The starting point for our reflections on the nature of creation involved in disruptive innovations is their inorganic materiality. With this, we do not so much embrace Aristotle’s categorial divide between natural and artificial beings (§ 2). Today’s technological developments in synthetic biology and production of ‘living machines’ show the limitations of such a categorial divide (Holy-Luczaj & Blok, 2019). The notion of inorganic materiality enables us however to initially distinguish between genetically programmed biological evolution and non-genetically programmed technological evolution, without assuming a priori a continuity between the two processes of creation.Footnote 7
The inorganic materiality of disruptive innovations can serve as an alternative starting point for the anthropocentric orientation of the traditional concept of creation (problem 1) and may characterize the creation involved in innovations like the steam engine or deep learning techniques. A critical reader would argue however that inorganic material cannot sufficiently account for the initiation of the creative process and evolution involved in technological evolution. In the philosophical tradition, materiality is often understood in its inert substantiality, ranging from Aristotle’s hulè to Descartes res extensa, which then requires an external agent to initiate and drive the process of creation, i.e. the artisan as subject of creation. And yet, it is not necessary to adhere to such an anthropocentric conceptualization of an external agent that fabricates an artifact out of this material substance. We can question whether inorganic materiality can be understood in terms of a res extensa, as the stretching out (extensio) can fan out in all directions and cannot account for the unity of that thing. For this reason, philosophers like Spinoza argued that “each thing, as far as it can by its own power, strives [conatur] to persevere in its own being” (Spinoza, 1992: part 3, proposition 6). Each being, not only organic beings but also inorganic material beings, are characterized by the tendency toward self-preservation. This idea, that not only organic beings but all material beings have agency, is increasingly accepted in philosophy (Latour: 1993); everything is conative, ranging from stones and trees, humans and technologies (Bennett: 2010). If the starting point of our metaphysical reflection on the nature of creation is found in the inorganic materiality of innovations, the principle of conativity of all beings enables us to move beyond the traditional anthropocentric conceptualization of creation (i.e. problem 1).
The principle of conativity enables us to conceive the creation involved in disruptive innovations as an ontogenetic process of the preservation of the identity of a new-to-the-world innovation, i.e., the emergence of the new-to-the-world identity of the telescope next to its first material instantiation in a new-to-the-world artifact. Why? Conativity is not so much an ontic will or impulse of material beings towards self-preservation, but an ontological principle that establishes the identity or meaning of these beings (BLok, 2016); “The conatus to preserve itself is the very essence of a thing” (Spinoza, 1992: part 3, proposition 7)(emphasis added). Conativity does not indicate the preservation of a being in its own existence, but concerns the ontogenetic process in which the identity of a new-to-the-world material object like the telescope is constituted. This is why the conativity of creation does not imply a new form of animism that argues for the agency or will of innovations like the steam engine to explain its emergence. The ‘steam engine’ as an artefact is not primarily conative, but the identity of the steam engine is the performative constituent of the principle of conativity, which is characteristic of the process of creation. The conativity of creation explains the invention of the new-to-the-world identity of innovations beyond the given reality. It creates this new-to-the-world identity of the innovation in the production of its first physical instantiation. The principle of conativity is the first characteristic of our concept of creation, which solves the problem of anthropocentrism in the traditional concept of creation.
The second problem we encountered in the previous section concerned how our understanding of creation is oriented toward the outcome of innovation. The advantage of the principle of conativity is that it enables us to shift our attention from the outcome to the process of creation. If the principle of conativity characterizes the ontogenetic process of self-preservation that characterizes all material beings, this self or identity is not something given as an outcome of creation. On the contrary, the differentiation of the self implies that matter is in the first instance un-differentiated, non-self. All material beings we encounter in the world are differentiated modifications of the un-differentiated materiality that constitutes the universe.Footnote 8 As a differentiated modification of undifferentiated materiality (self-perseverance), each material entity is resistant to everything that can take its existence away (self-perseverance), and this resistance consists precisely in the conativity to preserve oneself as such a modification of undifferentiated materiality. Conativity is an endeavouring, an effort, and characterizes the ontogenetic process of creation that differentiates the identity or meaning of material entities like stones and trees, humans, and technologies from undifferentiated materiality; it articulates and establishes the identity of material entities and prevents at the same time their relapse into this undifferentiated materiality.
