“Discover and innovate” is the mantra of the modern American research university. But what does it mean to discover in an era when our final frontiers are not defined by mere geography? And whence comes the drive to innovate? Is it in our DNA or simply our cultural destiny? Is it catalyzed by the quintessential “a-ha!” moment or does it grow from the darkest nights of the soul? Is it a serendipitous event or, quite simply, essential to human survival? In this issue of UCR we asked three UCR innovators to weigh in on the concept of reinvention. Their musings reveal that reinvention is older than Darwin, as American as apple pie and as familiar as the human quest for happiness.
Toby Miller has been a Californian for only two years, but he’s been a California dreamer all his life. “Growing up in Australia, I harbored a California fantasy based on perceptions of the state’s natural beauty, the lure of Hollywood, the impact of the American military,” says Miller, professor of English, sociology and women’s studies in UCR’s College of Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences.
A big-idea generator with a ready and well-articulated opinion on all things sociocultural — media, sports, labor, gender, race, citizenship, politics, economics — Miller understands the importance of reinvention to the American mindset in general and California in particular.
“Reinvention is the founding mythology of American culture,” he says. “This is a nation based on the idea that you can come here from anywhere in the world, transcend class, race, gender and financial circumstances and reinvent yourself.” This concept comes to life in California — a Western American “quest destination” for people from around the world — and in the Inland Empire, fastest-growing region in the country.
Although Miller’s notion is perhaps most familiarly illustrated in the works of Horatio Alger Jr., in which the hardknocks American hero lifts himself up by the bootstraps into better circumstances, Miller sees manifestations beyond the individual entrepreneur. “The forces of reinvention have less to do with individual initiative than with deeper cultural and socioeconomic forces — and with how societies interact with each other on the world stage,” he says.
As an example, Miller cites the reinvention of the American work force over the past 100-plus years, as regions of the country — in the grips of first the industrial, then the technological revolution — evolved from an agrarian to an industrial to a service-industry base. “As first-world countries like the United States have evolved toward service-based economies, increasingly, they’ve outsourced other functions, such as manufacturing, to countries that can perform them more competitively.” Witness California: an agrarian paradise in the early 20th century, reinvented as industrial-military Mecca in World War II, evolved during and since the Cold War into a tourist haven, a high-tech incubator and a Hollywood dream factory, perpetuating the myth of America as reinvention capital of the world.
Even more interesting, Miller points out, California’s self-reinvention as a hightech haven illustrates the dangers that befall a society when it allows itself to take innovation for granted as the exclusive domain of the individual entrepreneur. “Continued innovation requires a combination of public and private investment,” says Miller. “Looking at the high-tech sector, we’ve had investment by businesses and the military — a big driver in the initial development of the Internet. But public investment has lagged.” As a result, Miller says, the United States has now fallen behind in the proliferation of and access to technological innovation, “as we have with access to health care. To make the most of innovation, we need to connect public and private sectors.”
What happens to a society that fails to make the connection? “It loses its equity in the innovation,” Miller says. “Ordinary people can’t access it.” Case in point: although information technology has proliferated in the past 25 years, access to it has not kept pace, resulting in a society increasingly stratified into techhaves and tech-have-nots. “The Internet isn’t funded the way radio and TV were in their early days. High cable and telephone bills now restrict access to high-tech services and disenfranchise large segments of the population,” Miller says.
Then there’s the aftermath of innovation and reinvention: what happens when today’s technology breakthroughs give way to tomorrow’s whiz-bang gizmos? The consequences are daunting, Miller points out — enough to make reinvention of what we do with technowaste a must for our survival. “Technology is supposedly a clean economy, but its pollution is a threat we don’t understand,” he says, citing the growing number of high-tech dumping grounds across the Western United States, where young people who probably can’t afford the technology they’re dismantling do the tech industry’s dirty work.
Solutions to this and other postinnovation dilemmas — from air and water pollution to traffic congestion — must emerge from modern American research universities like UCR. “I see UCR as a boutique: flexible, nimble, open, providing ideas and people, inspiring investment and partnership in the region,” he says. “Universities need to show that they are about more than just teaching classes — that they contribute to the local culture and economy, that they undertake research, that they are engines of reinvention.”
