Is Innovation Dwindling in Importance?

Economist cover Jan 10 2013Take a look at the cover story of the January 12 issue of the Economist magazine. Inside, the leading editorial is titled “The Great Innovation Debate.” This refers to a growing belief, among academics and venture capitalists, that anything new that we invent will just not be as important and life-changing as all of the things we’ve already invented. Think of how much the invention of electricity changed our everyday lives. Computers are cool and fun, but no one would argue that they’ve changed the world as much. Think of how much the invention of antibacterial medications has been; we no longer worry about polio or syphilis or tuberculosis. And even before that, think back to the time when cities figured out how to handle urban sanitation, resulting in clean water and a drastic reduction in disease. Compared to all of these, Angry Birds or Windows 8 or the iPhone just don’t seem all that important.

If this is true, it’s a problem because innovation is the driver of productivity increase, and productivity increase is the driver of a higher quality of life.

I was reminded of a 1998 article in MIT’s Technology Review, inspired by John Horgan’s 1997 book The End of Science: Facing the Limits of Knowledge in the Twilight of the Scientific Age. Horgan’s book, and the magazine article, argued that scientists had already made all of the most important discoveries. We know the basic structure of matter. We know how cells and genes work (at least, the broader outlines). We know the structure of the universe and the cosmos. Horgan’s point was that anything else we discover is just going to be details that fill out the big picture that we already know. I mailed in an objection to this that was published in a later issue: My objection is that Horgan focused on the natural sciences, while our biggest lack of knowledge today is in the social sciences. (This is one of the reasons I chose a career in the social sciences…I thought there was more that remained undiscovered than in physics or biology.)

The Economist rejects the argument that innovation is dwindling, making the counter-argument that “many more brains are at work now than were 100 years ago” and also that communication technology like the Internet makes it possible for all of these people, and their ideas, to come together more effectively. This is the argument that Matt Ridley made in his 2011 book The Rational Optimist; he famously argues that innovation comes when “ideas have sex” and the more ideas, and the more “sex” (idea interchange), the more innovation–and this is made possible by the Internet.

I can see the logic in both sides of the argument. It’s hard to imagine an innovation as important as clean water or electricity or safe surgery. But on the other hand, there were scholars back in 1900 who famously stated that humans had already discovered everything worth discovering. So what’s your opinion on “The great innovation debate”?

6 thoughts on “Is Innovation Dwindling in Importance?

  1. I think there are always periods of apparent stasis and periods of apparent innovation, and also some new ideas are not even spread or used until much later, so I don’t consider it useful to engage in this debate (which people have been occupying themselves with since the discovery of fire, I’m sure).

    1. Just yesterday, I attended a lecture by our chemistry professor, Gina Frey. She started by telling a story: In the 1890s, physicists thought that we had it all figured out, and we knew the basic structure of matter. We only had minor details left to work out. Then in the early 1900s, a few experiments began to come up with results that couldn’t be explained by traditional physics. After many years of further exploration, the result was quantum mechanics, a radical new understanding.

      1. Yes, that’s what happened in physics. And it may happen again yet; theoretical high-energy physics has been in a strange state for 20 years since I got my degree, as everyone has tried to make string theory work. Personally, I believe that brand new discoveries in biology and computer science, in particular, are waiting to happen sometime in the next couple of decades. We’re due for some new revolutions.

  2. I suppose that given our current priorities, incentives and beliefs the argument that innovation offers dwindling returns has some merit. However, as our incentives and desires shift, new space for innovation appears. Mokyr speaks to this in regards to the Renaissance and I am optimistic that our society will shift, allowing new innovations to appear. Not to be too hokey, but if we collectively determined that violence and injustice were no longer tolerable, would their elimination qualify as an innovation large enough to be worthy of admiration?

  3. I appreciate this conversation, Keith, and Jerrold’s ‘hokey’ remarks. I wonder if the elimination of poverty would be innovative enough to count in this debate. What kind of sweeping technological, cultural and social innovation would we need to end poverty and develop sustainable forms of living when 25% of the population consumes 75% of its national resources annually? Ken Robinson speaks to this in his new edition of Out of Our Minds relative to what kind of education is needed to cultivate the ‘practical imagination’ that could take a shot at confronting theses challenges – challenges that are unique to human history. It brought to mind what Vygotsky said about revolution only solving the tasks which are raised by history. Lois Holzman recently posted an imaginative conversation which spoke to this:

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