If we consider the conativity of creation in the context of innovation, we can conceive the process of creation as the differentiation of a new-to-the-world identity that emerges from this undifferentiated materiality. We can conceive this process as the creation of an excess or surplus beyond undifferentiated materiality, i.e., the new identity of something new-to-the-world that didn’t exist before, such as the first steam engine, telescope or deep learning technique. This creation of the identity of the innovation is needed since without it, the conativity of creation would fan out in all directions and could not account for the unity of the new identity of the innovation. To the extent that the conativity of creation does not only consist in self-perseverance but also resists everything that can take its new-to-the-world identity away (self-perseverance), this newly created identity of the innovation at the same time deviates from what is existent in the world.
How can this deviation of creation be conceptualized? In the history of technology, we observe a discontinuity between waves of technological development (Kondratieff, 1935), for instance the wave starting around 1845 associated with steam power, which follows the wave associated with waterpower and gave rise to inventions like the water mill and the emergence of the textile industry. The invention of the steam engine does not only establish a new to the world identity, namely the first steam engine, but this creation concurrently deviates from everything that is associated with what we could call the ‘world of water’, i.e. the water mill. The conativity of creation appropriates the new-to-the-world identity of the steam engine (self-perseverance) and deviates this new-to-the-world identity from the existent – i.e., everything that belongs to the world of water - in order to persevere in its own existence (self-preservation). This deviation of the surplus is simultaneously positive, as the conativity of creation appropriates an eruption of a new to the world possibility of the identity of the created (self-perseverance), and negative, as the deviation of creation frees this newly created identity from the inhibiting forces of the existent (self-perseverance).Footnote 9
If the starting point of our metaphysical reflection on the nature of creation is found in the principle of conativity, the onto-genetic process of the creation of the identity of the new-to-the-world innovation as deviation from the existent enables us to move beyond the traditional orientation on the outcome of innovation (problem 2). The outcome of innovation turns out to be the trait d’union of the process of creation of the identity of the new-to-the-world innovation and its deviation from the existent, as it establishes the new-to-the-world identity and puts itself outside the range of the existent at the same time. The ontogenetic process of creation is the second characteristic of a materialistic concept of creation. It solves the problem of how the traditional concept of creation is orientated toward the outcome of innovation.
The first advantage of this characteristic of creation is that it opens our perspective on the unpredictable event of creation. In science and technology studies, we tend to focus on the outcome of the process of innovation because its risks and benefits can be calculated. As soon as we see the ontogenetic process of creation involved in innovation, however, we can no longer neglect the unpredictable event of creation beyond human control. The ontogenetic process of creation accounts for the fundamental uncertainty and unpredictability of the imprint of disruptive innovations. The second advantage of this characteristic of creation is that the deviation of the surplus of creation accounts for the subversive nature of innovation, its potentiality to overthrow the existing order, which is acknowledged throughout the history of innovation (Godin, 2015). With the unpredictability and subversive nature of innovation, we encounter a third advantage. We can accept that inventions like the steam engine disrupt the world in which we live, without automatically adopting the idea of technological determinism. In fact, and this is the fourth advantage of this characteristic of creation, it provides a concept of the new involved in innovations. While traditional concepts of innovation see novelty and newness as central characteristics, they see it ultimately as a relative concept, ranging from new-to-the-world to new-to-the-company innovations (Cooper, 1993). Our concept of creation provides a qualitative definition of the new. The deviation of the surplus of creation defines the new as appropriation of the identity as deviated from the existent, and accounts for the new-to-the-world character of these outcomes of innovations.
Does the ontogenetic process of creation also provide insights into how the outcomes of innovation imprint our World at an ontological level (problem 3)? To see this, we return for a moment to the history of innovation. The creation of disruptive innovations is not a one-off event that is only driven by the principle of conativity, as innovations are at the same time responsive to the material and human conditions that make them possible. For example, the invention of the steam engine is responsive to preceding innovations. Newcomen’s invention of the atmospheric steam engine for instance is partly dependent on earlier inventions like the steam turbine and the steam pump. Second, its invention is responsive to complementary innovations. The components of the steam engine like the piston and cylinder co-evolve and are responsive to each other in their convergence in the steam engine. Third, the innovation of the steam engine is responsive to the environment of material conditions, e.g., the availability of iron to build the steam boiler and coal to fuel the steam engine. These conditions already show that the process of creation is not necessarily driven by the human agent as creator, but that the conativity of creation is at the same time responsive to these conditions. This responsiveness of creation is also indicated in the fact that not everything is possible in creation. There is no infinity of possible designs of the steam engine, because its actual invention and evolution is not only due to the conativity of creation but also responsive to a limited number of opportunities provided by the environment with which the steam engine co-evolves and in which it remains embedded for its proper operation and functioning. Without the discovery of the coal mines for instance, the invention and evolution of the steam engine wouldn’t come off the ground.
