it has to do with the intense competition that comes with any saturated ecosystem.  A relatively new civilization has its frontier period for some generations where everyone is filling a proliferation of new niches.  But once those niches are filled the system ossifies.
Innovation is the product of leisure, not of drudgery.  No one has time to think of something new when they are lost in competition, never more than a half step ahead of a gibbering pack of rivals trying to pull them down and outcompete them. Under these pressures people are forced to increasingly specialize until they no longer have the luxury of seeing more than their immediate field — until the man who is a wrench expert knows nothing of screwdrivers.  When everyone is micro-specialized, the puzzle pieces one must assemble to arrive at an epiphany remain lying scattered about untouched.

I notice rice valley civilizations of India and China, or the wheat floodplains along the Nile were especially densely populated very early in their histories.  Thousands of years of crowded living barely subsisting off their one staple crushes liberty and creativity.  Worse, one despot can easily dominate a river valley and keep millions in thrall with his edicts.  People from these kinds of civilizations are the most domesticated of all, the world’s best specialists, more able to devote themselves tirelessly to one task than any other, but their relentless minds are also the most rigid and unimaginative.
It surprises me little that the one great flash of genius China had since its ancient period of warring states was during the Ming dynasty, after Mongol rule and then the black plague had reduced the population by about 50 million people(about 1/3rd), freeing up the space required to try new things.
Then, for once, China showed significant interest in world exploration and trade launching entire treasure fleets before turning inward again for good.  Maybe slightly more favorable conditions would have resulted in a 15th century Chinese industrial revolution and colonization?  Or perhaps Chinese by that point already civilized for a couple thousand years had already lost too much of that barbarian fire of inspiration.
We see a similar emptying out of Europe in the black plague and turmoil of the 14th century after which European nations began their rise to prominence.
But Northern Europe at that time in contrast to the Chinese was just a few centuries removed from barbarian tribes. Given a push by similar forces, they also turned outwards and began to innovate, but they didn’t stop.
It is also notable that Europe has never been dominated by just a few river flood plains with all human affairs governed by the distribution or withholding of the one staple food source.  It’s a region that has never been politically united, there have always been kingdoms forced to compete against one another, ready to adopt change that might give them an advantage.
Europeans are fairly unique in that they have lived off a variety of grains and supplemented them with dairy products and significant amounts of meat. Across much of the world, dairy is more typical of a staple for nomad pastoralists than for settled people.
It occurs to me that yogurt, butter, and cheese is used from India to the Middle East, but I would think it plays a relatively minor role in the diet outside of traditionally nomadic regions compared to Europeans. An Indian might use ghee or butter for a curry, milk or paneer cheese to make their pistachio and rose water sweets, or load up their chai with heavy cream, but rice remains their overwhelming staple. They have, to my knowledge, no equivalent to Europeans downing entire glasses of milk and eating entire cheeses straight in their civilized core regions.

Northern European nations and colonies now seem they may be going the way of civilized people before them.  Enough generations that reward rule-following, shop-keeping, credential-accumulating, and school-attending more than risk and invention.  Soon enough, the fiery free spirits have been culled whether from the battlefields or the laboratory.  After all, civilization is a system that selects for those sheep who benefit the king, who sit still in one place to be sheared year after year.
The stability that comes with complete domestication is inimical to the qualities we value most, which we suppose are uniquely civilized — when in fact, they result from an ideal balance of qualities.

Historical trends of Chinese population

Political Diversity Drives Innovation

Humans are most ingenious when challenged.  China’s best innovations and culture came from the period of warring states.  Greece’s best advances came during an age of competing city states.  So too with renaissance Italy and later, from Germany.  The rise of Europe was itself a phenomenon of political diversity with no one empire ever able to dominate for long.
The rulers of societies normally have every reason to oppose change — it’s good to be king.
But the threat of competitors forces rulers to challenge their natural conservatism in the quest to grasp for any possible advantage over their rivals.  Only a Pope desperate to show off legitimacy commissions the most skilled — a disagreeable autistic like Michelangelo — instead of someone from a better family, better versed in sycophancy.  Art, culture, science, philosophy, mathematics all surge forward when the rulers must struggle.

