Above the night side of Earth, looking down from orbit, we find evidence what might be the most poetic expression of humanity's great, sweeping influence. There, shining into the darkness, lights of cities and settlements define coastlines and rivers like fever dreams. Coastal outlines and splotchy patches of modernity appear in vaguely identifiable patterns, light on dark, chiaroscuro life. It’s all vaguely familiar to see this image from space. City lights captured from space present a scintillating planet that’s just a little different from the ubiquitous blue-green gem we’re used to seeing.
These nightside beacons are not simply signatures of electromagnetic energy blazing out into the darkness. Though accurate, that description would be far, far too prosaic. It would miss the point even as it spoke plain facts. The lights in the darkness offer evidence of humanity’s tendency to form groups and accumulate their collective energies. Behind these lights are stories and sorrows, triumphs and traumas, pleasures and, above all, perseverance. In the bright patches of light shining out from a darkened globe there are concentrations of people and, come what may, they represent forces beyond any single individual anywhere.
When you tap the play button on your iPod at the gym, you can experience the same profound phenomenon in a metaphoric teacup. A dense concentration of humanity, far beyond the efforts of any single person, pours out. Whether it's a symphony orchestra conjuring big sounds designed for the concert hall, or a bouncy honky-tonk combo captured on a portable recorder one brightly lit Saturday night, the music becomes a virtual object demonstrating extraordinary accumulations of intention, energy, and influence. The orchestra may have ninety players, but the number necessary to get that majestic sound into your earbuds is even greater. The same goes for the four person band swinging in the roadhouse bar. Who built the instruments? Who built the recording systems? Who built the buildings, and the transmission systems, and the technology that transmitted the music itself? Who were the musician’s teachers, and in what extraordinary society could the profound skills necessary to facilitate such sounds even have the freedom to grow in the first place? And then, let’s not forget about the armies of software and hardware and marketing and logistics people required to provide you that nearly commodity-class iPod. In every act of creation, we are always experiencing the accumulations of invisible, unsung multitudes.
It's so easy for us to take the basic components of our modern world for granted. We order a pizza and it shows up at our front door. We put complex music in our ears by plugging them with bits of plastic attached to thin, insulated wires. We rent movies to play on flat glass portals so we can fly across oceans with distractions designed to keep us from thinking about the uncomfortable seats holding us six miles above the Earth. That we fly in thin, frigid air six miles above the Earth hardly catches our attention at all anymore.
So often we think we’re acting alone, that we’re making unique choices in isolation. The reality is something else indeed. All of these enterprises are evidence of vast human efforts, condensed.
Evidence of other people appears almost everywhere we look. Hardly a single corner of the globe, including places far above our globe these days, has been influenced by human intention and effort. This goes beyond mere technological artifacts, although they’re certainly perfect examples of the phenomenon. Almost every expression of life on Earth, as well as many of the natural processes of the physical world, show evidence of humanity’s influence for better or worse.
What’s the implication for a creative soul? Often the process of creation starts from either inspiration or assignment. We begin at the beginning and often don’t know where the process will lead, even when we have well defined goals. It’s not uncommon to find creative pursuits stalled at roadblocks, stuck in time and space. Bringing new ideas to life usually isn’t easy at all; impediments are ordinary.
But the next time that dilemma describes your experience, close your eyes. Imagine the lights of Earth shining out into space. Imagine the electromagnetic signatures of seven billion people who’s most visible artifact is simply evidence of their collective existence. Recall that the shapes and outlines of those illuminated beacons are the result of vast, collective efforts to organize an inherently disorderly, argumentative, even combative species. From a distance there’s no way to see who painted the Mona Lisa. There’s no way to look down and see who invented the transistor, or how he came to think of it in the first place. From a distance there’s only the light of many who essentially made it possible for a few individuals to add grace notes to the collective. Is the Gugenheim a terrific piece of architecture? Sure, but it wouldn’t be possible without the swirling mass of New York City to lift it in an urban gyre.
The evidence is overwhelming: as long as there is life, creative solutions will emerge. Given enough time and enough effort and enough energy, creative solutions they will begin to glow, even if those solutions do not always make perfect sense to those creating them. By remembering that we are all part of something greater than our own immediate experience—by remembering that the music in our earbuds is the result of an uncountable multitude’s collective efforts—we have the opportunity to discover things right in front of our eyes that otherwise might have gone unnoticed.