Inspired by Adarsh Ramakrishnan
The Invisible Costs and Cycles of Diverting Focus
We don’t notice what devolves due to our lack of attention
We have discussed throughout O.G. Rose how invention and creativity are essential to socioeconomic development, a case made eloquently by Deirdre McCloskey, and basically the idea is that wealth is a result of “creation.” The world isn’t primarily made richer by gold, oil, or dollars, but thanks to air-conditioning, laptops, pipping, and the like. Where invention occurs, wealth is created. Yes, production matters, but while creativity entails productivity, it’s not the case that productivity necessarily entails creativity (hence why we should perhaps think in terms of GDC versus GDP).
Much more could be said on this, but the point is that a society where people are creative and inventive is a society which will likely make the world richer. It is not the case that everyone will create something, and even if everyone did, it’s not the case that everyone will create something economically valuable (even if a world in which everyone was “creative” would be better than one where everyone wasn’t, precisely because creativity can help us with our mental health, avoid boredom, help us feel like we have meaning, and so on). We’re dealing with probabilities here, and so the question arises: What condition is the most likely to generate creativity? This gets us into questions of “intrinsic motivation” (a major concern of O.G. Rose — I basically argue that “intrinsic motivation” is critical for us to gain “a new kind of being,” alluding to Heidegger, though that doesn’t mean we won’t also need to take ethics into account, etc.), and how to “incubate intrinsic motivation” ends up one of my top “practical concerns.” For me, if we cannot create a socioeconomic system that incubates creativity and “intrinsic motivation,” our future will prove underwhelming.
The most brilliant and creative people in the world will struggle to realize any of that creativity without focus. Where focus is lacking, potential and possibility will not be realized. If I am right about the centrality of creativity in socioeconomics, and if I am also right that focus is necessary for creativity, then anything which threatens focus threatens creativity. I could easily discuss cellphones here, but I think that case has already been made well enough by others (The Shallows by Nicholas Carr comes to mind). Here, I want to discuss how “concentrations of power” (say of government in Washington D.C.), contribute to the diverting of focus away from areas where we are “most likely” to create and innovate. Where this probability for “valuable creativity” drops, so the probability for “socioeconomic decline” increases.
We do not tend to create and innovate what we do not focus on, and the highest probability we create something is relative to our immediate environment, which is to say that if we live near a river, we are more likely to invent something that helps with rivers than we are to invent something that helps with desert heat (though of course this isn’t “necessarily” the case). “The quality of information” is simply higher: when I live near a river, I know how rain impacts it, how it changes during the seasons, when it can seem safe to be around but really isn’t — there are particular and practical details I can know from experience that are simply improbable for people who don’t live near the river to know. This suggests “The Knowledge Problem” of Hayek, another topic explored often in O.G. Rose, which here helps us understand why it is more likely we are creative and innovative regarding what we immediately experience and “live amongst” than regarding what we experience “at a distance.” No, it’s not “technically impossible” for me to invent a useful technology for deserts if I don’t live near one, but it might be “practically impossible,” which is to say I’m likely missing the “practice experience” I need to test my ideas with actuality.
The Knowledge Problem
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Where focus is directed toward the immediate (considering Hayek), the probability of creativity and innovation is higher, which means the socioeconomic order is more likely to improve (McCloskey). Again, it is not impossible for people to create and innovate with focus “diverted” from the immediate, only “less likely” — and dealing with probability is about all we can do when trying to decide “the best way to organize our socioeconomic order.” Also, there are some areas of potential innovation and creativity which cannot be located in any “immediacy,” mainly the internet, but even that is something I can still directly “experience” with help from a laptop. Additionally, the radical concentration of focus on the internet might help explain why most innovation and creativity has been focused there, contributing to what Tyler Cowen and Peter Thiel call “The Great Stagnation.” According to them, there really hasn’t been a radical amount of innovation or creativity outside “the digital space,” and that easily could be evidence of how closely creativity follows focus.
