Central Asia and the long view of innovation

Frederick Starr wrote a brilliant essay, Rediscovering Central Asia, which provides a perspective on the current quagmire in Afghanistan that predates, by several millenia, the post-9/11 version currently guiding public opinion (and policy).  Starr has impeccable credentials as an expert in this region and its history, and I leave any policy disagreements to him and others equally qualified.  This was one of those essays, however, that has as many implications for innovation and innovation policy as it does for statesmanship and central asian policy. Centmaps


Central Asia is, in Starr’s words, the “vast region of irrigated deserts, mountains, and steppes between China, Pakistan, Iran, Russia, and the Caspian Sea,” with Afghanistan traditionally considered the heart of the region. Despite its backwards appearance in the press, with war correspondents standing in front of deserted plains or smoldering cities, Central Asia was once one of the most intellectually vibrant communities in world history.

From this region came “mathematics, astronomy, medicine, geology, linguistics, political science, poetry, architecture, and practical technology” that influenced the west and the east alike in both its logic, empiricism, aesthetics, and faith. As Starr argues,

Between 800 and 1100, this pleiad of Central Asian scientists, artists, and thinkers made their region the intellectual epicenter of the world.  Their influence was felt from East Asia and India to Europe and the Middle East.

What makes this essay on Central Asian culture so vital to understanding innovation lies in Starr’s reasons for both why such an intellectual wellspring emerged and flourished and why it dried up.

What we now see as a hinterland (both geological and intellectual) lay on trade routes that connected the east and west, north and south:

[Central Asia] was also richer, thanks to continental trade. Merchants from Balkh and other Central Asian commercial centers journeyed to the Middle East, Europe, China, and deep into India. Traders from those lands brought goods to the sprawling commercial entrepôts in Greater Central Asia. Since slavery thrived throughout the Muslim world and beyond, the bazaars also included large slave markets. Gold, silver, and bronze currency from these thriving hubs of commerce traveled all the way to Gotland in Sweden and to Korea and Sri Lanka.

Central Asia lay at the junction of all the routes connecting the great cultures of the Eurasian landmass. This network of routes, today often called the “Silk Road,” in its heyday transported a huge variety of goods in every direction. Glass blowing spread from the Middle East to China via Central Asia, while papermaking and sericulture (the production of silk) went from China westward.

The many communities that made up the region drew riches not only from the flow of goods but also the flow of ideas. Perhaps more importantly, they did embraced, incorporated, and built on the skills, technologies, ideas—creating new combinations that were greater than the sum of their parts.

[T]he Central Asians were not passive transmitters. For half a millennium, Middle Easterners and Europeans esteemed Samarqand paper as the best anywhere, while the treasures of more than one medieval cathedral in Europe consist of silk manufactured in the Fergana Valley of what is now mainly Uzbekistan.

The same could be said for their adaptation and recombination of religious thinking, philosophy, science, and the arts.

Another reason for the intellectual bounty of this nexus civilization seems to lie, paradoxically, in its own relative balkanization—in the existence of multiple smaller kingdoms, or caliphates. There were no professional universities or other academies to support full-time scientists, scholars, and intellectuals and so many relied on the patronage of rulers (much like the culture of intellectual endeavor and patronage of the Italian renaissance). The relative independence and wealth of these individual courts encouraged an intellectual diversity, loosely coupled.

As interesting as these origins are, and they are common across many similar cultural cambrian periods, it is more enlightening to read about how this great age came to an end—not with a bang but a choked silence. Starr posits three reasons.

First, that “Nothing endures forever.” Athens, the Renaissance cities, lasted no more than a century or two. By 1100, the developed but disconnected cultures of ancient Greece, the Middle East, and India had mixed and there were no new but well-developed cultures to assimilate. Without the refinement that comes with cultural heritage, new ideas are on their own.

Second, the religions that flourished in their early stages hardened into orthodoxy. The intellectual and cultural exploration that led growth becomes threatening to the stasis of orthodoxy: “the demands of a steadily rigidifying Muslim orthodoxy gradually narrowed the sphere in which free thought and humanism could be exercised.”

Third, and related to growing orthodoxy, was the split between Sunnis and Shiites and its effects of increasingly hostile power struggles and suppression on culture:

“Fearing deviance on every side, al- Mulk proposed to establish a network of schools, or madrassas, that would instill orthodox Sunni Islam and turn young men into well- informed loyalists of the faith. Graduates would reject not only the Shiite schism but any other forms of thought that might be suspected of deviance from orthodoxy.”

Afghanistan’s, and all of Central Asia’s, past is our future. The flowering of intellectual and technological creativity that defined America from the mid-1800s to the present will recede eventually but, quite likely, in our lifetimes.

Have we tapped out the confluence of ideas, technologies, and aesthetics that came from Europe and Asia over the prior centuries? Will the modern-day “trade routes” that placed us at the confluence (now most prominently financial) sustain further growth or are they in decay. Has the nexus of cultural growth shifted again? Finally, has our own orthodoxies hardened to the extent that the benefits of intellectual and cultural exploration are outweighed by their perceived threats to the stasis of orthodoxy?

We can talk all we want about corporate cultures, garage start-ups, and our legacy of innovation but if history tells us anything, it’s that nothing endures. Moving forward, our ability to innovate hinges on how we choose to tolerate, assimilate, and build on the ideas of others—and how we manage the intolerance of others threatened by this process.