Political monopolies, on the other hand, suffocate innovation as surely as a commercial monopoly.  The US is a state with no serious external threats.  Its GDP is 60% larger than that of a distant second place China, 3 times as large as Japan in 3rd place.  No power on earth poses an existential military threat nor has any compelling reason to fight an all out war.  What’s more, the US is geographically isolated from what few possible rivals it could possibly have.  Never has a great power enjoyed such incredible security.

In the total absence of serious competitors, the US is sinking into an age of stagnation and darkness.
Despite the largest, best educated population any nation has ever had with the most wealth to make productive activity possible, with the best access to information anyone has ever had, innovation is slowing and more labor is sunk into activities that produce nothing or are even harmful.  Many of the institutions that run American society have ossified so that the adoption of new ideas becomes impossible.
The trouble perhaps isn’t the threat of collapse but that a mediocre, destructive society and way of life can linger indefinitely if by virtue of its critical mass, its errors are never fully punished and corrected by the harsh forces of reality.  The self destructive Soviet Union lasted as a major power for half a century even with powerful enemies.  Perhaps the greatest horror is that a USA with no opposition could spend a couple hundred years degenerating before finally ceasing to exist, much like the Western Roman empire.

Comparisons with Rome are perhaps cliche by now, though, so China provides another comparison with the state America is becoming.
China like America has long been isolated from most external threats by geographical boundaries and has tended to be politically centralized.
Chinese dynasties would often have a high period of art and achievement but then sink into complacency until they were sufficiently vulnerable to outside invaders and internal dissent.
Once rulers realize they can simply plunder their own people without competitors taking advantage of the weakened structures they leave behind, they happily do so until finally, often a few generations later, the racket is up.

The printing press proved to be a major disruption of old patterns as too many people came to know too much.  The internet is the new printing press that will for the first time make internal forces more of a challenge to the state than the rivalry of other states.  Simply speeding up the spread of ideas will make it harder for rulers of states to sink into satisfied complacency, dabbling in disastrous policies and fostering the mediocre until their rotted house finally falls down.  For now, though, the most powerful state in history ambles onward, seemingly oblivious of the forces of change.
No other state is a threat but a US superpower finds itself struggling for the recognition of its existence from within rather than the preservation of its sovereignty from without.

“Don’t worry about people stealing an idea. If it’s original, you will have to ram it down their throats.”

One can not simply steal the kind of knowledge and expertise so developed. The momentum developed by one technical group cannot be simply transplanted into a competitor, it transcends documentation. No — it resides in our greatest assets: our people, the minds we’ve trained, the conventional wisdom we’ve transformed, the reputation that, through our trials, we have deeply entrenched.

The crucial factor? The common thief is lazy, and the lazy thief is thwarted. As you see, the thief is rarely a person of great motivation, excepting for personal vendettas. If other victims make better targets, one is safe. If all victims defend themselves more vigorously than the notion of honest work in the lazy thief’s mind, an honest society becomes an inevitability. Link

The contrary position is that if you have a strong track record, people will be keeping an eye on you anyway to see what they can copy. When you have competitors, people who live to fight others, that’s when you get imitators. The speed at which they can take in new information, which is affected by how much work they are doing and how much time they have to copy it, will drastically effect this. But for the most part, innovative ideas make people too uncomfortable to think about or try to understand.

A side note on invention and innovation: when you have an idea for a startup„ consult your network. Ask people what they think. Don’t look for flattery. If most people get it right away and call you a genius, you’re probably screwed; it likely means your idea is obvious and won’t work. What you’re looking for is a genuinely thoughtful response. Fully two thirds of people in my network thought LinkedIn was stupid idea. These are very smart people. They understood that there is zero value in a social network until you have a million users on it. But they didn’t know the secret plans that led us to believe we could pull it off. And getting to the first million users took us about 460 days. Now we grow at over 2 users per second.  Link

First Mover Advantage v. Ecosystem/Fast Follower Advantage

Peter Thiel mention’s this in his class on Start-Ups

As product development cycles continue to shrink, and as it becomes easier to reverse-engineer products once they appear in the marketplace, one could argue that the need to be first has faded into the background. The “first-to-market” mentality has been replaced by a broader, more strategic imperative: to create a truly global ecosystem that encompasses devices, platforms and operating systems. It’s okay to introduce a tablet after everyone else, as long as that tablet runs on your operating system and helps your overall ecosystem perform.