Our “immediate” environments are relative to which we are most likely to innovate and create, but realizing that potential probably requires our “focus” to be on our immediate surroundings. Ironically though, as a socioeconomic order becomes more successful (thanks to creativity and innovation), it also tends to become more centralized, which is to say that increasingly more cities arise where “everything is happening” (New York, Silcom Valley, Washington D.C., etc.). These gradually become where “the ambitious” set their focus, and so the movies, news, etc. tend to orbit around these cities, and this creates a “feedback loop” where the quality of the cities increases because of the focus, which then contributes to more focus being directed toward them — on and on. No, this is not always the case, and “focusing on something” can also lead to its destruction, so I am not trying to argue something deterministic. Rather, I am trying to argue something probabilistic: where focus goes, so tends to go innovation and creativity.
Cultural, economic, governmental, etc. centralization tends to also centralize power, opportunity, and the like. Focus tends to follow these things, and so centralization tends to take people’s focus away from their immediate circumstances “toward” the forming center(s) of the society. I would argue the quality of people’s creativity “toward” these centers might lessen as a result, but the centers can still prove to be places of incredible innovation and creativity, simply because of the law of numbers: when we have millions of people focusing their attention and creativity on x, even if the quality of the creativity is less than the thousand focusing on y, there is still easily going to be more innovation regarding x. Perhaps not, but the point I want to stress is that as focus is directed toward different social centers, those centers likely become very wealthy due to the productivity, creativity, and innovation which the concentration of focus on those centers engenders.
As centralization occurs, the formed centers likely also centralize focus and thus creativity. As a result, the centers become dynamic and wealthy, which inspires focus to be directed on them, which leads to more dynamism and wealth — a feedback loop. People will likely move to these centers and thus change the centers into their “immediate surroundings,” and so Hayek’s “Knowledge Problem” will be addressed in that way, but “the concentration” should still be noted, as well as the limitations on the logistical and practical realities of those centers. Not everywhere in America is a city, for example, and the reality of supply chains can be much more pressing for those who work blue collar jobs than those who work in tech. That doesn’t mean tech is bad, only that where there is centralization there tends to be a concertation of people onto where they can address “The Knowledge Problems” of those environments, but not environments outside of them. This can lead to a “concertation” of creative problem-solving skills on a single area for the people who move to the centers, while those outside the centers but still “toward” them are likely to engage in more mediocre creativity, not being personally involved with or embedded in the centers toward which they are directed.
Creativity itself is “practically infinite,” but how much and to what degree a given area, subject, etc. can be innovated is finite (given a current paradigm, set of variables, etc.). Also, there can only be so many “big innovations” regarding a given thing at a time, and once the “low(er) hanging fruits” are picked, there will likely be a “trickling off” of creative and innovative possibility. Big innovation will lead to smaller innovation and then minor innovation — a flattening of the curve. At this point, focus will likely need to shift away from the centers to new areas and new problem sets, but unfortunately at this point focus will have been trained to “keep an eye” on the Federal Government, New York, and the like; as a result, that is where creativity and innovation will likely continue to be directed. The “return on this investment” will likely dwindle though, and so will dwindle the wealth of the socioeconomic order.
If everything on the news makes us focus on the President, then that will be where the collective focus of the society ends up. There will be some influence the society has on the President and the Federal Government, certainly, but once those influences are exhausted, the “return on investment” will trickle off and the focus thus wasted. Every “focus drain” is also a “brain drain,” as every “focus concentration” is similarly a “brain concentration.” When the problems concentrated on are solved or managed “as much as possible” (or worth doing), then further focus will prove wasteful. No, that doesn’t mean absolutely “no value” will be generated, but the amount will likely lessen and flatten.
Once our focus has been trained to center on Washington D.C. (for example), and that “lemon has been squeezed” for all the innovation we can get, we will need to adjust our focus, but unfortunately if power is still concentrated in D.C., it will be hard for focus to shift (opportunities in status, money, and the like still probably being located there). Unfortunately, the loss of power from social “centers” will probably not occur until fairly late in the socioeconomic decline, at which point it will be too late for focus to divert its attention to elsewhere and maintain socioeconomic growth: infrastructure, businesses, etc. will need to have already been created by then and ready to “catch” and “realize” the shift of focus in its direction — but the very lack of focus will be precisely why those “preparations” will not have been made.
