Does innovation arc toward decadence?


Three years ago, I posted a piece here titled “The Hierarchy of Innovation,” which argued, speculatively, that the focus of innovation has followed Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, beginning with Technologies of Survival and now concentrating on Technologies of the Self. With The Glass Cage done, I’ve decided to return to this idea with hopes of fleshing it out. I’m republishing my original post below and am soliciting your comments about it. Thanks.

“If you could choose only one of the following two inventions, indoor plumbing or the Internet, which would you choose?” -Robert J. Gordon

Justin Fox is the latest pundit to ring the “innovation ain’t what it used to be” bell. “Compared with the staggering changes in everyday life in the first half of the 20th century,” he writes, summing up the argument, “the digital age has brought relatively minor alterations to how we live.” Fox has a lot of company. He points to sci-fi author Neal Stephenson, who worries that the Internet, far from spurring a great burst of creativity, may have actually put innovation “on hold for a generation.” Fox also cites economist Tyler Cowen, who has argued that, recent techno-enthusiasm aside, we’re living in a time of innovation stagnation. He could also have mentioned tech powerbroker Peter Thiel, who believes that large-scale innovation has gone dormant and that we’ve entered a technological “desert.” Thiel blames the hippies:

Men reached the moon in July 1969, and Woodstock began three weeks later. With the benefit of hindsight, we can see that this was when the hippies took over the country, and when the true cultural war over Progress was lost.

The original inspiration for such grousing – about progress, not about hippies – came from Robert J. Gordon, a Northwestern University economist whose 2000 paper “Does the ‘New Economy’ Measure Up to the Great Inventions of the Past?” included a damning comparison of the flood of inventions that occurred a century ago with the seeming trickle that we see today. Consider the new products invented in just the ten years between 1876 and 1886: internal combustion engine, electric lightbulb, electric transformer, steam turbine, electric railroad, automobile, telephone, movie camera, phonograph, linotype, roll film (for cameras), dictaphone, cash register, vaccines, reinforced concrete, flush toilets. The typewriter had arrived a few years earlier and the punch-card tabulator would appear a few years later. And then, in short order, came airplanes, radio, air conditioning, the vacuum tube, jet aircraft, television, refrigerators and a raft of other home appliances, as well as revolutionary advances in manufacturing processes. (And let’s not forget The Bomb.) The conditions of life changed utterly between 1890 and 1950, observed Gordon. Between 1950 and today? Not so much.

So why is innovation less impressive today? Maybe Thiel is right, and it’s the fault of hippies, liberals, and other degenerates. Or maybe it’s crappy education. Or a lack of corporate investment in research. Or short-sighted venture capitalists. Or overaggressive lawyers. Or imagination-challenged entrepreneurs. Or maybe it’s a catastrophic loss of mojo. But none of these explanations makes much sense. The aperture of science grows ever wider, after all, even as the commercial and reputational rewards for innovation grow ever larger and the ability to share ideas grows ever stronger. Any barrier to innovation should be swept away by such forces.

Let me float an alternative explanation: There has been no decline in innovation; there has just been a shift in its focus. We’re as creative as ever, but we’ve funneled our creativity into areas that produce smaller-scale, less far-reaching, less visible breakthroughs. And we’ve done that for entirely rational reasons. We’re getting precisely the kind of innovation that we desire – and that we deserve.

My idea – and it’s a rough one – is that there’s a hierarchy of innovation that runs in parallel with Abraham Maslow’s famous hierarchy of needs. Maslow argued that human needs progress through five stages, with each new stage requiring the fulfillment of lower-level, or more basic, needs. So first we need to meet our most primitive Physiological needs, and that frees us to focus on our needs for Safety, and once our needs for Safety are met, we can attend to our needs for Belongingness, and then on to our needs for personal Esteem, and finally to our needs for Self-Actualization. If you look at Maslow’s hierarchy as an inflexible structure, with clear boundaries between its levels, it falls apart. Our needs are messy, and the boundaries between them are porous. A caveman probably pursued self-esteem and self-actualization, to some degree, just as we today spend effort seeking to fulfill our physical needs. But if you look at the hierarchy as a map of human focus, or of emphasis, then it makes sense – and indeed seems to be born out by history. In short: The more comfortable you are, the more time you spend thinking about yourself.

