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Virginia Postrel is an author and speaker whose work spans a broad range of topics, from social science to fashion, concentrating on the intersection of culture, commerce, and technology. Postrel[…]

The drive to improve has shaped humanity.

Virginia Postrel: Well I think that there is a drive in human beings, and perhaps in some of our ancestors . . . ape ancestors as well . . . There’s something that happens to human beings where there is a kind of dissatisfaction. Where it can be as simple as a tool that doesn’t work very well, and you modify it so it works better. There is sort of a drive to make incremental improvements. And it could be, you know, you really hate the way your parents behaved towards you. So when you have kids you’re gonna do it a different way. And maybe it’s better and maybe it’s worse. And your kids then do it a different way. And it can be as simple as modifying recipes. It can be as big as, you know, writing the U.S. Constitution and sort of creating a new country. And there’s a learning process that takes place with that. And a lot of that learning – and this is one of the message in “The Future and Its Enemies” is very incremental. It’s a lot of modest changes and experiments that add up over time to major progress. And you don’t necessarily know where you’re headed. There’s a writer named Henry Patrosky who’s a civil engineering professor at Duke. And he writes about the evolution of technical things . . . of objects and artifacts. And he has this great phrase: “Form follows failure” which is of course a play on “Form follows function.” And his idea is when you have an artifact, as soon as it exists, you find the things that you don’t like about it. And the existence of the initial artifact allows you to innovate and say, “Oh well, this is how we’d like to improve it.” And I think that’s a process that goes far beyond artifacts. It is how we get technological improvements, but it is not the only way. So that’s . . . That doesn’t account for everything of how we’ve done all this, but that’s a lot of it. I think there is a power of individuals when they interact a lot together. There’s an idea that I sort of took from Daniel Boorstin – as you can see I am a big synthesizer . . . everything has a footnote for somebody else – called . . ., which is the idea of different things coming together. So it could be ethnic groups trading. Different geographical regions coming together. This notion that’s where a lot of creativity takes place. And I think that a lot of the creative power of cities over the centuries has come from that sort of being a place where people of some kind of difference interact in a positive . . . usually more in a positive way. Trade is a lot of that. Various forms of learning is a lot of that. Even things like missionary efforts can take place there, and that you know . . . There’s positives and negatives, but that’s ultimately where you come from. This sort of exchange is where a lot of the sort of progress, and growth, and development of civilizations come from. And then there are things that you just go, “How could that happen?” It’s so amazing. There are bad things that happen to you, but even on the positive side, how is it . . . I’ve been reading a lot about Renaissance . . . How did that happen? What is the historian’s puzzle of this? How do you have this flourishing of art in certain places or of science in certain places? What was it about Vienna in the early 20th century, or Budapest that allowed these great minds to prosper . . .each other in such interesting ways? Or London or Edinburgh in the 18th century. What happened there? What was going on with the founding fathers? They seem like a remarkable group of people. That had something to do with interaction. The parts are great, but the whole is even somehow greater than the sum of the parts. And these are, I think in some sense, historical mysteries, but really worthy of thinking about and studying. Because they go beyond the simple incrementalism of saying there could be progress even if it is very modest efforts of making better toothpaste or whatever.

Recorded on: 7/4/07