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Fail Better

There is a common connotative warmth associated with the term innovation. In a culture that glorifies success and celebrates triumph over adversity, innovation is applauded, the flipside of Icarian plummets is less lauded. It may seem paradoxical, a fallacy, a downright lie, and yet, it is true: the spectacular fails of Humanity hold within them the seeds for ever greater wins. It’s all a process. Innovation is the love child of tenacity and vision. It is born of failure. It thrives on a diet of Plan A’s, B’s, all the way to Z’s.


Betamax, Crystal Pepsi, Samsung Galaxy 7; the road to innovation is paved with flops, fiascoes and in the case of the Galaxy 7, explosions!


Mankind is endowed with a superpower that sets it head and shoulders above all the floral and faunal co-habitants of this planet – the power of imagination. We, as a species, are able to access knowledge frameworks built up over millennia to understand the world around us. Longevity of experience through communication of know-how and skills from one generation to the next allows humans to evolve over time to higher states of skillfulness, intellect and consciousness. We study history to learn from the past.


We don’t know if our forebearers began to spin tales in the darkness to pass the velvet menace of night, what soft sounds became the first story. We don’t know if they sprang from the first finger painting on a cave wall, or handprint that resembled a pre-historic turkey. In Professor Brian Boyd’s On the Origin of Stories, (2010) his seminal salute to Darwin’s Origin of Species, he explores art as a specifically human adaptation, “our fondness for storytelling has sharpened social cognition, encouraged cooperation, and fostered creativity.”


Through myth and legend transmitted through the oral traditions of song and storytelling, by recording symbols on walls, skins, paper and now, on nebulous clouds in cyberspace, the human being, with his ability to see a thing and imagine it bigger, faster, cooler, is adept at changing the world to suit his needs. Over time, he has learned to sing, paint, draw, sculpt, manifest from the very ether a representation of reality, either actual or envisioned in the mind. “We are such stuff as dreams are made of.” The Bard. The Tempest.


Imagination allows us to envision a future different from that experienced in the present moment or remembered past. The house you live in, for example, is a far cry from the cave-dwelling or sapling lean-tos our ancestors occupied. Perhaps there were no more caves available when the first human prototyped a house. Maybe Ug, sick of the hollering of his herd of little-Ug’s, decided to improve his situation. Mastering his initial apprehension, he leaned two fallen trees against a third to keep the saber-toothed tigers at bay.


When his cave-neighbors found what was left of him the next morning, it is quite probable that they used this knowledge to refine future house building endeavors.


“More trees. Maybe a high bit up there, a swinging section to enter and leave by, …”


Perhaps they installed one of these swinging contraptions on widowed Mrs. Ug’s cave entrance, to protect her from the vagaries of the night, now that Ug had met his untimely end. Sometimes, innovation is a well-intentioned path to catastrophe, and others to a slight amelioration to the onslaught of life. The lessons learned by those who live to tell the tale lead to new and improved designs. Iteration is the key to success. The Galaxy 8 is a wonderful device, very non-explosive.


Homo sapiens are generally equipped with the ability to reason, and memory allows us to make predictions about the future based on past experiences, both lived and recounted from stories. Ug’s neighbors shared the sorry tale by night, by firelight if mankind has discovered it by this point in our tale. The story of Ug, that brave DIY pioneer, contained vital wisdom, shared through narrative, preserved in myth, the bloody remains of their kinsman enshrined in lore. Over time, the flesh falls from the bones, and we are left with the skeletal moral, in different clothing.


We no longer have access to these proto-myths, these first attempts at learning from our mistakes. In one sense, the first stories can be seen as reflections on life past, and cultural evolution as a result of imagining a better ending. Carl Jung says that they are still buried deep in our collective unconscious, subliminally informing our world-view.


Back at the proto-house fiasco, cerca 5,000 BCE, Ulf spends a long time pondering the splintered saplings.


“What if Ug had like, built his tree cave over there, in the middle of that lake? Scary-Eaty-beasts can’t swim.”

The other cave dwellers snort, they call him crazy. Crazy Ulf. And yet, one of the earliest settlements in Ireland was found in 2004, in the middle of a lake in Longford. The remains of the crannóg settlement were dated to 5,000 BCE.


