When my grandmother was born, in the last decade of the Nineteenth Century, the first patents for radio were being registered, still, at this stage, just the transmission of electrical signals using morse code. She was a young girl when the Wright Brothers made the first powered flight, which lasted less than a minute. When Louis Bleriot flew across the Channel, my grandmother was a teenager at work in a textile mill, having left school at thirteen. By the time John Logie Baird demonstrated his first television broadcast, she was married with a new baby. (My aunt, who is still with us and in rude health.)
Yet, in her mid-seventies, she sat in her usual chair in our house and watched men walking on the moon. I can still see her, sitting with us all, glued to the TV, the curtains closed against the July sunlight.
From a glider powered with a car engine and bicycle chains to a rocket visiting another planet. From broadcasting electrical dots and dashes for a few yards to beaming moving pictures across the vastness of space. All in one person’s lifetime; a mere seventy years or so.
Flight and broadcasting developed at incredible speed during the early Twentieth Century but progress hasn’t continued at the same rate. Forty years ago, we could send people and things into outer space and could fly at twice the speed of sound. Since then, we’ve just done the same only more often and cheaper.
Is this a sign that innovation is slowing down? Is it a symptom of the creativity crisis? (See previous post.)
Graeme Pietersz reckons it is and he links to some well-argued evidence.
Compare the last 40 years, with the previous 40. The earlier period saw the invention of jet engines, transistors and integrated circuits (“silicon chips”), helicopters, nuclear reactors, the contraceptive pill, electronic computers (and mice), lasers and masers, the internet (yes, really), nylon, photocopiers, ball-point pens, tape recorders, mobile phones and CDs.
Most of what has happened in the last 40 years has been the refinement of those inventions, and making them cheap enough for the mass market. The illusion of continuing rapid progress has been sustained by rapid progress in just one area: the continuing ever-greater miniaturisation of integrated circuits. That again has advanced through improvements to the same process (lithography), and we may be approaching its limits.
Alan Patrick, from consultancy Broadsight, argues that innovation in 1909, 1949 and 1969 was greater than 2009. He looked at innovation in a number of areas. The detail is in this post with a graphic summarising his findings:
The traffic lights tell us that we are stuck at red or amber in most areas.
Although we think of ourselves as the most innovative generation, Evah!, the truth is that we are not as far ahead as we would like to think, and in fact, given the comms advances we have today, it is arguable we should be a lot better at it – in fact, one could argue that some things are going backwards, and to an extent we are actually resting on the laurels of work done in the last 100 years.
He goes on to refer to Tyler Cowan’s book, The Great Stagnation. This, from the Economist:
There are two kinds of economic growth possible in this world. One can take good ideas already in use elsewhere, adopt them, and make use of underused stocks of people and capital. That’s what China and India are currently doing, and we shouldn’t mistake their rapid growth for something it’s not. Or one can come up with new ideas and apply them in ways that allow the economy to grow.
The rich world has been stuck doing the latter for most of the last century, and lately they haven’t been doing it as well.
But the big setback for society, according to Mr Cowen, is the end of the exploitation of the major innovations of the last two centuries. The 1700s and 1800s yielded revolutionary innovations in industry, chemistry, and electricity. Rich countries spent the 1800s and 1900s figuring out how to exploit those innovations to their fullest, and as recently as the 1950s and 1960s, these experiments were producing products that utterly changed the way people lived. During the lifetime of those born in the 1930s and 1940s, household technology changed fantastically: refrigerators, laundry machines, dishwashers, radios, televisions, electric light, air conditioning, cheap automobiles, and so on. But with a few exceptions (among them computers, on which more later) today’s households don’t look that much different from their 1970s counterparts. Products have improved, but the development of revolutionary new technologies has slowed substantially. The progress of technology has plateaued.
Michael Kirton’s model of creativity provides a useful framework for understanding all this.
Creativity, says Kirton, comes in two forms, innovative creativity and adaptive creativity. Innovative creativity is doing new or different things, adaptive creativity is doing existing things better.
If Pietersz, Patrick and Cowan are right, using Kirton’s terms, we have moved from an innovative to an adaptive period. We have spent the past 40 years or so adapting existing stuff; making aeroplanes faster and cheaper, making smaller and more powerful computers and phones, blasting thousands of communication satellites into orbit so that we can all send pictures through space. No innovation, just the adaptation of what was already there.
But isn’t this a time of great innovation? Isn’t the internet revolutionising our lives?
A striking amount of online activity is free and internet businesses create few new jobs (and displace lots of others). The result is growth in utility without much of a contribution to GDP, which would be fine except that countries and people have bills to pay, on things like health care, pensions, and government debt.
Ha Joon Chang agrees. The washing machine, he says, has had a greater impact on the world than the internet:
The internet may have significantly changed the working patterns of people like you and me, but we are in a tiny minority. For most people, its effect is more about keeping in touch with friends and looking up things here and there. Economists have found very little evidence that since the internet revolution productivity has grown.
Before the invention of the telegraph in the late 19th century, it took two to three weeks to carry a message across the Atlantic. The telegraph reduced it to 20 or 30 minutes – an increase of 2,000-3,000 times. The internet has reduced the time of sending, say, three or four pages of text from the 30 seconds you needed with a fax machine down to maybe two seconds – a reduction by a factor of 15. Unless I’m trading commodity futures, I can’t think of anything where it’s really so important that we send it in two seconds rather than a few minutes.
And in any case, says John Naughton, the internet has run out of ideas already:
We’re now at the stage where we should be getting the next wave of disruptive surprises. But – guess what? – they’re nowhere to be seen. Instead, we’re getting an endless stream of incremental changes and me-tooism. If I see one more proposal for a photo-sharing or location-based web service, anything with “app” in it, or anything that invites me to “rate” something, I’ll scream.
We’re stuck. We’re clean out of ideas. And if you want evidence of that, just look at the nauseating epidemic of patent wars that now disfigures the entire world of information technology. The first thing a start-up has to do now is to hire a patent attorney.
All of this seems to back Chris Dillow’s view that we are experiencing a Creativity Crisis.
I’m still not entirely convinced, though. The great thing about innovation or, at least, the sort of innovation we are talking about here, is that you don’t know about it until years later. Bio-technology and genetics are still relatively unexploited and who knows what will happen when we start using technology to mess with our own brains.
There is, then, strong evidence to suggest that, after an innovative period, the last forty years have been more adaptive, as we have refined and exploited existing technology. But I’m less convinced that this means human innovation has run out of steam. Hopefully, it’s just having a bit of a rest before the next big leap.