If progress is shaped by human needs, then general shifts in needs would also bring shifts in the nature of technological innovation. The tools we invent would move through the hierarchy of needs, from tools that help safeguard our bodies on up to tools that allow us to modify our internal states, from tools of survival to tools of the self. Here’s my crack at what the hierarchy of innovation looks like (click on the image to enlarge it):

hierarchy of innovation.jpg

The focus, or emphasis, of innovation moves up through five stages, propelled by shifts in the needs we seek to fulfill. In the beginning come Technologies of Survival (think fire), then Technologies of Social Organization (think cathedral), then Technologies of Prosperity (think steam engine), then technologies of leisure (think TV), and finally Technologies of the Self (think Facebook, or Prozac).

As with Maslow’s hierarchy, you shouldn’t look at my hierarchy as a rigid one. Innovation today continues at all five levels. But the rewards, both monetary and reputational, are greatest at the highest level (Technologies of the Self), which has the effect of shunting investment, attention, and activity in that direction. We’re already physically comfortable, so getting a little more physically comfortable doesn’t seem particularly pressing. We’ve become inward looking, and what we crave are more powerful tools for modifying our internal state or projecting that state outward. An entrepreneur has a greater prospect of fame and riches if he creates, say, a popular social-networking tool than if he creates a faster, more efficient system for mass transit. The arc of innovation, to put a dark spin on it, is toward decadence.

One of the consequences is that, as we move to the top level of the innovation hierarchy, the inventions have less visible, less transformative effects. We’re no longer changing the shape of the physical world or even of society, as it manifests itself in the physical world. We’re altering internal states, transforming the invisible self. Not surprisingly, when you step back and take a broad view, it looks like stagnation – it looks like nothing is changing very much. That’s particularly true when you compare what’s happening today with what happened a hundred years ago, when our focus on Technologies of Prosperity was peaking and our focus on Technologies of Leisure was also rapidly increasing, bringing a highly visible transformation of our physical circumstances.

If the current state of progress disappoints you, don’t blame innovation. Blame yourself.

Image: Anjan Chatterjee.

37 thoughts on “Does innovation arc toward decadence?

  1. SAO

    “GMT was brought into being by the Great Western Railway in order to standardize railway timetables (and later appropriated by the British government)” Note that the standard time at Greenwich was originally established as a reference to determine a ship’s longitude, beginning in the eighteenth century, long before railroads or steam power. A prize was given the producer of a clock which could operate accurately on a ship at sea and the referall to the time at Greenwich permitted a standard which mariners could determine their longitude based on celestial measurements at a local time, often noon, and adjusted to those at Greenwich. Although railroads did advance this standard time, they were preceded by marine needs, including those of the navies of the world, especially the Royal Navy.

  2. BT

    A big part of the problem seems to be that we have juxtaposed the roles of government and individuals. Government is good at providing basic needs and mobilizing large national efforts . But instead we now expect our government to help us with our self-esteem, hyper-sensitivity to language and various other things best dealt with on an individual level. And then we expect individuals and private entities to give us things like world class internet service or global leadership in space exploration.

    We are asking the government to help us with our higher needs and individuals to deal with the lower needs. We have things upside down.

  3. Seth

    I’ll play, briefly – the “decadence” narrative is a good story and will be loved by a certain mindset, but the argument itself has many dubious propositions. In particular, the following assertion is a massive handwave away of key concepts – “The aperture of science grows ever wider, after all, even as the commercial and reputational rewards for innovation grow ever larger and the ability to share ideas grows ever stronger. Any barrier to innovation should be swept away by such forces.”. That’s basically a determinism claim at heart, and the space-exploration example in the post itself seems to contradict it. It dismisses how difficult it can be to develop *some* types of advances, particularly ones which require large public investment before they would be profitable to businesses. As other commentators have noted, the economics aspects seem underexamined to say the least. You do mention this, but in a manner that gives Morozov conniptions: “An entrepreneur has a greater prospect of fame and riches if he creates, say, a popular social-networking tool than if he creates a faster, more efficient system for mass transit. The arc of innovation, to put a dark spin on it, is toward decadence”. That’s a deliberate POLITICAL choice, not anything intrinsic of an “arc of innovation”.

    From another angle, there’s issues with predicting: We could have thus-and-such, if-only. I think there’s plenty of physical advances that likely will be made sometime in the future (assuming civilization continues). Consider medicine. Curing cancer will be a milestone. Curing the common cold and flu will be a historic event. There might be a race between regrowing damaged organs via stem-cells, and creating synthetic replacements. That’s just one area.

    And the end – “If the current state of progress disappoints you, don’t blame innovation. Blame yourself.” – that sort of sums up the spin (as in, it’s not anything that can be changed by changing the economic order like high taxes channelled into more public investment, it’s your own personal failings and flaws, *your fault* for not being virtuous enough).