At risk, Miller points out, is more than any one person’s opportunity to levitate into the lap of high-tech luxury. “Although the Horatio Alger mythology lives on in our collective imaginations, it does not reflect life in American society anymore,” he says. “There are other places where it’s much easier to lift yourself out of poverty and reinvent your future — Britain, Spain, Italy.” The solution, Miller believes, lies in the reallocation of resources, whether wealth, technology or simple opportunity, for the public good — an act of reinvention perhaps not unlike the quest for a more universally accessible good life that first inspired immigration to the Golden State. “As Californians, we must reinvent ourselves as a multicultural society and restore the greatness that is California’s public sector.”
It’s Only Natural
Talk to most scientists about reinvention manifested in the natural world and you won’t hear many mentions of supermodels or the architectural marvels of medieval cathedrals. For such interdisciplinary interconnections, seek the counsel of Norm Ellstrand, a geneticist and professor of genetics at UCR and director of the university’s Biotechnology Impacts Center.
"Reinvention goes on all the time in nature,” Ellstrand says. “It’s never perfect, and it’s never finished. No sooner does an organism adapt to its environment than the environment changes again — sometimes in response to the organism itself. We’re always catching up.”
Although humans often perceive reinvention as an act of will — for instance, we choose to make something better — in reality, reinvention is a natural force as often accidental as it is purposeful. “Many of the features that provide creatures and plants with an evolutionary advantage were ‘designed’ for a different purpose,” Ellstrand says.
As an example, he offers up the evolution of insect wings: research reveals that they actually began as tiny bumps on the insect’s back. Insects with these tiny bumps found themselves with an evolutionary edge — the additional surface area they provide helped with thermoregulation, enabling bump-endowed bugs to warm and cool their bodies more effectively. If little bumps provided a slight edge, larger bumps provided an even bigger advantage until, over generations and generations, the bumps elongated until they became long appendages that enabled the insect to glide. Voila: flight.
Sometimes the same principle of accidental enhancement finds expression in the realm of human endeavor. Steven Gould and Richard Lewontin noted the spandrels in medieval San Marco Cathedral in Venice. “These gorgeous architectural features were really just weird corner bits in the places where two arches meet,” Ellstrand says. “There was no great plan to invent these cool spaces, just clever use of architectural leftovers.” The evolutionary metaphor, Ellstrand says, is that sometimes key adaptive features are just an evolutionary exploitation of junk.
Perhaps an even more intriguing example of reinvention is the redefinition of evolution itself to recognize the impact of “non-Darwinian” forces. “Darwin mentions genetic variation through mutation, but his emphasis was on natural selection,” Ellstrand points out. “He didn’t take into account chance events like migration and genetic drift, which have gained credence over the past 50 years.”
Mutation through genetic drift and another reinventive concept, genetic engineering, are Ellstrand’s areas of expertise. When the genes of herbicideresistant creeping bent grass — a golf course innovation — and of a yet-to-becommercialized genetically engineered rice began showing up in natural grass populations and cultivated rice fields, respectively, Ellstrand found his perspective in demand by media sources seeking an opinion on the perils of genetic engineering.
“Every year, something new ends up where it’s not supposed to be, and the impacts are often blown out of proportion. None have been terrible examples, but they definitely show that we aren’t good at keeping human-designed plant genes down on the farm,” he says. “The truth is, we’re in the infancy of this field and, looking forward, there are exciting possibilities.” The first plants developed through genetic engineering are only a little more than 10 years old, he points out. To assess their eventual impact now would be like assessing the impact of the automobile, 10 years after its introduction. “It’s just too soon. And we’re fortunate to be moving slowly, taking baby steps.”
Hybridization — which happens when natural plant genes intermate with genetically engineered crops peers is another hot topic. Although hybridization is a concern — producing “superweeds” or even “supergerms” — not all hybrids will become weeds, Ellstrand points out.