In many ways, Google’s current innovation strategy is almost textbook MBA: focus on the core, innovate at the edges. There’s one other small wrinkle, though, that they may not teach you in business school: At least for now, it’s more valuable in the short term to build a copycat product that plugs into an existing ecosystem than it is to build a first-to-market innovation. Scale matters, and networks and ecosystems give you that scale. To be a great business in today’s digital world, it requires spotting all the emergent technological trends on the borders and edges and transforming them into new, scalable market opportunities that build on existing strengths in a unique way. Link

Current dogma embraces the “fail fast, fail often” mentality. Which is quite devastating, particularly if you’re just getting started and tank most of your seed money away on a failed idea. Rather than think things out or let others take more of the risks, the majority of entrepreneurs still support the war by attrition method.

Three types of benefits—technology leadership, control of resources, and buyer switching costs—can provide long-lasting first-mover advantages. However, researchers believe that in many industries, companies entering later can overcome these advantages. Sometimes there are even first-mover disadvantages, or advantages enjoyed by companies who enter later. For example, the first entrant may invest heavily in enticing customers to try a new type of product. Later entrants would benefit from informed buyers without having to spend as much on education. Later entrants may be able to avoid mistakes made by the first movers. If first movers become complacent, later entrants may take advantage of changing customer needs. As the Internet continues to develop, technology companies find themselves especially susceptible to second- or later-mover success. Follower companies are reverse-engineering many new products to develop competing products either faster or cheaper—negating much of the first-mover advantage. Link

After a certain point, you set priorities. Do you want to have more control, more money, or more innovation? The problem with innovation is that most consumers in any market are behind the “curve”. Even the early adopters can rarely keep up with all of the technological advances in a field. So if you have a product that is very ahead of the curve there won’t be a market established for it.

I’ve seen this personally as a few of my friends who are much more successful than I am, that nonetheless can’t keep up with changes in their field as they happen, not to mention apply them across their various campaigns. But that didn’t really matter, they were still supplying the customer with what they wanted. In fact, they grew so fast that they never set up a proper system to scale their work or developed cognitive skills for information management. They worked themselves to the bone, one took up chain smoking menthol’s to deal with the stress and wound up with a collapsed lung and had to have surgery to have part of it removed before he was 24. As long as you can hit the “good enough” checkpoint in innovation and provide a superior user experience or have better marketing, you will out-compete opponents.

In fact, a 1993 paper by Peter N. Golder and Gerard J. Tellis had a much more accurate description of what happens to startup companies entering new markets. [3] In their analysis Golder and Tellis found almost half of the market pioneers (First Movers) in their sample of 500 brands in 50 product categories failed. Even worse, the survivors’ mean market share was lower than found in other studies. Further, their study shows early market leaders (Fast Followers) have much greater long-term success; those in their sample entered the market an average of thirteen years later than the pioneers. What’s directly relevant from their work is a hierarchy showing what being first actually means for startups entering new or resegmented markets:

Innovator                      First to develop or patent an idea
Product Pioneer          
 First to have a working model
First Mover                  
 First to sell the product                  47% failure rate
Fast Follower             
  Entered early but not first               8% failure rate

The Race to Fail First

What this means is that first mover advantage (in the sense of literally trying to be the first one on a shelf or with a press release) is not real, and the race to be the first company into a new market can be destructive. Therefore, startups whose mantra is “we have to be first to market” usually lose. What startups lose sight of is there are very few cases where a second, third, or even tenth entrant cannot become a profitable or even dominant player. (The rules are different in the life-sciences arena.)

  • Believing in First Mover Advantage implies you understand your business model, customers problems and the features needed to solve those problems.
  • That’s unlikely.
  • Therefore you’re either going to burn through your cash or pray that the hype can help you can flip your company.
  • None of the market leaders in technology were the first movers

Link

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