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Novelty and innovation

17 March 2017

This morning at TGIF Duncan Reyburn spoke on novelty and innovation, and how people respond to this.

As often happens in lectures, my mind wandered to think of examples, and my own responses to what he was saying.

One of the things that Duncan was saying was that Hegelian dialectic was an example of innovation.

Thesis –> Antithesis –> Synthesis

The Antithesis is the innovation, and the Synthesis is the response to the innovation, which, even though it may reject the innovation, is nevertheless changed by it. It cannot simply go back to what it was before.

An example that occurred to me was the Ecumenical Counciils. They did not simply convene to establish doctrines. There was a Thesis — the Gospel, an Antithesis — Heresy, and a Synthesis, formulated doctrine, which though it rejected the heresy, did not simply go back to the status quo ante.

Duncan himself, as a Chesterton scholar, gave the example of Chesterton’s book Orthodoxy, where Chesterton said he was trying to invent a new heresy, but found it was Orthodoxy all along.

I recalled a discussion on Facebook a few days earlier, on the difference between Gospel and Canon, part of it reproduced below:

Tim Fawcett: The Gospel is the core message of Christ. The creeds are more about establishing theological orthodoxy. Fundamentally the creeds are about narrowing the gate to heaven and setting the church that establishes them up as gatekeeper. Creeds are about keeping people out of the Kingdom not letting them in.

Steve Hayes: The Gospel is the good news of who Jesus Christ is and what he has done. The creeds were formulated to counter specific distortions of the Gospel. Before those distortions appeared there was little need for creeds. The distortions were mostly about who Jesus Christ was,, and what he was, and this in turn altered what people thought he did.

I simply cannot understand Tim Fawcett’s point, which seems utterly remote from the Ecumenical Councils, and seems stuck in siome 19th century Western time warp. But then my response was expressed in terms of Hegelian dialectic, which is also a product of 19th century Western thought.

But still, if one is thinking of innovation and response to it in terms of Hegelian dialectic, I think the Ecumenical Councils are a good example, and perhaps explain the rather confused response to the Pan-Orthodox gathering held last year in Crete. It didn’t seem to be Hegelian enough, in that it wasn’t called to deal with a specific heresy.

Another thread of thought that was sparked off by Duncan’s paper on innovation was my own response to electronic computers, which appeared in my lifetime. Computing has evolved quite a lot since I got my first microcomputer 35 years ago, back in 1982. Which innovations did I welcome, and which did I ignore or resist?

My first encounter with computers was when I went into the office of the United Building Society in Pietermaritzburg in 1969, after having been overseas for a couple of years, and instead of the machine that entered transactions in my passbook and duplicating them on a physical ledger card, it contacted a remote computer and entered the three years of interest as well. I was fascinated by this device in which you could enter information, and recall it again at will. I wanted one. But only an institution the size of a building society could afford a computer.

This was what Duncan Reyburn had described as a link between stage magic and innovation, also comparable to dialectic.

Something –> the Turn –> the Prestige

The beginning is where the magician shows you a canary in a cage. The Turn is where the canary disappears. The Prestige is when it reappears.

And so it was with the computer in the building society — the data disappeared into a machine, and the device regurgitated it as if by magic, even if it was in a completely different branch of the building society. Previously you could only transact at the branch that held the phyical ledger card,

Then I read about the Atex Publishing System, installed in one of the Durban newspapers. One of the journalists wrote about it, and I wanted one. The thought of being able to store information and find it again sounded marvellous. But I wasn’t a newspaper publisher either, so it seemed out of reach.

NewBrain micro-computer, 1982

Then in 1981 I saw a computer magazine at the newsagent’s, and I bought one. There were descriptions of micro-computers one could use at home. I went, with some others, to an exhibition of educational technology, Instructa ’82, in Johannesburg. There was, on display, an Atari home computer, with BASIC in ROM. I played with it. I typed on the keyboard, pressed the enter key, and that was the Turn. I typed “Print X” and lo, the Prestige! What I had typed appeared, as if by magic, on the screen. So I ordered a NewBrain micro-computer, which was delivered to us in Melmoth in October 1982. It has 32K of RAM, (an enormous amount in those days) but there were no programs written for it, so it couldn’t do what I wanted. And so I eagerly awaited the next innovation.

So from 1982 to 1987 I was what the sociologists called an “Early Adopter”. I was eagerly awaiting every innovation that would make computers more useful. And after 5 years that point was reached. We got an MS-DOS computer, and there were lots of shareware programs available. One of them was a family history app, which allowed us to store genealogical information and spit it out at will.

By then I was working in the Editorial Department at Unisa, which used the Atex Publishing System I had coveted so much 7 years earlier. It had disk drives the size of a small washing machine. And saving a file and getting back to the same place could take several minutes, or sometimes long enough to go down to the canteen for coffee. Some of the developers of Atex ported it to micro-computers as the XyWrite word processor, which was much more efficient and faster than Atex, and could do everything I wanted in a word processor.

And from that point on I became suspicious of innovation.

One innovation was the “enhanced” (ie ergonomically crippled) keyboard, with function keys along the top instead of on the left. It slowed down typing and editing, and operations that had previously required two fingers now required two hands. Innovation meant that instead of doing things the quick and easy way, one now had to do them the slow and difficult way. People said that this was progress, and that we should stop complaining and “move on”.

But I stopped being an “early adopter”. People said that MS-Word and Wordperfect were the word processors to beat, and we should switch to them, but XyWrite could do everything they could do and a lot they couldn’t do, and a lot faster too.

Now I fear that my 32-bit computer will die and have to be replaced, and I’ll only be able to get one with a 64-bit operating system, and I know that half the programs I use every day will not run on them.

So I’m ambivalent about technical innovation. Will it make my life easier, or more difficult? Will this new computer do everything that my old one does, or will it drop a lot of functionality in the name of “Progress”?

Innovation that lets me do what I want to do is good; innovation that stops me doing what I want to do is bad.

Duncan also said that novelty is tied up with loss of identity, or fear of losing one’s identity. Does that mean that I gained a new identity 30 years ago, when I became quite dependent on computers swallowing data and spitting out again, like a stage magician with a canary in a cage?

Val said she had a different train of thought about that.

About 20 years ago there was an advertisement hoarding in Bramley in Johannesburg on the M1 North. We used to pass it a couple of times a week coming home from church. It was advertising 702 radio, and had a picture of the Statue of Liberty, with the text “News from a broad”.

On one occasion we had a visiting American priest with us, who was doing a locum for the priest in our parish, and he was terribly upset by it. For us it was just a mildly amusing pun, but he experienced it as an attack on his identity.

Where does innovation come into that?

Well Duncan explained that jokes, like stage magic, were also examples of innovation.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Rangjan permalink
    18 March 2017 1:58 pm

    Considering your being perplexed by Tim Fawcett, what would be your take on the way the Cathar’s “distortions” in interpretation of the Gospels were corrected? There is a clear case that many of them were excluded by a “narrowing of the gates”, not just from Christianity but from life as they were put to death.

    • 18 March 2017 5:29 pm

      I can’t recall any Ecumenical Council being called to discuss the teaching of the Cathars.

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