Have We Lost the Ability to Innovate? January 12, 2013Posted by Peter Varhol in Technology and Culture.
That seems to be the discussion de jour among futurists and economists today, and the prognosis doesn’t seem to be good. The best thing that their collective wisdom points to is that innovation occurs in spurts, after which there is a period of consolidation that we now seem to be in. The worst prognosis is that there are no more truly fundamental innovations to be had, and that we will spend the rest of future history refining those innovations of the past.
When I was in my formative years, circa late 1960s, I eagerly devoured the pages of Popular Science magazine, seeking out flying cars, personal helicopters, and other futuristic innovations that were just around the corner. Clearly none of this came to pass, and the publication is now focused much more on promoting and explaining science that is within our grasp (check out the feature on artificial poop, for example).
Do we think smaller? Have we lost those grandiose visions that enabled us to conceive of flying cars? Are we no longer willing to risk our careers, lives, and legacies to conceive and create fundamentally new things? Are we, well, timid and afraid?
There is some support for this notion. I was eleven when we landed a man on the moon. We did so a few more times in the following decade, but now, more than forty years later, lack the ability to repeat that feat. We gave up, weary of the relatively minor cost, and weary of reaching farther than our grasp would lift us.
But that is the real artificial poop in the room. The man on the moon was an expensive and ultimately dead-end stunt. It was almost certainly the wrong approach, and whatever our reasons, would not have been the correct choice. We will be back.
It’s largely true that physics can’t be done by an individual in a small workshop any more, a la Faraday or Helmholtz. But what they did was sophisticated for their times, and was as alien to the average citizen of the day as a supercollider is to that citizen today. Today science has to necessarily build upon their accomplishments, which are now taught to students in the eighth grade (or perhaps earlier, for all I know).
If discovering theoretical particles by smashing atoms at nearly the speed of light is the ante to pursue innovation today, then by all means we shall do so.
But science and technology aren’t economic plays, and treating them in that fashion does society a disservice. We collectively don’t innovate because we want to make a billion dollars (which is why we can never in any sense consider things like Facebook innovative). We innovate because we can’t not do so. It may not look very much like the innovation of the past, but it will be recognized as such by the future.