All this brings to mind what I like to call “The Demand Event Horizon” of Keynes, which is the idea that once demand falls below a certain amount, it is very difficult for demand to recoup (because the businesses and infrastructure have been destroyed “on the way down” which demand needs to translate into business and profit). Similarly, perhaps we could discuss a “Focus Concentration Paradox,” which is that wealth and innovation tend to amass where focus is concentrated, which tends to be where “power” is concentrated, but when that potential wealth and innovation is exhausted, the society will not have done the work to prepare for a “change in focus” so that the potential of that focus is realized and translated into wealth.
Focus concentrated on x tends to make x prosperous, but once x has been exhausted of its potential prosperity, it would be best for focus to turn to y, but unfortunately there is probably no y to turn to, because focus was too busy concentrating on x to address y for when y was needed. Focus hence has nowhere to turn, and so will easily go back to trying to squeeze a little more wealth out of x. But this will only work for so much longer, if at all.
When we only care about New York, our focus is on New York, and when creativity and innovation there is exhausted, we will have likely not created the environment outside of New York to which our focus can then turn, stagnating wealth and creation. As socioeconomic orders succeed thanks to wealth, they tend to centralize, which diverts focus toward that center and concentrates creativity on it, but once that creativity has been exhausted, there is then nowhere to which focus can readily turn to realize new valuable creativity, and so stagnation sets in. Could a nation become prosperous without over-centralizing? Maybe, but this seems difficult.
To map out the argument:
1. Centralization concentrates power.
2. Focus is directed toward power.
3. Where focus is, so will likely be creativity and innovation. (The presence of creativity and power correlate.)
4. The center becomes wealthy, which attracts more focus, which causes more wealth — on and on.
5. As focus is attracted toward the center, the areas outside the center do not prosper as much or as well. Infrastructure, businesses, etc. into which “focus” could later plug itself to create wealth begins to fade and lessen outside the center.
6. Gradually, the amount of wealth and innovation which can arise “out of the center” begins to lessen.
7. When the innovation runs out, focus struggles to readjust, either because the power is still present and/or because our focus has been habituated to stay focused on what has been focused on thus far. We hence deny we need to pivot.
8. Eventually, the center cannot be sustained, but by this time the society outside the center has greatly weakened, and so there is nowhere to which focus can readily turn and begin creating wealth again.
9. The socioeconomic order fails and/or stagnates.
As nations innovate, they gain wealth. Why they start to innovate is a question Deirdre McCloskey focuses on, a step I will skip, but as nations gain wealth, they tend to centralize (though not necessarily). Where there is centralization, there also tends to be a concretion of focus (though, again, not necessarily — I stress we are dealing with probabilities). As focus concentrates, the growth of the centers proves exponential: the growth is not merely linear. The center undergoes radical innovation and creativity, which likely functions as evidence that the society is very innovative, for innovation is what people “see” (in their focus). As a result, there can be a disregard of areas beyond the centers, and the decline of those areas can prove “invisible.” Gradually, the innovative potentials of the centers dry up, but focus likely stays on those centers, trying to squeeze out all the wealth it can before it’s too late. Status, power, and acknowledgment are likely still gained in those centers, and humans are creatures of habit, hence why focus is likely to overstay its welcome. But eventually it cannot be denied that “the golden era” is over, and so focus will turn to look elsewhere, at which point everything which was “invisible” that focus disregarded will become “visible.” But focus may come to see nothing, precisely because focus did not concentrate on these “external areas” to create infrastructure which focus could turn to and use when the time came. This could ironically function as evidence that focus was right to not concentrate on these areas outside the centers: after all, there’s nothing there. In fact, there’s nothing anywhere.
I like to say that “the fate of beauty” is the fate of us, and I believe “focus” is tied to beauty. We focus on what we find beautiful, and so perhaps beauty could play a role in keeping us from “overly-concentrating our focus” on social centers: perhaps beauty can play a role in helping us be “Focus Decentralized.” Indeed, a reason our focus is attracted to the center is because of status, possibility — “visions,” we could say. But if we could “see visions” more readily in our everyday lives, that would go a long way to keeping us from falling into “Focus Centralization.” Where that occurs, creativity will flourish for a time, but then one day the creativity will need to spread its wings, but we may have created no wings to spread.