We all have examples from own our lives of sudden changes in our understanding that brought step changes in our ability to achieve the results we want.
We call these insights “aha moments”.
Cholera, electricity, and navigation provide three simple examples of aha moments for humanity: ways in which changes to our understanding of how the world really works led to changes in results, which then changed the thinking of the people who grew up accustomed to the new ways of living.
Before 1854 people knew for sure that cholera was caused by the bad smells and air that came from sewage. It was obvious. Everybody knew that other diseases were also caused in a similar way, after all malaria simply means “bad air”.
But in 1854 in London a man called John Snow had a different idea. He thought that cholera was caused by infections in the water. He created maps of the latest outbreaks, removed the handle from the water pump he identified as being the most likely culprit, and the outbreaks stopped.
By applying this new understanding of how nature really works people then got better sewers, cleaner water, improved health and eventually larger cities. (The cities we live in today would not be possible if we still thought cholera was caused by bad air.) That in turn changed our understanding of the world and our place in it, what it is to be human and our relationship with the environment.
Two hundred years ago we barely knew that electricity existed outside thunderstorms. Our senses couldn’t detect it directly, and only a few unusually inquisitive people were beginning to investigate and understand what electricity was and how it could be generated and applied.
Nowadays our lives depend utterly on electricity. Every screen we watch is powered by it. Our transport, computers and communications depend on it. (Even vehicles powered by fossil fuels require a battery to start, to pump fuel, to power fans, lights and displays.) Our clothes are designed, woven and made using it. Our buildings are lit, often heated and cooled by it. Our food is grown (tractors), transported and refrigerated using it.
By gaining a deeper understanding of a part of nature that was almost undetectable to us we transformed our lives, and our economy.
By applying that new understanding we also learned more about atoms (discovery of the nucleus) and the farthest reaches of the universe (red shift of stars), which led to MRI scanners, AI and quantum computing.
Imagine that one of your most ancient ancestors has somehow arrived by time machine in the present day. And imagine that for some reason you have both decided to each set up an airline company and compete on a route that flies from London to New York.
Your ancient ancestor knows that the world is flat so they instruct their pilots to take off and head almost due west, in fact slightly south of west, because they know that London is further north from the equator than New York. But you know that the Earth is round, so the quickest route for your pilots lies on a heading that runs north west, over Greenland.
Both planes will arrive at their destination. But your route will be quicker and will use considerably less fuel. At the end of the year the annual reports of the two airlines will show very different results in terms of operating costs and customer satisfaction. All because one of you understands more accurately how the world (nature) really works.
In a time when our existing ways of thinking have reached their limits, the work of Gregory Bateson offers the potential to achieve similar step change transformations.
This website seeks to generate those aha moments.
You can begin to read about them via the Contents List.