This responsiveness to the environment makes clear that the principle of conativity does not imply that the creation of the identity of new-to-the-world innovations is autonomous, independent, or free, as they are at the same time responsive to the environment in which they emergence and evolve. In this regard, the principle of conativity as first characteristic of a materialistic concept of creation should be supplemented by a principle of responsiveness, as the process of conative creation is not free floating but is at the same time responsive to the environment in its constitution of new-to-the-world innovations like the steam engine.
We can conceive this environment as a ‘World’ suitable for the invention and evolution of the steam engine. In the phenomenological tradition, World is not a being or the totality of beings in the world but concerns the meaningful environment in which beings have their proper place, including our human living and acting in the world. We currently live for instance in a World associated with digital networks. In this World, new inventions like deep learning and machine learning techniques can emerge and can be applied in various software applications, but they can also raise societal concerns regarding surveillance and control. This distinction between the ontic level of new-to-the-world innovations like AI and the ontological level of the digital World on which this innovation depends enables us to conceive how the conativity of creation imprints the ontological level of our living and acting in the world. To see this, we return for a moment to the example of the invention of the steam engine.
As we have seen, the invention of the steam engine deviates from the World of water associated with the water mill. In fact, the steam engine is responsive to a World of steam, i.e., a world in which the environment appears as potential resource (iron), fuel (coal) or operator (worker) of the steam engine. At the same time, the responsive conativity of the creation of the steam engine conditions the “birth of [this] milieu”, as Simondon would argue (2017: 58). The World of steam which conditions the innovation of the steam engine only exists virtually before its invention. Before its invention, it was not so much the World of steam that informed the process of creation, but the World of water that inspired technological developments like the water mill and the accompanying textile industry. On the one hand, the invention of the steam engine deviates from the inhibiting forces of the existent on the ontic level – e.g., existing water mills, the extinction of forests - but more important, from the inhibiting forces of the existent on an ontological level - e.g., the World of water. On the other hand, the invention of the steam engine founds a new World of steam, in which coal mines are discovered to fuel the steam engines and all kinds of artifacts appear as its predecessor; the piston and cylinder appear as a coherent whole in their convergence in the steam engine, the natural environment appears as potential resource to build (iron), fuel (coal) or operate (worker) the steam engine etc. This founding of the World of steam by the invention of the steam engine discloses the World in a new way and provides new opportunities for our living and acting in the world – for instance the invention of the steam digester as a more efficient energy converter, the development of thermodynamics etc. – while it closes off other possibilities of our living and acting in the world, a return to the World of water for instance. In other words, the founding of the World of steam by the invention of the steam engine founds a nomos that regulates the future development and operation of our being-in-the-steam-world. This regulation of our living and acting in the world by the founding of the World of steam doesn’t have to be assessed in a negative way, take Jacques Ellul’s concept of technique as regulation of human behaviour (Ellul, 1964), here, regulation primarily discloses the World as a playing field for human and non-human living and acting in the world (cf. Oudemans, 2012: 104).
With this, it becomes clear that the process of creation is not only characterized by the responsive conativity of creation that creates the identity of new-to-the-world innovations like the steam engine, as this outcome of creation at the ontic level at the same time founds a World at an ontological level, from which the proper functioning and operation of the steam engine on the ontic level springs forth. But if the invention of the steam engine founds the World of steam which in turn is the condition of possibility of the proper functioning and operation of this new to the world innovation, the founding of the World of steam by the invention of the steam engine founds its own condition for its existence in the world.Footnote 10 In other words, the responsive conativity of the creation of the steam engine on an ontic level founds the World of steam which is at the same time the condition of possibility of the proper functioning of this innovation and is therefore already grounded in this World.Footnote 11 This interdependency between the founding of the World of steam and the grounding in this World for its proper operation and functioning shows that the steam engine’s existence in the world-of-steam is not founded once and for all with the invention of the steam engine, but is performatively constituted in the act of its invention, co-evolvement, functioning and operating. The ontic-ontological orientation of the responsive conativity of creation is the third characteristic of a materialistic concept of creation that solves the problem of the ontic orientation on the creation of artifacts in traditional concepts of creation. Contrary to philosophers like Jean-Luc Nancy, who argue that there is no principle of World (Nancy, 2007: 46), this characteristic of creation enables us to conceive the creation of the identity of a new-to-the-world innovation as the ontic principle of the deviation from the existing World and founding of and grounding in a new World on an ontological level.
