On Fertile Ground

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.

For more on the dysfunctional economy click Here or on the tag below.


  1. Old NFO · November 9, 2015

    Excellent fisking of his article! I agree with you, it’s about freedom of ideas, research and ability to take those things and do something new with it!


    • jccarlton · November 9, 2015

      I generally agree with Matt Ridley. But if you can’t identify the problem you can’t understand it. I’ve spent enough time in the history of the industrial revolution that I can spot what can happen.


  2. John Van Stry · November 9, 2015

    I guess he comes from the bay area where there is actually very little innovation these days, everyone just follows everyone else around.


    • comatus · November 10, 2015

      Why no, The Fifth Viscount Ridley does not come from the bay area. He is a member of the House of Lords, and chairman of a private scientific research foundation — the extirpation of which was the actual point of his article.


  3. penneyvanderbilt · November 10, 2015

    Reblogged this on KCJones.


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  5. BobtheRegisterredFool · November 10, 2015

    Putting money in education is not necessarily an investment. Investing pays attention to returns. We haven’t been paying attention to that. I think one result is producing a bunch of essentially illiterate and innumerate humanities majors. ‘Education’ that does that to some degree pushes out education that could produce acceptable returns.

    The problem of regulation probably can’t be over empathized. It drives standardization of HR red-tape. So someone educated but marginal, who can potentially innovate and engineer, but not figure out the red tape on their own or be a entrepreneur, might end up sorted out of the work force. If HR could substantially vary or even be absent, persistence might get them into the workplace. When we try to pull in new blood, we aren’t talking about the folks who can learn all the hard and soft skills they need from their parents.

    Character also matters. Schools cannot be made to change what a person learns in early childhood, and professional development cannot be made to change what a person learns in school. Once someone has learned dishonesty, it is probably impossible to force them from the outside to adopt honesty inside.


  6. MadRocketSci · November 10, 2015

    Not only was the telegraph the 19th century internet, but reading the descriptions of the operators in that old biography of Edison that I have, it seems that they had a very similar culture and attitudes to our 90’s internet hackers. It’s very interesting to see the parallels.


  7. Walter Sobchak · November 11, 2015

    A couple of cases where I think Ridley’s thesis does not apply:

    1. Digital Computers. Alan Turing began his career as a pure mathematician most interested in the most abstract realm of the foundations of mathematics. In the 1920s, David Hilbert, the leading mathematician of the early 20th Century set forth some problems concerning to the formal proof of statements in mathematical logic. Turing sought to attack Hilbert’s problem. Turing conceived of his Turing machine as a way to define the problem and prove an answer, which was negative.

    During WWII, Turing worked for the British Defense Establishment on breaking German Codes, his work there and the work of John von Neumann in the United States on the Manhattan Project lead directly to turning Turing’s theoretical creation of mathematical logic into the electronic digital computer.

    It is not at all clear that the work of other mathematicians would have lead to the computer. Hilbert’s problems were also tackled by Princeton mathematician Alonzo Church who formulated his proofs in terms of a specialized logical calculus. In a world with out Turing, Church might have had the last word.

    2. In the early part of the 19th century, British Scientist, Michael Farady conducted experiments demonstrating magnetic lines of force, and showing the relationship of electrical current to magnetism, and vice versa. In the middle of that Century, James Clerk Maxwell developed mathematical equations that described the relationships that Farady had discovered. Maxwell’s equations showed that waves of electrical and magnetic force moved through space at the speed of light. Later in the century, German physicist Heinrich Hertz, demonstrated an apparatus that could create and detect invisible electromagnetic waves. It was only after Hertz, that inventors realized that they could use those signals to carry telegraphic and telephonic information. Thus radio was born.

    Still and all, I think Ridley is on to something, but it may be a different something. I believe that scientific discovery is subject to the law of declining marginal returns. In several fundamental areas, science has reached the point where further investment in fundamental research seems unlikely to produce much in the way of returns. Physics is good demonstration of that.

    In the first half of the 20th century, physicists developed two ways of extending our understanding of the world to scales where Newton’s classical physics could not work. Einstein developed the general theory of relativity to explain gravity and the structure of space and time. This theory worked on scales far larger than those we encounter on earth in our quotidian existence. The other theory is quantum mechanics which explains phenomena like the structure of the atom and its building blocks. The two theories are very well established, very fruitful, and basically exist without much relation to each other. For the last 40 years, theoretical physicists have been working on a mathematical formalism popularly known as string theory, that would reconcile quantum mechanics and general relativity. Unfortunately, despite their best efforts they have failed. Not only that they cannot say if they are on the right path or not. Further, it is not clear that if such a theory were formulated it would make any difference at scales of mass, time, and space that we have access to. Arguably, this is an area where public funding can be safely cut off.


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