Matt Ridley had this in the Wall St Journal recently.
He iterates the theory that innovation is evolutionary, that regardless of whether any individual actor did anything the innovation would have more or less happened anyway. Now I’ve spent a long time looking at innovation and why it happens, if for no other reason than to try to figure the best way to ground myself, and the evolutionary theory of technology just doesn’t fit reality. It doesn’t explain why changes in technology happen and where they happen. The fact is that you can’t take the innovator out of innovation.
If technology is not evolutionary, then why do you get several people all coming up with the same idea at the same time. The reason is that technology is cultural and the cultural groundwork existed for that innovation for people to pick up. Which people do. Take the electric light for instance.
The fertile ground for the electric light and most of the electric stuff that went on about that time was created by the vibrant and growing telegraphy industry. Telegraphy required wire, insulators, switching, reliable power sources and all the other things that go with an electric network. The industry also was continuously looking for improvements and people were well rewarded for coming up with new innovations and services. Telegraphy was the 19th Century’s internet.
With all those people playing around with electricity and magnets, along with all those materials available and innovation being greatly rewarded the ground was very fertile for electrical innovation. It was almost inevitable that the smartest people and most innovative were drawn to electricity and worked hard to create things like the telephone and electric light. It’s no surprise that Edison was a key pounder and that Bell was trying to create a better method od sending signals down a wire when he came up with the telephone. Or that others came up with or less the same thing at the same time. The ground for electricity development was extremely fertile in the late 19th Century. The culture of the late 19th Century made it so.
On the other hand culture can stifle innovation. There were good cultural reasons that the Roman Empire did not have an industrial revolution even though most of the technological pieces existed for one. It’s more than likely that the Romans had all the tools that 18th Century Britain had. They didn’t have the culture of late 18th and early 19th Century Britain with it’s more or less free markets, IP protections and people coming form all over and getting into the metals and manufacturing trades. So no Roman industrial revolution. Likewise China. Or India. Or Japan. Or France and the German States for that matter. The ground for innovation was not fertile in those places.
Because of the unique circumstances of it’s birth, the US has been blessed by having the most fertile ground for innovation. We have had two centuries of more or less freedom to innovate, a fairly light bureaucratic environment and a government that was not oppressive. Add to that a culture that believes in education and hard work and you create a very fertile ground for innovation.
That’s one reason why half of the most innovative universities in the world are in the US. It’s been an amazing ride for the last two centuries. Which just everybody in the world had benefitted from. From a small group of small towns on the east coast, the US has grown to a continent wide country laced with huge transport and communications networks bringing wealth to consumers in services and goods that would have been unimaginable in 1776. All that in the brief period of two centuries.
The American drive to innovate has gone on long enough now that we’ve not had to deal with the fact that things could be any other way. We all should though. Innovation is a fragile thing. It’s all to easy for the ground to go sterile. Too many pettifogging regulations, too much paperwork, too high taxes and it becomes harder and harder to concentrate on creating. Tie up too much of the economy on transfer payments and there is less for new innovations to capitalize on. Eventually it becomes all too easy to just coast along, just attempting for a while to keep things going.
Things can go a long time on coast. The problem is that the abundance might not be real. There is abundance because a bunch of people work very hard to create the wealth that represents the economy. All too many of the people in charge don’t seem to realize that what they are doing is eating the seed corn and salting the ground. You can bleed off that wealth for long time, but eventually the money runs out. Which makes the following video rather scary.
I don’t like the idea that the fertile ground for innovation is being rendered sterile. But I can’t deny that it is happening. The big thinkers can talk about whether innovation is happening or not, but here on the ground among the people who get their hands dirty the picture isn’t pretty. Yes there are some bright spots like the maker movement, but by and large innovation is becoming more and more limited. As an engineer and innovator this is not something that I like to see, but it’s all around. The country has slowly been letting the weeds of regulation grow up, eaten the seed corn of our capital and not paid attention to fertilizing the next generations with an education that prepares them for the real world. Instead we’ve eaten, drunk and had a great national party for the last fifty years or so. But the ground is far less fertile than it was and the party is over. I just hope that we didn’t party too much and maybe there’s a chance that there will be a tomorrow.
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