A crannóg is a wattle and daub hut atop a manmade island. Not only did Crazy Ulf build a house, he built an island on the lakebed, perhaps wading out while the cave-neighbors howled, holding their ribs from the hooting, or perhaps he hollowed out a large tree trunk and floated out there, causing one cave-neighbor to get the hiccups from laughing so much. Such is the nature of innovation.


Many do not share the vision, at first.


The settlement in Longford contained a stone platform 12 meters in diameter, “overlaid with brushwood and the remains of three fireplaces -it is thought to date from the late megalithic period, which makes it older than the Loughcrew cairns or the pyramids of Egypt.” Once homo sapiens started prototyping structures, there was no limit to the shape, size and silliness of some dwellings. Diversity is the stamp of our breed.


Crazy Ulf’s descendants, and the ideas they added to their eccentric ancestor’s watery vision embody the spirit of trial and error. Some added walkways, connecting the crannógs to the mainland, others built neighboring crannógs, perhaps proto-guestrooms, or proto-man-caves, proto-art studios.


Home improvements in Longford, which were carried out 1,000 years after the original stone platform was laid, suggest “if not a previously unknown 1,000-year continual civilisation, then certainly some progression from hunter gatherers to farming settlers.”


Crazy Ulf was not alone in his innovative dwelling design brief. Trial and error in Mexico saw the Aztecs using chinampas, artificial islands made of staked plots in the lakebed filled with wattle and mud. Chinampas were used to grow food and accessed by canoe. Crazy Ulf’s Mesoamerican counterpart also endured the good-natured derision of his peers, and yet, in recent years chinampas have resurged as a solution to the crippling food supply issues of Mexico City, supplying healthy, organic food to the city’s residents.


The earliest traces of our cousin primates, Homo erectus, in East Asia have been found in China, dating back to 1.7 million years ago. Homo sapien artifacts from 25,000 BCE on the North China Plain, show evidence of fishing and hunting, as well as baubles of bone and shell. China’s protohumans did not build lakebed dwellings, that we know if, but that is by no means to say that they did not have their own Crazy Ulf’s to explode and exasperate and excite them.


Starting about 5000 BCE, mankind spread out along the Yellow River valley. Farming and fishing, raising pigs and dogs for food, growing millet and rice, early man lived the modern off-grid ideal lifestyle. Except for the dogs. Asian Ulf was perfecting his first attempt at gunpowder. Asian Ug was his guru (R.I.P)


Ceramic pots, fishhooks, knives, arrows and needles were found in The Yangshao settlement artifacts, (5000 to 2500 BCE). These farmers lived in dwellings which were partly below the surface, like skater bowls with roofs. Their pottery included designs which may have been symbols that later evolved into written language.


In 600 BCE, proto-farmers still scattered seed onto the fields randomly outside of Middle Earth. In China, farmers started to plant individual seeds in rows, “thus reducing seed loss and making crops grow faster and stronger. This technology was not used in the western world until 2200 years later.”


Remember always where we are beginning. Velvet night. Darkness. Before the trial. Before the error. Before the stories.


Each of these innovations could have exploded, diving like a dart from the sky, waxen feathers falling in it’s lead.


From flea plucking primates to smart-phone wielding primates, there have been cycles of innovation. Once the spark of consciousness ignited, stones became tools, shiny black flint abandoned with glee as iron was discovered, smelted, used to kill, used to mechanize, used to colonize; electricity, urbanization, globalization, 5G, social media.


At times, innovation caused change, like the frog in a slow boiling pot of water. At others, it exploded like Wiley Coyote, leaving the rest of us to reflect, to grow collectively from yet another valiant fail.


Evolution advanced the adaptable over those unable to embrace change. Natural selection favored the innovative thinkers endowed with luck or caution. Survival of the fittest refers to the mentally agile.


We played with fire, invented the wheel, planted wheat and became domesticated by its yield and on we bumble throughout History.

Stories viscerally allow us to try, to fail, to reflect.

Innovation compels us to release our inner Ulf, and try again. To fail better.


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