  4. Nick Post author

    re: “That’s a deliberate POLITICAL choice, not anything intrinsic of an ‘arc of innovation.'”

    I didn’t mean to suggest – and I don’t think I did suggest – that technology arcs of its own accord. The whole point is that people determine the arc through the whole complex of their choices – personal, political, economic, and otherwise.

  5. Nebil

    I felt inclined to add some words here. Radical innovations have indeed been forces that have transformed the basis of societies. The incremental ones or the ones that are not so visible come afterwards. Recent example could be the emergence and evolution of mobile phones. We need to, however, appreciate all the gains in efficiency these improvements have brought us.
    To cite the examples given; the internal combustion engine, electricity etc forces one to see the timelines along which these innovations occurred. One thing that can not be missed is some sort of a cyclical trend where one “era” is succeeded by another. A burst of growth and a decline until a new era kicks in a period of renewed growth. The steam engine and the first industrial revolution, the internal combustion and the second industrial revolution and the most recent ICT revolution.There were winners and losers in each period. Those that couldn’t survive are weeded out so to speak.
    Regardless of what these “eras” have brought us one thing is clear. There is now more knowledge about us and our surrounding than ever. In that sense I agree with you when you say newer innovations are inward looking. A conscious mind seeks to find ways to make things easier. But I take a more optimistic view about the “innovation arc”. The human mind will continue to innovate and each time from a better base of knowledge and learning. Innovations which will have profound impact on how we live our lives.

    Think of how innovations in information systems have brought about the Arab spring. Look at Uber and its potential to transform the way we travel. New innovations can pop up anywhere. Service industries, aerospace or in bio tech sectors. The one thing that is different is that now we have begun to understand the systems at work which create the conditions to harness these innovations. There are forces that put pressure on the innovation processes. Usually those who stand to lose if the status quo changed. However, the 2008 financial crisis, the recessions that followed, Europe dire situation today, the rising east and the new Africa are forcing profound and sweeping changes to take place. I see a a multi-polar world on the horizon; one where the terms of engagement aim towards equality, shared property and overall progress of mankind.

  6. Andrew Luetges

    Maslows hierarchy of needs

    As an organizing idea Maslow’s hierarchy of needs does seem to give an answer to the question of why so many shallow “innovations” and so much first-world problem solving. It could also work with literature, Man vs Nature being lower in the needs, Man vs Man and Man vs Society being in the middle and Man vs Self at the top. It serves as an interesting lens on the development of history and in particular as an explanation of decadence. It could also work on social/political conflicts or in our case lack thereof. We often bemoan the level of apathy in terms of political matters but in stark contrast to most major revolutions we do not have food shortages, hyper inflation, and other forms of serious deprivation. Thanks to the welfare state most everyone’s fundamental needs are taken care of, but not so much that we can live without wage slavery thus lacking the free time and energy to bother with social organization that might challenge the status quo. And those that would have that free time and energy are by definition wealthy enough that they do not face the problems that would motivate serious political resistance. The most socially oriented things we do now all veer toward the decadent as well. Consumption, sports and entertainment are ubiquitous often all happening at the same time while political, religious, and labour activity are all in sharp decline. The most recent political movements of the left and right, the occupy movement and the tea party have both, in the grand scheme of things, been blips that caught headlines and imaginations but in the end posed no major threat to the status-quo.

    This is an exercise that you can play with other systematized understandings or mega theories by applying them to other domains as they develop over time.

    Of course a previous commenter, Kevin Kelly, has in the past put forth a similarly mega, organizing theory of technology by taking the theory of evolution in biological systems and using it as a lense through which you can make sense of the developments of technology.

    There is David Ronfeldt’s theory of societal development that states that society evolves from tribal to institutional to market to network forms, each fulfilling roles the other could not with technological developments inherent to each.

    The idea of an enabling platform or a context that nurtures a certain kind of development also lives in all of these theories as they are all theories about why a system develops the way it does over time. So i think another interesting question in all of this is what are the key steps that make a platform or tipping point into a different mode possible if not probable.

  7. Luke Fernandez

    I find Seth’s observations compelling. If innovation does arc toward decadence one needs to acknowledge that many people’s basic needs are still not being met. And that if innovation has moved on to address higher order needs it’s the result of where capital is flowing and not necessarily where a good portion of the world’s population would really like to see innovation directed.