The deviation of creation from the existing World by the founding of and grounding in a new World can explain why innovation is often associated with creative destruction in innovation economics; innovations do not only create a new-to-the-world artifact like the steam engine, but with this invention, they at the same time destruct the existing market and establish a new market. According to economists like Schumpeter (1983), the invention of the steam engine destroyed the market of the water mill and created at the same time a completely new market for the steam engine. Our philosophical reflection on the responsive conativity of creation enables us to reconceptualize the economic concept of creative destruction at an ontological concept, i.e., as creative deviation of the existing World and simultaneous creative founding of and grounding in a new World.
There are several advantages of such an ontological reconceptualization of creative destruction as deviation, founding of and grounding in World. First, while innovation economics concentrate on the economic impact of creation, our ontological concept of creation enables us to move beyond the economic world (market) and to conceive the impact of new-to-the-world innovations beyond the economic paradigm at an ontological level, i.e., at the level of the ‘creative deviation’ of our World as such. It enables us to move beyond the economic paradigm of innovation (neg-otium) in which it is mainly seen as a driver of profitability and growth, and opens a societal perspective on innovation as a playful process concerned with the free exploration (otium) of new-to-the-world innovations, which found not only a private but primarily a public World. We call this the otium of creation. Second, while innovation economics cannot explain the unity of creation and destruction at stake in innovation, we suggest the principle of responsive conativity of creation to explain the unity of creative destruction as deviation of the existent World by founding of and grounding in a new World. Third, while Simondon acknowledges the responsiveness of creation to the environment beyond the economic conditions, he only focuses on the constructive and not on the destructive side of innovation (Simondon, 2017: 21). Contrary to conceptualizations of innovation that unilaterally focus on the destructive aspects of innovation, like Plato and Aristotle (Godin, 2015), or on the constructive aspects of innovation like Simondon (2017), our ontological concept of creation enables us to acknowledge both destructive and constructive aspects as deviation from the existing World by founding of and grounding in a new World.
The fourth problem of the traditional concept of creation was its orientation on the fabrication and making from pre-existing material. On the one hand, we have to acknowledge this material aspect of creation as we have seen. The responsive conativity of creation creates the identity of new to the world innovations in its first material instantiation in a new-to-the-world artefact. In this respect, the creation of this new to the world identity is intrinsically bound to a material creation of a new to the world artifact as instantiation of this new identity. At the same time, it is clear that creation as fabrication of pre-existing material is insufficient to understand the ontological imprint of this material creation on the creation of World. The new to the world steam engine deviates from the existing World of water by founding a new World of steam at an ontological level, but this creation of World at an ontological level doesn’t involve any fabrication – fabrication is limited to the making of beings in the world while creation involves also our living and acting in the world at an ontological level – nor any material destruction or construction – the invention of the steam engine doesn’t necessarily involve the physical destruction of water mills in the world. The deviation of the surplus of creation doesn’t concern a material deviation – as if the invention of the steam engine physically destructs all windmills in the world – or material surplus – as if the World of steam is itself a being that we can find in the world – but concerns a semantic creation of the meaning of this new to the world innovation for our living and acting in the world. This creation of meaning consists in the semantic deviation from the meaning of our living and acting in the world-of-water and semantic founding of and grounding in the meaning of our living and acting in the world-of-steam. In other worlds, while the steam engine can be seen as the material trait d’union of the process of creation of the identity of the new-to-the-world innovation and its deviation from the existent, the deviation from, founding of and grounding in World is not material but semantic by nature. The fourth characteristic of our materialistic concept of creation is its material-semantic nature, which acknowledges both the materiality of creation of new-to-the-world innovation and the semantic imprint of its deviation, founding and grounding of World.
The advantage of the acknowledgement of the material and semantic dimension of creation is that we do not have to accept an ontocentric concept of creation of World (Nancy, 2007), and acknowledge the interdependency of te material-ontic and the semantic-ontological level of creation. It enables us to acknowledge that the founding of the steam World can be guided by a material trace of a pre-existing innovation not yet embedded in the World of steam – for instance the aeoliple, a preliminary steam turbine that was found in the first century in Egypt (Alexandrinus, 1998) – and that this World of steam can be disrupted by future material innovations, i.e. the combustion engine. In other words, it is the responsive conativity of creation, which characterizes inorganic matter, that can be seen as material principle of World creation.