There is a school of thought that suggests we are in a dark period of technology stagnation. With the exception of information technology (IT), all the low hanging fruit has been picked and we are not making the great tech innovations of years past. See Robert J. Gordon's 2000 paper “Does the ‘New Economy’ Measure Up to the Great Inventions of the Past?”
So why has tech innovation stagnated? Bad education. Lack of corporate investment in research. Short-sighted venture capitalists. Bad regulation. Overaggressive lawyers. Imagination-challenged entrepreneurs. Perceived greater return on investment from lobbying to game rules to benefit over others than investing in R&D. A combination of the above.
Yet 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.
Some say 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.
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.
Regardless of the causes, the only way out of our economic mess is to innovate. Policy makers and business leaders need to focus on technological innovation like a laser beam. As a first priority. Starting now.