“Fifty years ago, scientists considered hybridization rare and unimportant. Today we understand that evolution is more fluid,” Ellstrand says. The takehome message, he adds, is that scientists should be humble. “The knowledge we were certain of 50 years ago, over time, has been revealed as imperfect — just as today’s knowledge will be 50 years from now.”
Thank goodness for the natural forces of reinvention — the constant striving for illusory perfection, toward which Ellstrand takes a Zen approach. “Perfection is in the eye of the beholder, and it is much more than we can see with our scientific eye at any given time,” he muses. “We’re not all perfect specimens — Robert Redfords and Heidi Klums. And it’s a good thing, because a world inhabited by only perfect specimens would be a boring place.”
Go Ahead and Laugh
What’s the simplest act of reinvention — one any of us can commit, any time, any day, any place? To Sonja Lyubomirsky, professor of psychology at UCR, it’s probably smiling. Or maybe laughing. Perhaps a small act of altruism.
Lyubomirsky’s research involves understanding how people can reinvent themselves as happier — not just for a minute, but forever. Although it may sound simple, her research is revolutionary. “Science is pessimistic about the idea that people can become happier in a permanent way,” she says. “The pervasive idea is that we each have a set point for happiness that is genetically dictated, and that we’re basically doomed to that set point.”
As evidence, pessimists point out that people are good at adapting to positive change. For example, we undergo life-improving events — get married, get a better job or a better house, have a child, move to a new place. For a while, we’re happier. Then we get used to it; back to the “set point.”
But the set point theory, Lyubomirsky contends, can’t explain everything about happiness. “My hypothesis is that happiness is determined by three factors: a set point, life circumstances and intentional behavior. Thus, there’s room for change, through what we think and do.”
In her laboratory, Lyubomirsky has tested her theory among people who are and who are not committed to becoming happier. Her research offers interesting insights into our ability to reinvent ourselves: she’s found that regular, simple actions — counting one’s blessings, performing acts of kindness, keeping an optimism journal, writing letters of gratitude — actually raise our happiness level. She theorizes that happiness is a body and soul experience, enhanced and learning prompt positive emotions and produce a stream of positive experiences,” she says, citing research out of the University of Wisconsin.
But what about the connection between happiness and innovation, contentment and reinvention? Who’s more likely to create: happy people or dark, brooding types in a ruminative funk, such as the iconic suffering artist? “Although poetry, painting and art seem to tap deep, often painful emotions, studies show that creative works don’t come out of a depressive time,” Lyubomirsky says. “Rather, they are created after the creator comes out of a depression with deeper insights.” In fact, in her research, Lyubomirsky has found that the happier, more energetic and more active that people are, the greater their creativity. Innovation, Lyubomirsky posits, grows from the same source as creativity. So does reinvention — even when it’s inspired by the desire to improve something that isn’t working or turn a failure into a success.
“I’m a believer in the virtuous cycle: Happy people are more creative, and creative output makes people happy, which makes them more creative,” Lyubomirsky says, cordially ending the interview to return to her own creative zone, deeply engaged in her book on reinventing a happier self.
Your Cultural DNA
So what of American innovation in the 21st century? Is it doomed to a set point, determined by our cultural DNA, or — like evolution — can it be reinvented to incorporate new knowledge? Is it a lost part of our California heritage, gone stagnant in a culture that doesn’t share innovation as readily as it embraces it? And what will become of the metaphorical vestigial jawbones, the interstices between medieval arches, the detritus of high-tech discovery, the graveyards of yesterday’s DVD players, mobile phones and computer monitors? How must we innovate differently in a modern world so shaped by past innovation?
From within UCR comes the voice of Norm Ellstrand, echoing messages from Miller and Lyubomirsky. “I think we must innovate with a sustainable world in mind — and we must slow down. What we need is a reinvention of the American lifestyle that integrates reflection and enjoyment with the hard work that, for generations, has enabled us to pull ourselves up by the bootstraps and make a better world for ourselves.” The dark, brooding moments of the soul may feed innovation, and creativity and happiness may catalyze action. “But we are nothing without the middle zone,” Ellstrand says. “That’s where wisdom grows.”