Escaping the tyranny of the 'no new ideas' myth
I was reminded recently that a few years ago I chose to reject the maxim that there are no new ideas to be had.
This truism comes in a variety of forms. I remember hearing it most often when it comes to stories. Apparently humans are all basically alike and any story about humans has already been told. I heard this in the context of Shakespeare “merely” reworking stories from the past, while all that moderns do is rework Shakespeare.
The passage actually comes from the Bible, the end of Ecclesiastes 1:9 reads “…there is nothing new under the sun”. In context Ecclesiastes is a book of “wisdom” with some good advice for living a fulfilling life. But it’s also pretty damn nihilist, asserting that nothing really means anything since we all die in the end. And as we’ve seen, nihilism is a trap.
This concept is culturally pervasive – everyone I know has heard of it, and many people recite in a variety of circumstances.
Well as I said I consciously rejected it a while back and I think I was Right and Good to do so. The more I think about this truism, the more absurd and outright harmful it seems to be.
Most important is that it simply can’t be true.
If there are currently no new things under the sun, have there ever been new things? If we answer “no, there have never been new things” then we should still be apes that cannot fish or hunt or crack open nuts. Clearly at some point there was a time when new things were being generated by the human mind.
Now, if there was a time when there were new things, and then there came a time when there were no new things, when was that, exactly? Ecclesiastes was probably written between 450 BCE and 180 BCE, so the usual just over 2,000 years ago. Society was pretty damn modern then, but it’s absurd to say there have been no new things since before King Soloman. Indeed, it is absurd to say “new things” stopped being possible at any point in history because new things can and do happen all the time.
So cleary this truism needs to be diluted into something like “lots of low hanging fruit has already been reached” and “humans like hitting the same emotional notes in their storytelling”.
Psychologically, these weak versions are importantly different than the “no new things are possible” version and so I believe we should kick it out.
For the record, I think I also disagree with the weak versions of this argument too.
I think there are good examples of low hanging fruit that nobody got around to until really recently with no good explanation why not. Nassim Nicholas Taleb mentions a good one in his book Antifragile: suitcases with wheels on. This should not have been a hard idea to come up with! We have been putting wheels on stuff to make it easier to move since long before the days of Soloman! But until 1970, everyone was struggling with trunks and cases that were a damn pain to carry around. Truly, we moderns don’t know we’re born.
I also think human emotions are complex and deeply nuanced. While it’s great to realise we are all united by similar feelings I think the variety of those feelings and the circumstances and cultures under which we feel or prioritise those feelings are near-infinitely varied and nowhere near exhausted.
I believe there are great benefits when one rejects the idea of “there are no new things under the sun”. It means that we have to take it as given that new things are possible. If there maybe can be new things, then it’s an exciting prospect for me to explore my inner and outer landscapes to find what they are. Life seems more open and meaningful, many activities take on greater significance (such as daydreaming) and consequently I feel more happy.
Indeed what I think we really should be doing as a culture is exploring the landscape of new things with urgency and abandon. Our truisms should say “while we have had time to grasp some low-hanging fruit, we theorise that there are still tons of new things! Life is a game of finding the new things! There are no rules. Play together, play alone. Stay in, go out, read the manuals for tips or write manuals for others, but however you play, we can all join in with the massive multiplayer, highly meaningful game of Find New Things.”
So reject that myth of there being nothing new. It’s a dead end phrase that sucks the joy out of everything, doing far more harm than good.