Will We Ever Invent Anything Important Again?

Two professors at Northwestern University have been arguing: Is the age of innovation coming to an end?

Professor Robert Gordon, a 73-year-old economist, argues that we’re nearing the end of a historically unusual period of rapid innovation. Professor Gordon knows that we’ve invented many amazing things in the past 250 years; he just thinks today’s innovations are puny by comparison. Reading the historical list, one might be tempted to agree with him: indoor plumbing, running water, urban sanitation, steam power, electricity (and everything enabled by it: telephone, television, air conditioning), antibiotics. Many of these innovations saved millions of lives each year. Even the most optimistic Internet visionaries can’t believe that Uber or Instagram will do that. Dr. Gordon likes to ask: if you had to choose, would you give up indoor plumbing, or your iPhone?

His colleague, Professor Joel Mokyr, a 67-year-old economist, argues that technological innovation is most likely to continue its historical trajectory, and perhaps even to accelerate. The Wall Street Journal published an article about this debate on June 16, 2014 (subscriber content only), with a graph showing a fairly linear increase in GDP per capita, like the one below.

Most economists agree with Professor Mokyr that this historical rate of growth will continue, and that it will be driven by technological innovation.

So what do you think? Are you an innovation optimist, or an innovation pessimist?

3 thoughts on “Will We Ever Invent Anything Important Again?

  1. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Charles_Holland_Duell This was thought to have been said at the start of the 20th Century, but that didn’t actually happen.

    Anyway, innovation seems to be dependent current cultural values. At the moment consumerism is the dominant cultural value so our innovation is focused in this area.

    But in the future if we shift to ecological cultural values we might see important innovation in clean energy, sustainability, ecological restoration, etc.

    We might also get more innovation in social models as we realise the importance of empathy and equality, for example.

    Even in the current consumerism paradigm there is plenty of room for innovation as we make technological progress with robotics, biotechnology, information networking, nanotech etc.

    To say that we’ve hit a peak is to take the position that urban sanitation is more important than anything we might invent in the future, and this is just short sighted.

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