    Of course, the question is why capital has moved on and to that question your narrative offers some compelling answers: people who have capital and who are comfortable spend more time on issues of self-esteem and self actualization. That shift seems to be supported as well by speculations that Patricia Spacks outlines in her book _Boredom: The Literary History of a State of Mind_. Paraphrasing Spacks, “the rise of individualism in the 18th century placed increasing stress on personal accomplishment and achievement. And as individual life was accorded more importance focus on daily happenings intensified. With this too came a greater focus on inner life.” All of this of course precedes your narrative by a few centuries. But perhaps what we’re seeing today is a further extension of individualism and with that extension an increasing interest in inner life and the technologies that cater to it. In Spacks history of boredom reading and writing are core ways for resisting idleness and ennui. On the surface that literary claim might not interest those of us whose prime interest is technology. But a corollary to Spacks’ thesis might be found in innovation’s arc toward decadence; if writing and reading help us resist boredom so too do our modern technologies of the (inner) self. To rephrase your last line: “If the current state of progress disappoints you, don’t blame innovation. Blame boredom.”

  8. Mark Stahlman

    Nick: I was told that Maslow *rejected* his own hierarchy towards the end of his life and was planning to “torpedo” it when he died. Apparently he thought that it was far too much motivated by the *effects* of television. Best, Mark

  9. Nick Post author

    Perhaps in rejecting his own hierarchy, he was achieving “self-transcendence,” which he proposed, late in his life, as the highest level of the pyramid, beyond “self-actualization.”

    I guess in my reworking, “self-transcendence” would equate to technologies for uploading one’s mind into a computer network.

  10. Mark Stahlman

    Perhaps. My guess — since it was T George Harris who told me about this — is that Maslow had fallen down the “rabbit-hole” of New Ageism and that he had become “guilty” about seeming to promote EGO-ism.

    To the extent that today’s “singularitans” are themselves the children of the 60s (as was Harris and his pal George Leonard), and their idea of a kick-ass technology experience is Owsley’s “Blue Acid,” they may be trending in the same direction . . .

    However, my guess is that *digital* technology — which is still largely “invisible” as our environment, even after 20+ years — will produce some very different and decidedly HANDS ON sort of behaviors and attitudes.

  11. Larry MacDonald

    Innovation has been a study area and focus of mine for the last decade and my mind and thinking has been turned a bit upside down for it. I set out to learn why almost all new products fail. I spent two years researching and came to the realization that, aside from the execution errors, they fail primarily because they start with an idea instead of demand. Obvious, once you think about it, but counterintuitive.

    There is no shortage of innovative thinking, but it is often misspent. The most important decision in business is selecting what project to work on. Typically, and sadly, it is usually a hair-brained idea that sounds a bit like “wouldn’t it be nice if…” CEOs do it and independent inventors do it. But what if there was a better way?

    Abstract thinkers, those who see what is missing, are rare birds. They are not readily hired, because they are troublemakers. They ask too many questions and rock the boat. Yet, they are the ones who can spot the opportunities for improvement.

    Don’t you think it odd that we retire those with the most experience without really ever taking advantage of the intellectual assets residing in their heads? They know the problems that never got solved, but were so well ignored.

    I believe that the world has exactly the number of innovators at any one time that it wants. Everyone talks about innovation, but they only talk, they aren’t really interested, because when a useful innovation comes along, they turn aside. We are disruptive-phobic in community. It takes outsiders to provoke change. Large companies are terrible innovators and shouldn’t be expected to be otherwise. It would be irresponsible for them to be more risk-friendly. Start-up companies are flexible and assume the risks. The big companies buy them once proven. That system works.

    Counter to the thinking that the government isn’t innovating is the fact the U.S. Government is the largest seed capital source in the world. They provide $2 billion a year for high risk innovations through Small Business Innovation Research grants. They fund feasibility studies of concepts too risky for angel investors and VC’s.

    While I have developed a process to develop valuable intellectual property and then make it available to manufacturers and entrepreneurs, guess what! There appears to be no market.

    So one issue is that there is a high fear component that repels innovation. Here is an example of what needs to be overcome: Pretend you are a CEO of a company. I come to you and say, “I have a process that will develop new products for you that will meet your financial objectives. I am willing to work for you on spec, providing you are be willing to negotiate a fair royalty on the products I develop for you that you decide you want to take on.”

    Seems like a no-brainer, yet the risk of the unknown is so high that no company I have talked with is interested. If they don’t know the outcome in advance, they are unwilling to risk the potential unknown negative outcomes of such a relationship with an outsider. They depend on their employees to develop new products, yet for reasons mentioned above, employees are not the best source of abstract thinking.

    If you want more innovation, overcome the resistance that is human.

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