Culture of Innovation


The fetishization of technological innovation and societal change for no higher purpose is not enough to justify the construction of a new society. A common good is required, one that increases quality of life and fosters higher collective and individual purpose.

The 1998 documentary Silicon Valley: A 100 Year Renaissance compares Silicon Valley, with its culture of innovation, to Renaissance-era Europe, with its myriad polymaths and academic genius. Both are widely considered staples of liberal modernity, with the late-20th-century movement of high modernism serving as an antecedent to Silicon Valley’s startup culture. The comparison, however, is based on two false premises. One, the influence of the Renaissance-era polymaths on modern society is overstated, and two, innovation is not, ethically, an end in itself.

Per the fawning language of Scott Cook, founder of Intuit, in the documentary:

“Typically, the pattern is that there was some innovation, some invention, in science or technology and then a few decades later, twenty to fifty years later, that invention was turned into a fundamental innovation that reshaped our lives. You can see that in the Renaissance period, when…society accelerated in progress after paper was introduced in the West. People give Gutenberg the credit for inventing printing; it was really – fifty years later, roughly – a guy in Italy named Aldus who really invented publishing as we know it.”

The Aldus in question is Aldus Manutius, 15th-century Italian printer and Renaissance humanist. He is referenced, once again, as a link between Renaissance Italy and the San Francisco Bay Area’s culture of innovation in John Henry Nash: The Aldus of San Francisco, in which the Nobel Prize-winning mathematician is compared favorably to him. What is less frequently mentioned about Aldus, however, is that his trademark invention, the Aldine press, led directly to a surge in piracy. Aldus attempted to discourage this practice by putting warnings in the introductions of the works he published, but to no avail. Contrasted with the spike in piracy caused by the invention of the Internet, the comparison is as accurate as it is unfortunate. The estimated cost of piracy to the US economy before 2000, around the beginning of the dot-com boom was approximately $265 billion. As of 2021, according to the IP Commission Report, it’s between $225 and $600 billion. There is, of course, a great deal more wrong with the current direction of technological innovation than theft–mass surveillance, the exacerbation of mental illness (especially in youth), the blurring of public and private life, etc. – but propagating mass theft in a civilization built on the commandment “thou shalt not steal” is, in itself, a considerable loss.

The problem of theft, indeed, came up frequently in the Renaissance, most notably in the case of body snatching. The first recorded case of body snatching was in Bologna, Italy in 1319. After this, the Papacy forbade the disturbing of human cadavers for any reason, which severely delayed – so the story goes – the rate of anatomical and medical innovation in Europe. A popular example of this delay, cited in PubMed and the American Journal of Cardiology, is the difficulty that Leonardo da Vinci faced in completing his work as an anatomist. Despite completing over 30 diagrams of the human body, each of revolutionary anatomical accuracy, da Vinci was unable to publish these due to criminal charges against him for “unseemly conduct.” It was not until Andreas Vesalius wrote De Humani Corporis Fabrica Libri Septem in 1543 that the science of the day progressed.

The account of da Vinci as a genius of deferred success, however, is self-contradictory. Vesalius, not da Vinci, revolutionized anatomy and medicine by building on the work of his predecessor, Galen. Vesalius, not da Vinci, did this within the constraints of canon law (with gray areas, granted, but certainly without grave robbery) by taking the bodies of executed corpses instead of digging up buried ones. Most importantly, Vesalius published De Humani less than thirty years after da Vinci’s death in 1519. To blame canon law, the Papacy, or any measure of cultural traditionalism for the restriction of scientific innovation is, in the case of 15th-century Europe, simply incorrect.

What, one may ask, of the martyrs for science? Galileo Galilei, Tycho Brahe, and Johannes Kepler are all names of Renaissance-era polymaths who, due to their ideological conflicts with Christian doctrine, were declared heretics by the Papacy and put to death. Brewster (1847)[1] names these three but omits Giordano Bruno, who was also executed for crimes against the Church. Per Graetz (1956)[2] in Judaism, Rabbis Moshe Chaim Luzzatto and Azariah de Rossi, who were not executed but faced severe consequences for their own contributions to academia and religious rationalism. The reality is that none of these were punished explicitly for being rationalists or contributing to their respective fields: Galileo, Brahe, and Kepler to science, Bruno to science, philosophy and poetry, Luzzatto to philosophy and alchemy, and de Rossi to history. They all professed affiliation with particular religious communities whose core tenets they challenged. Bruno went as far as embracing pantheism while still calling himself a Christian, so calling him a martyr for science, as opposed to a heretic condemned to execution, is equally tragic but incorrect. Rabbis Luzzatto and de Rossi were not even threatened with execution: the former was excommunicated for his heterodox interest in Kabbalah (Jewish mysticism) and the latter, per Graetz, was subject to a cherem (edict of excommunication) which was never signed due to its author’s sudden passing due to old age. Attempts to paint medieval and Renaissance-era religious institutions as ultra-conservative death cults are part of a broader theme of dichotomizing scientific innovation and cultural conservatism, but such a dichotomy simply does not exist.

Establishing historical continuity is not an objective practice. It is the construction of a narrative, one in frequent need of challenge, critique, and revision. The fetishization of technological innovation and societal change for no higher purpose is not enough to justify the construction of a new society. A common good is required, one that increases quality of life and fosters higher collective and individual purpose. No amount of lionization of historical eras or Thomas Carlyle-esque “Great Men” can ever change that.

1 Brewster, D. (1847). The Martyrs of Science. Harper & brothers.

2 Graetz, H. (1956). History of the Jews (Volume 4 of 6) (Vol. 4). The Jewish Publication Society of America. Note: originally published in German in 1856 as “Geschichte der Juden,” then translated into English by the Jewish Publication Society and republished in 1956. The 1956 translation was consulted for this article.