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Are We Living in an Era of Low Innovation? April 28, 2012

Posted by Peter Varhol in Technology and Culture.
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In the late 1980s I fell into the vocation of technology publishing, and knew that I had found my calling.  I had the technical and computing background to understand and integrate the advances around me, and a seemingly innate ability to communicate them to a variety of audiences.  The pay was close to that of the engineering and computing professions, and I got to play with all sorts of hardware and software.

The Web has mostly killed print journalism, and has almost entirely killed off technology publishing.  I had a couple more short-term jobs in the field in the last fifteen years, but they were partially or entirely online.  It’s clear that the Web has transformed publishing and created havoc and confusion in the industry.

But was it truly innovative, or merely one application of a set of already-established communications technologies?  Sci-fi writer and true visionary Neal Stephenson says the latter.

(Who can read the novel Snow Crash and not be in awe of the Stephenson’s power to create an accurate rendering of the future?)

Stephenson included this observation in a talk at MIT recently.  Harvard Business Review’s Justin Fox expanded upon the theory that we are in a time of low innovation.

I’m glad someone finally said it, and I’m glad it was a visionary like Neal Stephenson. While it seems like we have great new toys every year, none of these represent breakthroughs in engineering.  Certainly Facebook and its ilk are simply low-hanging fruit that were ripe for the taking.  There is nothing hard or breakthrough about these applications.  And we already know that I lament for our lost and likely unrecoverable space program.

There are a couple of possible explanations for this phenomenon.  The first is that we have become fat, comfortable, and risk-adverse as a society.  I became a private pilot at an early age, and dreamed of having my own plane.  But today over half the cost of a plane is the insurance the manufacture is required to carry to protect it from lawsuits.

But I am a more positive person, and I care to believe another explanation – that innovation does seem to occur in spurts, and we as a society may in fact be in an era of consolidation of the innovations that occurred in the 1990s.  For example, there were many different microprocessor designs in the 1990s, each offering fundamental advantages.  Intel and ARM have largely won out, and this era is busy using these building blocks to create, well, Facebook and Yelp.  But this too will pass.

Ii fear it’s the former, but hope it’s the latter.

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