Nicholas Carr: Does innovation arc toward decadence?

ATN-300InsightaaS: Long-time readers of ATN have seen posts by Nicholas Carr highlighted in this space many times: past ATN posts have described Carr's Rough Type blog as "required reading for those (including us!) who are trying to stay current with not just IT developments but their meaning."

Even by that high standard, the post featured today stands out. In it, Carr addresses commentary from several sources claiming that “innovation ain’t what it used to be” - that new and important inventions introduced during the late 19th and the first half of the 20th century changed society, and that recent decades have seen little new consequential innovation. Carr argues for an alternate reading of this history, based on Maslow's hierarchy of needs. Carr's "hierarchy of innovation" holds that focus progresses from Technologies of Survival (shelter, clothing) to Technologies of Social Organization (farming, government) to Technologies of Prosperity (manufacturing systems, transportation, energy, etc.) to Technologies of Leisure (entertainment, mass media, travel) and finally to Technologies of the Self: inventions oriented towards self expression, identity management, and "vanity."

Carr states that "As with Maslow’s hierarchy, you shouldn’t look at my hierarchy as a rigid one. Innovation today continues at all five levels. But the rewards, both monetary and reputational, are greatest at the highest level (Technologies of the Self), which has the effect of shunting investment, attention, and activity in that direction...An entrepreneur has a greater prospect of fame and riches if he creates, say, a popular social-networking tool than if he creates a faster, more efficient system for mass transit. The arc of innovation, to put a dark spin on it, is toward decadence." 

This isn't the kind of post that will help ATN readers to decipher the latest requirements of the VC community, to identify trends in mobility, etc. But it is interesting to position the kinds of inventions that excite VCs and extend the impact of mobility in a broader discussion, and Carr deserves credit for sparking a thoughtful debate about issues that are important if a little amorphous.

Justin Fox is the latest pundit to ring the “innovation ain’t what it used to be” bell. “Compared with the staggering changes in everyday life in the first half of the 20th century,” he writes, summing up the argument, “the digital age has brought relatively minor alterations to how we live.” Fox has a lot of company. He points to sci-fi author Neal Stephenson, who worries that the Internet, far from spurring a great burst of creativity, may have actually put innovation “on hold for a generation.” Fox also cites economist Tyler Cowen, who has argued that, recent techno-enthusiasm aside, we’re living in a time of innovation stagnation. He could also have mentioned tech powerbroker Peter Thiel, who believes that large-scale innovation has gone dormant and that we’ve entered a technological “desert.” Thiel blames the hippies...

Consider the new products invented in just the ten years between 1876 and 1886: internal combustion engine, electric lightbulb, electric transformer, steam turbine, electric railroad, automobile, telephone, movie camera, phonograph, linotype, roll film (for cameras), dictaphone, cash register, vaccines, reinforced concrete, flush toilets. The typewriter had arrived a few years earlier and the punch-card tabulator would appear a few years later. And then, in short order, came airplanes, radio, air conditioning, the vacuum tube, jet aircraft, television, refrigerators and a raft of other home appliances, as well as revolutionary advances in manufacturing processes. (And let’s not forget The Bomb.) The conditions of life changed utterly between 1890 and 1950, observed Gordon. Between 1950 and today? Not so much.

So why is innovation less impressive today? Maybe Thiel is right, and it’s the fault of hippies, liberals, and other degenerates. Or maybe it’s crappy education. Or a lack of corporate investment in research. Or short-sighted venture capitalists. Or overaggressive lawyers. Or imagination-challenged entrepreneurs. Or maybe it’s a catastrophic loss of mojo. But none of these explanations makes much sense. The aperture of science grows ever wider, after all, even as the commercial and reputational rewards for innovation grow ever larger and the ability to share ideas grows ever stronger. Any barrier to innovation should be swept away by such forces.

Let me float an alternative explanation: There has been no decline in innovation; there has just been a shift in its focus...

Read the entire post on the Rough Type blogsite: Link